I remember when there were roughly a billion fewer choices of deck
boards and railing systems. The first decks I worked on as a
carpenter's helper weren't even made of treated lumber — they
were 2x6 SPF. (I'm sure they're mulch by now.) A few years passed
and I graduated to ocean-dock building for very high-end customers.
On their stratospherically expensive home sites it was "all
pressure-treated all the time." And you'll love this: We
hand-nailed and carriage-bolted it all together. Our nice-looking
— but decidedly green-hued — docks and swim floats
reached out into Pleasant Bay.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. Any trundle through a lumberyard,
big-box store, or trade show sends your head swiveling to look at
seemingly endless choices of stuff to build decks and guardrails
out of. There's no shortage of wood — the tried and true
treated hem-fir and SYP, cedar, and now hardwood — and
there's also a veritable ocean of composite and PVC products to
service our customers' increasingly wide range of
"Over the past five years we have seen an explosion of products
available on the market, and in one way or another, they have all
helped," says Shawn Miller, owner of Classic Designs in Centennial,
Colo. "Wood, composites, vinyl, aluminum, stone ... The list seems
to grow almost daily." And even if "daily" might be a hair
hyperbolic, when the parade of new composites started its march
onto the scene about two decades ago, who would have guessed that
decking options would grow this varied?
Blame (or thank) the massive trend called "outdoor living," where
premium decks seem to be creating opportunities for all kinds of
new products and add-ons. The decking market is expected to grow by
about 20 percent annually to become a 3.6-billion-lineal-feet
industry by 2011, according to Cleveland€“based
industrial-market research firm The Freedonia Group. That's enough
decking to wrap around the Earth almost 27 1/2 times.
Would You Use Wood?
As recently as 1992, wood made up about 98 percent of the decking
market. While its domination has slipped a bit with the development
of synthetic and composite alternatives, there's still a huge
demand from consumers and pros for tree-based material.
If you're thinking that "wood" means pressure-treated decking for
those homeowner-customers who'd rather save a few bucks, you're not
entirely correct. Tropical hardwood is the fastest growing segment
in the wood category, according to The Freedonia Group. Deck
professionals from California to Texas to New York support the
"Eighty percent of my decks are ipe, the Brazilian hardwood," says
Al Terry of New York Decks in New York, N.Y.
"We're doing about a 75/25 split with natural wood over
composites," says Stephen Dillinger of Austex Fence & Deck in
Austin, Texas. "Cedar is probably the most requested."?
"Eighty to 90 percent of the decks that I build are ipe. Customers
like the look," says Bill Bolton of DeckCreations in Santa Barbara,
Calif. "They like that it is as low maintenance as any of the
composites. Many times they will call requesting a composite, but
once they see and hear about ipe they usually go for it."
Ipe has earned its status as the beautiful bulldog of the decking
world, withstanding serious wear and tear on the Atlantic City
Boardwalk and on Treasure Island in Las Vegas. A dense hardwood, it
is naturally resistant to rot and decay. In fact, it's so dense
many deck builders might characterize it as resistant to nails and
screws too, but many customers seem to be willing to pay the
upcharge for both the material and the labor. There are hardwoods
other than ipe as well. Advantage Trim & Lumber Co. offers
Tigerwood, for example, long familiar to woodworkers as goncalo
alves (Figure 1). Others include garapa (see
photo, above) and cumaru.
Figure 1. Tigerwood decking is Advantage Trim & Lumber
Company's less expensive alternative to ipe. Tigerwood has a
25-year (or longer) life span, is Class A flame retardant, and is
resistant to scratching, splintering, and cracking, says the
company. (877/232-3915, www.advantagelumber.com)
Because ipe is a tropical hardwood, some question whether it can be
considered green. "We are one of the leading ipe importers in North
America," says Dan Ivancic of Advantage Trim & Lumber. "The
company's owner makes frequent trips to Brazil to ensure
responsible harvesting. That way we can maintain the rainforest and
maintain a responsible supply of ipe and other fine hardwoods."
This seems rational: One way to keep forests is to keep needing
forests for the board feet they produce. I've heard the same
argument presented by such diverse sources as lumber associations
and the former leader of Greenpeace.
The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association (WRCLA) reports that
interest in western red cedar has increased proportionally to the
increased interest in green products. Like other woods, it is a
renewable resource. The WRCLA claims it has a neutral carbon
footprint, including the fossil fuels used to manufacture and
transport the wood.
Another type of wood, Cunninghamia lanceolata, commonly known as
China fir, has found its way into at least big-box distribution.
It's harvested in China and has an appearance and other
characteristics that are similar to — but not the same as
— western red cedar. The heartwood is classified as highly
rot resistant, but as with all woods, the sapwood rots quickly.
Anecdotal reports suggest that some of the China fir available in
the U.S. consists of sapwood. Be certain about what you buy.
The Southern Pine Council says that southern pine has always been a
green building product, and if you are choosing a product based on
its track record, you can't beat 100 years of dependable use. The
SPC claims that the manufacture of plastic and composite decking
requires up to eight times the energy needed to produce the same
amount of pressure-treated southern pine lumber. The flip side of
the story is the preservatives used with southern pine, but they've
come a long way since 2004, when the use of arsenic-based
preservatives for residential purposes was discontinued.
Figure 2. TimberSil is southern yellow pine that has been
infused with glass. The maker, Timber Treatment Technologies,
claims that its product offers greater span ratings than standard
treated southern pine. It's also much harder — about as hard
as hickory. The company says the product is extremely "green."
While preservatives that protect natural wood from decay and
termite abuse might not be the best medicine for a healthy planet,
alternatives are coming on line. One that's available now is
TimberSil, a decay-resistant fusion of wood and glass that carries
a 40-year warranty (Figure 2). Further in the
future is a preservative made from parts of trees. The Department
of Forest Products at Mississippi State University claims it has
created a preservative made from coniferous tree resin and an
organic biocide that protects against fungi and termites. Stay
tuned for that one. Another approach cooks the wood until it's no
longer something that insects or fungi can eat (Figure
Figure 3. Using specially designed kilns, Bay Tree Technologies
modifies wood into a state where it protects itself. Chemical
changes the wood undergoes make it inedible to insects, fungus, and
mold. The end product, PureWood, is chemical- and metal-free. It's
non-corrosive and non-toxic too. (888/575-4180, www.purewoodproducts.com)
"Over the last six years, alternative decking materials have posted
double-digit growth and now account for more than 20 percent of the
total decking market," says Craig Sherrett, director of marketing
for Fiber Composites (Figure 4). "In fact, it is
forecasted that more than one in five decks [will be] built with
composites in 2008." Anecdotally, I can't have a discussion with
anyone about decks — whether they want me to build one for
them or they're telling me about their own deck — and not
hear them lavishly praise composites.
Figure 4. Fiber Composites' fiberon Sanctuary Decking (above
left) has no fiber fillers inside its cellular PVC board. The
company claims its product eliminates all edge cracking, staining,
and water absorption. The boards have an outer layer of PVC and ASA
(acrylonitrile styrene acrylate), a material used to protect
automobile bumpers and outside mirrors. The company's Tropics
decking line (above right) is designed to reproduce the look of
tropical hardwoods. (704/463-7120, www.fiberondecking.com)
An industry segment that was only 2 percent of the decking market
16 years ago and 8 percent eight years ago, synthetic materials are
gaining ground in America's backyards. If you're wondering what the
percentages really mean and prefer to think in terms of cash-money,
synthetic decking accounts for about $1 billion of the $4 to $6
billion decking market, according to John Long of Anderson,
Ind.€“based Trimax Building Products.
Other experts say it'll keep growing — by about 25 percent
each year. That's significantly outpacing the 20 percent annual
growth for overall decking demand. It's for good reason: Composites
are a durable, low-maintenance solution for homeowners.
And you can do funky stuff with it too.
The growth of this industry is good news for a lot of deck
builders. "The composite industry as a whole has made our job
easier, both in installs and sales," says Shawn Miller, owner of
Classic Designs in Centennial, Colo. "With the composite industry
spending millions of dollars in advertising, they have made the
consumer much more aware of outdoor living. So when we are going
out to meet with customers they already know about several products
and have options in mind."?
What products are customers asking for? You won't be surprised. "A
lot of people mention Trex sort of like Kleenex," says Stephen J.
Dillinger of Austex Fence & Deck in Austin, Texas. The name
recognition is probably due to the
company's powerful consumer advertising.
While a few brand names used by professional deck builders
nationwide stand out — like Trex and now TimberTech
(Figure 5) — there are dozens of other
widely used brands.
Figure 5. TimberTech's XLM (extreme low maintenance) decking is
made from PVC. The boards are 40 percent lighter than the company's
wood-plastic-composite planks. The company claims that XLM is the
only expanded-polymer decking product with a color-matched railing
system. (800/307-7780, www.timbertech.com)
"Customers don't realize there are so many different types of
composites," says Robert Heidenreich of The Deck Store/The Deck
& Door Company in Apple Valley, Minn. But he adds, "Regardless
of what they ask for, they build with the decking we
Composite products are winning favor on the pro side for
installation ease, consistency of product, and warranty; predadoed
boards and hidden fastener systems can be a plus, too.
Recent product introductions seem to be going for a more natural
look. "The trend toward the tropical hardwood look in composite
decking materials is growing," says Sue Snuggs, product manager for
Weyerhaeuser. The Weyerhaeuser ChoiceDek product line has two new
colors that reflect homeowners' increasing desire for a
tropical-wood look (Figure 6). Fiber Composites'
Tropics line also is meant to look like tropical hardwood.
Figure 6. Weyerhaeuser has added Driftwood (inlay) and Spice
(background) to its color selections for ChoiceDek composite
decking. The boards are made by a process that encapsulates
recycled wood fiber in recycled polyethylene. The product line
includes a decorative railing system. (800/951-5117, www.choicedek.com)
Even with the seemingly incredible success of composites, the big
daddies of composite brand names aren't totally focused on the
future of composite formulas. Both Trex and TimberTech have new
lines of PVC products. Though Trex has gained popularity with Earth
Day celebrants for its recycling of 1.5 billion grocery bags a year
— of the 100 billion we Americans use — to create deck
planks, the PVC products are raising a few eyebrows because they're
not exactly following the popular trend toward green. It isn't just
that PVC uses virgin resins — many composites use virgin
resins too. The point is PVC is not as appealing to green-lovers as
recycled or natural materials are.
Depending on who you talk to, the manufacture of PVC may create
some nasty chemical by-products. Like many plastics, PVC can be
recycled. Correct Building Products' Martin Grohman wishes it were
labeled better, though. CorrectDeck makes extensive use of recycled
polypropylene, and Grohman says that even a small amount of PVC
mixed into its materials has a negative effect on the manufacturing
Still, builders and our customers seem to like PVC (Figure
7 ). "I just installed TimberTech XLM product and loved
the way it went down and looked," says Larry Hopkins, president of
Five Star Home Remodeling in Bridgewater, New Jersey. "It was easy
to handle. I did not have to worry about [marring the material by]
laying my tools down on it." The only word of caution: Use new
blades when cutting the material.
Figure 7. Vekadeck Pro is Veka Innovations' new cellular PVC
deck board, which it touts as a "second generation" to the
original. Unlike the original's more characteristic PVC-style
glossy finish, Vekadeck Pro has a satin finish. It also has a
deeper embossed wood-grain pattern the company calls Traction Grip.
TimberTech's XLM (for "extreme low maintenance") is made of a
foamed PVC core surrounded by a solid PVC exterior. Across the
board, PVC decking products are considered extremely
low-maintenance, as they are more resistant to scratching,
staining, and fading than composite decking. And because there's no
wood fiber in these deck boards, they're also intrinsically mold
Many wood-plastic composites can support mold growth, says Scott
Schmidt at Correct Building Products, because there's exposed wood
fiber on the surface of the material. He points out that mold
growth only takes the right combination of circumstances —
wet and dark environments and naturally occurring mold in the air
or rain, for example. Correct Building Products takes a different
tack on weather resistance and durability in its CorrectDeck CX:
It's a co-extruded wood-polypropylene (99 percent of composites are
wood-polyethylene) product that delivers a board with three sides
of pure resin — no wood to gather muck.
And if you are bending decking (in a radius for a curved deck or
guardrail, or for S-curves in those funky new patterns you see),
PVC is pretty bending-friendly. It's made similarly to trim
materials such as Azek, and when properly heated it becomes about
as flexible as licorice.
So does brand name really matter?
"Our customers are interested in no maintenance and in value. The
product that we use to achieve that is secondary," says one deck
builder from Glen Mills, Penn.
"As far as I see it, the only products that people really ask for
are the products that the deck builders are pushing themselves,"
says Steve Scholl of Killer Decks in Wayne, Mich.
This means the wide world of choice also gives you as a deck
builder some power in selecting what you install — what works
best for you, for your crew, and for what's ultimately the reason
we all get up and go to work in the morning: the bottom line.
Mark Clement is a remodeler, deck builder, and
member of the DeckExpo Live Action Demonstration Team.