With the development of composite materials that have much of the look and feel of traditional wood products but without many of the drawbacks, deck-building has advanced a great distance in recent years. Wood composites, vinyl decking, and aluminum decking all offer low-maintenance options for the home owner, without the hassle of having to refinish or reseal the material every few years to avoid cracks, splits, and warping.
Solid composites look and feel very similar to wooden deck boards, and are roughly the same size. However, when it comes to insect and rot resistance, they are far superior. Solid composite boards are made to resemble real wood, but without the knots or twists in wood grain that would make installation a hassle. While they are available in a wide range of colors, exposure to direct sunlight generally leads most composites to fade slightly. Compared to real wood, solid composites are easy to work with, and standard woodworking tools can be used. Saws, drills, and routers, however, should all be equipped with carbide blades or bits, as high-speed steel will dull more quickly with composites than with wood. There are a myriad of fastening options for solid composites, including hidden fastening systems, which offer the cleanest look. However, hidden fastening systems, which are attached to the joist and then to the deck board, are more labor-intensive and time-consuming to install. Specialty screws, which avoid surface mushrooming, are also an option, as are stainless steel trim screws. Coated deck screws are less costly, while power nailing is the least expensive option, but may not look as clean. Solid composites are also flexible, so they make a good choice for decks with round or curved features.
Hollow composites offer an alternative to solid composites. Many hollow composites are based around a tongue-and-groove fastening system, which leads to a tightly spaced, professional appearance. Another bonus to using hollow composite systems is the fact that the fasteners are hidden with such a system, and are easy to install. However, the key word is ‘system’: each has its own installation methods and the home owner should review the instructions available at their local home center. Unlike solid composites, hollow composites have rather unappealing exposed ends, and the use of trim boards to cover them is highly recommended. If using a tongue-and-groove system, the deck boards should be laid down perpendicular to the home, with a gradual slope away from the wall, so that water does not stagnate or drain towards the house. Hollow composite boards can be fastened by driving screws through the surface (depending on installation instructions), the aforementioned tongue-and-groove system, and by using special clip systems, which allow the deck boards to expand and contract with variable temperatures.
Vinyl and Aluminum
Moving away from wood composites completely, vinyl and aluminum provide two more alternatives for low-maintenance decks. Vinyl decks usually come in lighter colors which resist fading, and match well with vinyl-sided homes. Generally speaking, most brands feature hidden fastening systems that screw into joists. However, vinyl systems can be more difficult to work with, and special details like end-pieces are required. On a positive note, many vinyl deck systems come with a lifetime warranty from the manufacturer. The furthest removed from wood is aluminum decking. It is maintenance-free, and allows for a completely dry space under the deck. Aluminum dissipates heat well and the light color reflects the sun, making the system suitable for exposure to direct sunlight. However, ‘system’ is again the key word: many aluminum decking options must be purchased as a kit, with special starting and finishing pieces, trim pieces, and other detail pieces. Cutting aluminum is a slow and more difficult process than cutting wooden composites or vinyl, and the material is not appropriate for circular or curved decks. Homeowners should stick to square or rectangular decks if they wish to use aluminum decking.