Goodbye Wood Deck Framing… Hello Steel Deck Framing

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Chances are if you have a deck in your backyard–even if it’s a newer synthetic deck–the underlying support framing is pressure treated wood.

Pressure treated lumber is cheap, readily available and using it is a no brainer for the average contractor. “I’m going to build a deck, I’m going to use pressure treated wood” they automatically think to themselves. I’ve built hundreds of decks using pressure treated lumber, but I started getting increasingly frustrated by it.

The wood being harvested these days from forests is “new growth” wood for the most part. This means the trees are relatively young before they are cut down. There are barely growth rings on lumber we get these days (you know the number of rings a tree has is an indicator of its age, right?) and the more growth rings, the denser the board and the stronger and straighter it will be.

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You can visibly see the growth rings in this tree however this is a young tree. The rings would be much denser in an older tree.

Older lumber was much denser than the lumber we get today and was generally of a higher quality. Trees can only grow so fast and demand is high, so we get what we can get at this point.

Aside from the wood being “young”, the pressure treating process has been changed significantly in the last 10 years and chemistry used in the treating process has been cleaned up to meet environmental concerns. The lumber mills will tell you the new processes are better than the old ones, but ask any carpenter and they’ll all agree the new lumber is terrible. Not a little worse…Absolutely terrible in comparison.

I got tired of dealing with the unpredictable characteristics of pressure treated lumber. Sometimes it comes soaking wet, sometimes it’s dry as a bone. Sometimes the boards shrink a little when they dry out. Sometimes they don’t shrink at all. Despite our best efforts to frame a precise pressure-treated frame, we simply cannot control what the wood will do as it seasons or dries out in it’s final position as part of deck.

Pressure Treated Framing Moves at will

Look at how the deck boards are ridging at the intersection (Click the photo to Zoom in). This is not sloppy craftsmanship but the result of three different underlying framing members shrinking and crowning different amounts. This was glass flat upon completion of the job, but the wood does what the wood wants to do!

This unpredictability means that a deck can develop dips and dives, and deck boards attached to the framing move out of plane creating raised and ugly joints. It’s frustrating to see a beautiful deck compromised by the irregularity of inconsistent framing lumber six months down the road.

In a quest to always provide the best product to my customers, I’ve completely abandoned pressure treated lumber in all of our new deck projects in lieu of light gauge steel framing (LGS). Just a few of the benefits of steel deck framing are:

  • Lighter in weight but stronger than wood
  • Wildly increased joist spans mean less beams and less footings. This is a really big deal on raised decks with patios underneath.
  • More design flexibility. If I need a longer span I can change the parameters of joist from gauge, flange width, and web depth. With wood, we are stuck with 2×8 through 2x12s.
  • Perfect material. Every joist is made by a machine so there are no inconsistences from joist to joist like wood. Sometimes two wood  2x10s can measure up to a half inch differently!
  • Perfectly flat, level and square decks. The consistency of the material means that everything is extremely precise.
  • No shrinking, warping, twisting or shape changing.
  • Very little waste. All the steel is delivered to the job site pre-cut so it just has to be assembled.
  • When completed, it’s nearly impossible to tell the framing is not wood.
Steel Deck Framing in New Jersey

This multi-level deck is looks different now, but look at the photo below to see it when it’s finished and  it looks no different from what you’d expect.

Steel Deck framing provides a glass smooth deck surface

This deck surface is not just flat. It’s perfectly flat and will stay that way forever unlike wood which wouldn’t start or stay this flat.

This is a steel framed deck. Can you tell?

 

 

More and more leading deck builders across the country are abandoning wood in favor of steel framing because there are very few downsides to using steel. The main roadblocks to getting started with steel for most contractors are:
  • Lack of knowledge or understanding of steel framing methods, materials and techniques
  • Resistance to change because they are comfortable in their old ways
  • Cost. Most think it’s more expensive than it is or too labor intensive. It can be more expensive and it can be more labor intensive in some circumstances but not all. Usually the minimal cost difference is well worth the value of the finished product.
  • It’s not locally available. Nonsense! Light Gauge Steel framing is available everywhere. If there’s a commercial building in your town, you can bet it’s got LGS in it.

This is a steel frame deck, too.

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Gate Thoughts for Your New Deck…

As a deck designer I frequently get all sorts of special requests from our clients, but one of the most common requests is to install a gate on a deck.

Typically a gate is added for security, to keep pets or kids on the deck and away from the steps, but a gate can also be added to improve privacy or as a fashion statement.

When considering a gate for a deck, consider first the “needs”: should this have a child-proof latch, be self-closing, or rated for pool access?

Trex Deck Pool Gate

Custom Pool Deck

This deck needs a gate

While it may be required because of the location or client’s needs, it’s important to consider as well the location of the gate and operation-will it create an inconvenience when open (blocking travel, or opening over the steps)?

Gate at deck steps

Once you know what a gate “has to” do, it is worth considering what you’d like the gate to look like. Should it perfectly match the deck’s rail?

Matching Deck Gate

This custom-ordered gate matches the TimberTech Rail

Or would this be an opportunity to do something just a bit different to create an artistic statement or accent?

Matching Deck Gate

Privacy wall gate in Fiberon Horizon

Wrought Iron Gate

Custom-designed and built metal gate

Lastly, once you know what you want, it is time to get a price, and see if the cost fits within your budget.

  • As a generic guide, a basic pressure treated or vinyl gate might cost between $250-500.
  • A wrought iron or aluminum gate may range from $400 to $1000.
  • Lastly, a custom-fit, matching gate can often cost $500 to over $1500 installed.

 One thing to keep in mind is that while gates should be discussed during the planning stages, if budget dictates or your needs change, they can usually be added at a later date rather simply.

Building a Pergola…Is there a Better Way than Wood?

Wood Pergola with Stone Bases in Bergen County, NJ

Wood pergolas are traditional, but maintenance can be difficult.

 

Here’s a contractor asking a question to other contractors about replacing a wood pergola with a low maintenance alternative. This guy is a legitimate “all around” contractor, and he doesn’t even know, so you’re probably wondering too:

Gotta replace a rotted Pergola and wondered if there are any worthwhile alternative materials besides wood? Its rather large………probably 30 ft wide and 12 ft long and the rafters are attached to the house into pockets in the brick. Its supported by 3 round synthetic columns with 2 doubled 2 x 8’s for the beam. The rafters are 2 x 8 around 12 ft long. Cedar would be my lumber choice, but my customer wants to be informed about any synthetic alternatives that wont rot. It is painted to match the house color. I have read some about fiberglass Pergolas, but not sure about the details and availability. I dont think PVC(Azek or something similar) would be strong enough to span 12 ft like that. Any suggestions?

Wood Pergolas

Wood is the traditional choice for pergolas. Depending on your locale, the most common lumber species used are either cedar or redwood. The benefit of using wood to build a pergola is that it’s typically much less expensive than synthetic options and it’s relatively easy to customize on site. With wood, you can really do anything you could image design-wise.

The major downside of wood is that it requires maintenance in the form of both cleaning and staining or painting. Staining or painting a wood pergola is tedious work at best and it borders on something that even professional painters don’t like to do because it’s so time consuming to do. Unlike a deck with one surface to clean and finish, nearly every side of every piece of wood has to be addressed with a pergola so it’s slow going. Really slow going.

Vinyl

Vinyl pergola in Ramsey New Jersey

A vinyl pergola installed over a deck.

Vinyl pergolas are popular these days because they look good, are extremely easy to maintain, and are cost effective relative to custom fabricating a wood pergola. Vinyl pergolas come in kit form and are assembled quickly much like an erector set. Most kits come in a variety of sizes and are expandable or even customizable if need be.

Maintenance is simple,  just like a vinyl fence. Powerwash it with a good detergent as needed and you’re done.

The downside to vinyl is that you can have whatever color you like as long as it’s white. Color options for vinyl pergolas are limited to white and buff or almond for the most part. If you want a custom color, look for fiberglass models.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass can be painted to nearly any color.

Fiberglass pergolas are similar in all aspects to vinyl pergolas except they must be painted either before, during, or after installation. This is a benefit for some people as they’d like to match a color on there home or simulate a darker stained wood color in lieu of the standard white that vinyl provides.

Fiberglass pergola kits are typically more expensive than vinyl kits and are considered to be an upgrade from vinyl.

Pergolas are great outdoor structures and add a lot of character to any yard. My company, Bergen Decks, installs a fair amount of pergolas as they are becoming requested more and more by homeowners.

In fact, I was interviewed on a television show called HouseSmarts to discuss pergolas and popular options, so rather than read, you can watch! Check out the interview on YouTube here.

PVC Deck Boards or Capped Composite?

Here’s a very common question I saw on a construction forum I frequent. This was asked by an electrical contractor with no experience with decking, so he’s probably a lot like you.

I am having a deck built in January (Design, deposit, etc is already done). Right now I am slated to have Timbertech XLM Sandridge (color chosen due to some performance issues with the darker colors) decking and White Radiance Rail. From what I have read here, I went with a Timbertech Premier contractor. I just got a call from the deck contractor today about the new Timbertech Earthwood products. He wanted to let me know about it in case I wanted to change from Timbertech XLM Sandridge decking. It sounded like he thought the new Earthwood Evolutions was a better product. He mentioned that it withstood the manufacturer’s tests of scratching, fading, and spills better than all of the other lines. What are your thoughts?

— electronics4lif

As of this writing, there are three major manufacturers producing “mainstream” capped composite deck boards:

  • Fiberon Horizons (Fiberon was the first to market with this technology)
  • Trex Transcends
  • TimberTech Earthwood Evolutions

A capped composite board is a two-part deckboard with a traditional composite (wood flour and plastic mixed together) core and a very thin veneer (usually about 1/16″ thick) of PVC-like material wrapped over the core that is the surface you see when you look at the deck. Manufacturers are using this technology to produce less expensive, better performing deck boards, however their methods are all slightly different. Prior to the capped composite boards coming to market, you were either going to get a true composite board or a 100% PVC board.  Traditionally, composite was less expensive but always has performance issues, while PVC was more expensive, but had some color limitations due to PVC blending technologies. Here’s a video where I explain the different types of synthetic deck boards.

Fiberon was the first company to get capped composite off the ground and into the market with any gusto. Horizons has been proving itself as a solid, reliable board for a few years now and it has been embraced by many top deck contractors I know around the country. Fiberon fully encapsulates or wraps the board with capstock which is important. The less water that gets into the wood particles under the capstock, the better for long term performance. Unfortunately, the cap is compromised when Fiberon cuts the groove into the board. It’s not a deal breaker, but it would be nice to see the capstock seal as much of the board as possible.

Trex saw the success of Fiberon’s Horizon line and introduced Transcends to the marketplace as their capstock product. While Transcends has a very nice deep grain in the cap, there are some things about Transcends that worries me as a deck builder. The cap does not encapsulate the entire board leaving the entire underside exposed to moisture. Also, the cap does not seem to be laminated as well as other manufacturers are doing it. In fact, I have seen boards come right off the truck with the capstock delaminating and peeling off. Trex has been successful marketing Transcends, but as we’ve seen before with Trex’s products, they have had major quality control issues that have spawned serious warranty issues for thousands of homeowners. While I know one or two reputable deck builders that swear by Transcends, I know 20 or more that won’t touch the stuff.

TimberTech, as usual, waited in the wings to see if the capstock concept was going to take off before investing in it. In 2011, TimberTech replaced their hugely successful Earthwoods line of composite decking with a capped composite called Earthwoods Evolutions. Evolutions is a fully encapsulated board whether it’s a square-edged board or a grooved board which I like. They also nailed the aesthetic producing boards that are pleasing to the eye. The board is too new to make a judgement of performance on, but based on TimberTech’s history with rolling out new products and the testing they do, I feel good about Earthwood Evolutions.

So, which is better? PVC deck products like TimberTech XLM, Azek Deck, Fiberon Professional or the capstock brethren I detailed above?

The answer is: It depends.

I’ve installed miles and miles of PVC decking over the last few years because if I had to choose between a true composite (watch my video) and PVC, PVC wins every time because it out performed composite in every category even though it was more expensive. Now that capped composites are proving themselves, it really boils down to aesthetics and cost. PVC still has the edge in terms of aesthetics over capped composites, but capped composites are slightly less expensive and may have even better cap technology than some of the original PVC capped products.

What? Capped composites “may have even better cap technology”? Did he just say that? Yes…I did.

All deck products evolve just like computer technology so new product lines are usually always better (at least historically) than the ones they replaced. For instance, the cap technology in some of TimberTech’s earlier XLM lines has remained unchanged for at least three years now. I’m pretty sure the chemical technology in the cap of Earthwoods Evolutions is more advanced because it’s newer. Every manufacturer learns from each generation of decking they produce and build on it. They learn what works and what doesn’t.

This is not to say PVC is obsolete, because it’s not. Capstock technology has virtually assured the disappearance of plain old composite decking by providing a nice aesthetic with much, much, much better long term performance.