Working with real wood for your deck

In this new world of composite decking, why is pressure-treated lumber or cedar still a good choice for a porch floor or backyard deck?

Because painting or staining a horizontal surface isn’t such a pain in the butt. As a result, and until the solid PVC and composite companies render their products a little less expensive – and somehow manage to design a decking that doesn’t retain heat so effectively – real wood surfaces are going to continue to win the marketing battle by default.

As previously mentioned, real wood surfaces will absolutely require maintenance if their appearance is to keep up with the balance of your ‘touch-it-once,’ maintenance-free home.

Choices of decking lumber commonly available in most local markets include pressure-treated spruce, or western red cedar.

Brazilian decking lumber such as IPE (eeh-pay) is also available, usually under the status of a special order (which may require waiting a week or two), but I hesitate to recommend its purchase. Definitely a beautiful species of lumber, IPE can be as costly as composite decking. Furthermore, there’s one colour choice, which is basically a mahogany red type of tone.

Due to IPE’s wood grain being so tight, the surface pores won’t accept a regular semi-transparent or opaque stain, and must be sealed with a clear oil specifically designed for the IPE product. Left untreated, IPE, like everything else, will turn grey. Although a delight to the end purchaser, IPE (aka ironwood) can be a nightmare for the installer, due to its stubbornness in accepting a nail, screw, and even a drill bit.

With a core density and burn resistance equal to concrete, IPE is one of the few wood products that won’t float. Although a popular wood product to be used on the decks of many a luxury cruise liner, building a diving platform or raft out of IPE would fundamentally be a disaster for the uninitiated cottager.

The choice between treated lumber and cedar lies primarily with the user’s experience. Essentially, both species will require a pre-sanding, followed by the same install strategy using either the Camo (edge screw), or deck bracket (fasten from underneath) strategy of non-surface screw insertion.

Both species are coniferous, or evergreen types of trees. What makes cedar the premium product, or preferred choice over treated lumber, is cedar has a tighter grain than spruce, and contains natural oils, which causes cedar to be more stable over the long-term, meaning less chance of splits and cracks under the stress of our fluctuating temperatures.

Plus, as anybody who’s ever worked with cedar knows, the lightweight planks are a pleasure to handle, with its soft grain cutting and drilling with ease (essentially the exact opposite of IPE). Like any wood product, having a paint or stain properly adhere to the wood’s surface means first sanding the wood with an 80-grit paper.

Because cedar lumber is usually kept indoors, and therefore dry, it can be stained immediately after installation.

Treated lumber, due to it being stocked on a much larger scale, is usually kept outdoors. Although wrapped in protective tarps at least for a portion of the year, wind and general inefficiencies can definitely affect the consistent use of these tarps, so treated lumber is bound to absorb a little moisture. As a result, treated lumber will usually benefit from at least a few weeks of dry weather before attempting the sanding and staining process.

Protecting your wooden deck surface can be done using either a clear sealer (yearly application), semi-transparent (lasting two-to-three years), or opaque (solid colour) stain (generally applied every four-to-six years).

I love wood, so the option of a clear or semi-transparent finish is attractive to me because it accentuates the natural grain patterns of each plank. However, because I love my boat more, and cherish every summer weekend, the solid colour stain, which lasts longer and applies without having to sand between coats, is my go-to, outdoor stain product of choice.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

When choosing real wood

With all the terrific choices of composite decking available in today’s market, why would any homeowner install treated lumber or cedar on their decks?

Although it’s been suggested to avoid using uncovered wood products outside, especially relating to porch posts and railing systems, real wood decking still holds some advantages over the solid PVC or composite decking alternatives.

However, the “holds some advantages” statement will have to be qualified by referencing the fact composites still have some challenges, or product glitches that will need to be ironed out, in order for the choice of composite decking over real wood to eventually be considered a no-brainer.

Challenge No. 1: price.

Although aluminum and vinyl railing systems have fallen in price, due to improvements in manufacturing and larger-scale production, the costs of composite decking have steadily increased. Unlike aluminum and vinyl railing components, which have been around for decades, composite decking is relatively new, and has seen lots of improvements from those early generation composites that often swelled and developed mould.

Today’s solid PVC, or composite/PVC-wrapped products have evolved considerably from those early years, with swelling, shrinking, expansion, and mould being non-issues. However, this road to composite decking success has of course come at a price for the manufacturer, with these research and development costs filtering down to the eventual consumer.

Is composite decking done evolving? Not quite yet.

Although the recipe for making a composite or solid PVC decking product is pretty well understood, with developments in sheen, texture, and colour variation, every manufacturer’s goal is to make their composite as realistic looking as possible. The cost to purchasing composite decking is not likely to fall anytime soon.

So, although aluminum and vinyl railing systems stand at an affordable two-to-three times the price of real wood, composite decking remains two-to-four times the price of cedar, and four-to-eight times the price of treated lumber. As a result, there’s still hesitancy on the part of the consumer in purchasing such a premium deck product, with further improvements regarding the costs of production to be made on the manufacturing end.

Challenge No. 2: temperature.

Essentially, in severe heat and/or direct sunlight, composite decking, regardless of colour or texture, gets too hot to walk on in bare feet. Real wood decking, under the duress of heat or direct sunlight, remains relatively comfortable to bare feet. So, regardless of composite decking’s many attributes, on some levels it may never outperform Mother Nature.

So, how does the homeowner deal with wood decking’s biggest challenge, which is of course maintenance? Is doing nothing to your wood deck an option? Yes, but a really lousy one.

Without some type of protection, a wood surface will warp, crack, develop slivers, and essentially look horrible.

Now, if your backyard is littered with dog poop, a 1970 Pontiac Parisienne on blocks, and a few garden gnomes scattered about, then a greying, decaying deck would provide the perfect centerpiece to such a backyard world of death and misery.

Luckily, success in owning a great looking wood deck that’ll demand only minimal maintenance, will require invoking these procedures.

One, sand both sides and the two edges of each plank with an 80-grit sandpaper.

Next, seal the underside of the planks with a clear waterproofing product.

Three, and most importantly, refrain from surface screwing the decking planks. Choose either the ‘Camo’ installation tool, which is a procedure that strategically guides the camo screw into the edges of the decking plank, or fasten the decking planks from underneath by first installing deck brackets, which are perforated steel strips that get fixed along the edge of each joist. Surface screws are to be avoided because they provide a direct route for water and moisture to enter into the core of the lumber. When this core water freezes, cracks, splitting, and splintering are the results.

Conversely, a sanded wood surface, when sealed, should last for years before needing a further coat. Next week, more on real wood decking.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Decked out in composite

Composite deck lumber is a blend of reclaimed plastic and recycled wood fibers. There’s no need for finishing composites. Just keep them clean. STEVE MAXWELL/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

In this, our last segment on “touch it once,” the strategy of choosing building products based on the likelihood of these products not requiring a second touch, or further maintenance once they’re installed, has us examining what will probably be wood’s last stand— that being wood decking.

So far, the touch-it-once strategy has us choosing 50-year warrantied sidings, such as vinyl or fibre cement, or such mainstays as brick and stone, which can last several generations.

Touch it once means extending the warranty on your asphalt shingles by following a directed manner of install.

And, touch it once essentially means eliminating all that is wood on the exterior of the home, opting for aluminum or vinyl railing systems, PVC trim-boards around windows and doors, using PVC posts wraps to protect those 4×4 or 6x6treated columns, and vinyl lattice or vertical siding to skirt the raised portion of your deck.

However, when it comes to decking material, is composite or PVC decking not the obvious choice if we’re to stick with our touch-it-once home maintenance strategy?

Or, has treated wood or cedar decking suddenly become a one-touch product?

Without a doubt, composite or PVC decking is the best way to finish your deck. Composite decking is beautiful year after year, has a perfectly uniform colouration and grain pattern, doesn’t warp, crack, or sliver, and cleans up with a spray from the garden hose and sweep of a broom. So yes, composite and PVC decking is the obvious choice for any deck surface.

Conversely, wood decking products will definitely need maintenance if their appearance is to remain constant, so that inevitability hasn’t changed.

As a result, there’s no reason to choose anything other than composite decking, unless of course any of the following reasons pose an issue.

Challenge No. 1, price. Treated lumber costs about $2 per square foot, and cedar decking about $4 per square foot, which seems costly enough, until you compare it with the ticket price of composites, which due to the vast array of finishes and colouration choices, will range in price from $8 to $15 per square foot of decking product.

Now, in all fairness to composite decking, consideration must be given to the fact most composite and PVC decking products come with 25-year warranties, which should entitle the owner to 25 years of weekends spent doing something other than painting or staining a deck. So, if we consider the costs of time and material related to maintaining a wood deck, the pricing gets a little closer.

Regardless, composite decking still remains considerably more expensive than wood.

Besides the price, it’s important for the future composite decking buyer to realize three further points.

One, composite decking isn’t the perfect product, yet. Its surface is tough, but not indestructible, so it will scratch and dent if people are careless in the way they move decking furniture about.

Two, being composed of mostly recycled plastics – a great thing because it reduces stuff otherwise going into our landfills – composites do move a bit under the stress of extreme heat or cold. So, those miter joints that were so tight and perfect in the spring, may not look so good in the heat of the summer or fall, which can be disappointing to the perfectionist carpenter.

And three, the surface of your composite or PVC decking will heat up to a slightly uncomfortable level in direct heat and sunlight. I love our composite deck, but on a hot sunny day, stepping out onto the deck from the patio door without my sandals on has seen me do a not-so-coordinated tippy toe dance back into the kitchen.

So, with composite decking comes the need for shade, sandals always at the ready, and a hose nearby to help cool things off.

Otherwise, you’ve got wood decking, which when really analyzed, isn’t such a formidable challenge.

Next week: the one-to-two, OK, maybe three-touch wooden deck.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Anything but wood

The staircase in the Mackenzie model by Minto at Arcadia splits on the second level to provide separation between the master suite and other bedrooms. Railings are simple metal spindles in urban black with a modern handrail profile. GORDON KING, FOR POSTMEDIA NETWORK

If our goal is only wanting to touch things once, inevitably freeing ourselves from the bondage of home maintenance by eliminating those products requiring a second touch or further care once installed, then the 42-inch beveled-edge baluster is doomed to become the loneliest product in the lumber yard.

Essentially, it’s made of wood, it’s going to require a second touch.

Depending on how long you keep your home, there could very well be third and fourth touches, which all fall under the dubious term of maintenance.

Saying goodbye to wood appendages will be difficult for some, since the wood spindle’s contribution to residential history has been significant. Formed on a lathe, turned Victorian-style spindles were often the showcase items on those grand, century townhomes that featured exquisite wraparound balconies.

From the post-Second World War years to the end of the 20th century, turned spindles were the look of middle-class prosperity, similar to the white picket fence of the previous generation.

So, are we to forfeit the cultural significance of the turned spindle and dismiss its contribution by eliminating its future use?

Well, understanding that painting a turned spindle ranks right up there with having to change a flat tire or manually dig a post hole on the satisfaction spectrum of household jobs we hold most dear, there’s little chance the next generation of homeowner is going to put up with this type of yearly monotony.

Following the turned spindle, the exterior railing trend switched towards the smooth look of the beveled edge baluster. Though the balusters plain finish would reduce maintenance times rather significantly in most cases, one coat of finish is all most balusters were going to see.

Eventually, with brown-coloured treated wood entering the market, balusters and their handrails would most often be left unfinished. With no paint or stain to protect the finish, the thought was these balusters would keep their brown colour for a few years, then gently turn to a lovely grey hue.

This was, of course, one-touch dreaming.

Unfortunately, time does exposed wood favours in the same way it improves our hairlines, and benefits our ageing knees and lower backs.

So, with exterior wood railings and wood trims being the type of products that will need constant revisiting or replacement within six-to-eight years should you totally ignore them, the only solution to not having to maintain wood spindles is essentially avoiding wood spindles or balusters in the first place.

What one-touch type railing systems will the homeowner have to choose from? Well, there are several, with the more popular choices being aluminum, steel, and PVC (vinyl).

Essentially, the steel and aluminum series of railings offer spindles and newel posts that are thin and sleek, with colour choices that include the popular deep brown and black tones of the day. The PVC railing systems offer a slightly heavier looking baluster and newel post, and are a good choice if a traditional white spindled railing is what you’re after.

One-touch porch posts will need to follow a similar rule, although not quite so stringent, to your deck spindles. In other words, wood columns or posts are fine during the construction phase, but will need to be covered with a PVC wrap at the finishing stage.

Similar to the wood joists and general wood structure, there’s no questioning a piece of wood’s integrity or longevity if it’s kept dry.

Are there any conditions which would allow exposed wood to be used on an exterior deck, and still fall under the one-touch philosophy? If any portion of your deck crosses into the State of Arizona, where temperatures vary between dry and very dry, then perhaps. Otherwise, no.

The task of choosing alternative products to wood may seem daunting at first, but don’t fear the challenge.

There are PVC trim-boards, fascia planks, moldings and lattices available to cover any decking challenge.

Next week, does ‘touch it once’ mean saying no to wood decking?

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard