Deck Material Comparison

Choose deck materials for form and function

Deck materials

Redwood and cedar were the choices of yore when homeowners added a deck 20 years ago. Now we have a variety of new, composite materials in addition to wood. What are the relative advantages and disadvantages? Where are the different materials best applied and how long will they hold up? The following table may help you make a decision about what material is best for your project.

Natural wood

Wood has character than no composite can offer. Unfortunately, it also requires substantial maintenance. Higher grade heartwoods are more durable and correspondingly more expensive than soft woods. Some common wooden decking includes:

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Beautiful
  • If maintained, they age gracefully.
  • Lower cost than other materials.
  • May be refinished as needed.
  • Easy to paint or stain.
  • Requires annual maintenance and sealing every year or so.
  • Lower on initial cost; higher than composites over the long term.
  • Softer woods deteriorate relatively quickly.
  • May split, crack, splinter or warp
  • Depending on wood, may not be pest resistant.
  • May use old growth wood or not be sustainably harvested

Composites

These are usually a blend of wood fiber and plastic resin with an embossed grain for a wood look.

Best application is first floor decks or use it for built-in deck seating.

All composites are not equal:

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Durable
  • Low maintainance
  • Some are paintable or stainable
  • Doesn't splinter, split, or warp
  • Moisture, pest, and rot resistant
  • May use environmentally safe technology to produce a green product
  • Works up pretty much like real wood
  • Recycled material doesn't end up in landfills
  • More expensive than wood.
  • Less strong than wood so requires closer joist spacing.
  • Often specifies pressure-treated wood for structural support.
  • Regardless of the warranty of the composite deck material, the deck will only last as long as the wood supports hold up.
  • Can't be refinished.
  • Environmental claims may be just so much "greenwashing"

 

Plastics & Vinyl

Plastics may be recyclable plastics like PET, HDPE, LDPE, or not, like PVC (vinyl). They can be environmentally friendly or, as with vinyl, add toxins to the waste stream. Read specifications carefully to make sure you are getting what you think you are.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Similar to other composites in terms of maintenance
  • Lacks structural strength, so horizontal members may sag.
  • UV radiation may cause brittleness that can lead to breakage.
  • Tends to expand at higher temperatures

Aluminum

Interlocking metal boards can be especially attractive on modern style architecture.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Attractive
  • Easy to clean
  • Attracts dirt
  • Expensive
  • May dent

Keep in mind that wood deck materials have been with us as long as we've been building decks, whereas composites are newer entrants to this market. Though many offer impressive warranties, most composite decks have not been in place long enough to see if they are as truly low maintenance and durable as the manufacturers claim.

Costs for deck material are based on availability and what works best in that area. As a consequence, when calculating cost, it would be wise to factor in your time and additional resources over a five-year period to see which material is the most cost effective.

In the end, the quality you build into your deck will determine your overall satisfaction. Because it is a part of your home's exterior face, it's wise to plan carefully and invest in the best materials and workmanship you can afford.


Decks can be great do-it-yourself projects or complex, challenging affairs with multiple levels and features. If you need help with a deck building project, find a qualified pro at ContractorNexus .

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