Monday, June 27, 2011


It’s been well over half a century since magazines such as Sunset popularized the, like, very California concept of the redwood deck. Although decks were originally used to create outdoor living space on sloping sites, they’ve become a default standard for flat sites as well. From the jutting, rakish decks of the 1950s, to the blobby contours of the ‘70s, to the Craftsman-style motifs popular today, decks have provided countless homeowners with a creative yet manageably-scaled do-it-yourself project. 

Should you design or build your own deck? If  your needs are straightforward and you’re reasonably handy, why not? In these trying financial times, adding a deck is a simple and cost-effective way to increase your home’s living area as well as its resale value. And as do-it-yourself projects go, it can be lots of fun. Here are some tips: 

•  Since a deck is really an outdoor extension of your home’s floor plan, it should be laid out just as carefully.  First, make sure you provide generous access to the deck from the major living areas. If necessary, add a sliding door or a pair of French doors, depending on your budget and the style of your home.Determine the most likely use of the various deck areas or “rooms”, and then give each their own identity using level changes, screens, planters, or overhead structures.

•  Be creative with decking patterns. Judging by what’s out there, you’d think using 2x6 decking was one of the Ten Commandments. It isn’t, so consider 2x2 or 2x4 decking instead, or experiment with combinations of different sizes--one of the most pleasing patterns uses alternating 2x6s and 2x2s.  

Generally, the deck planks are run in the long direction of the deck to save labor.  However, on a very long, narrow deck it may better to lay the decking perpendicular to the long direction to give an illusion of added width. Changes in direction can also be pleasing, but be careful that the pattern doesn’t become too busy. Level changes provide the most logical place to change the decking direction.

•  Redwood decking offers beauty, workability, and resistance to decay, but a dwindling redwood supply and rising prices have made alternatives such as Trex more popular. Tropical hardwoods such as Ipe are another alternative if you prefer the look of genuine wood. After the decking is installed, you can simply let it weather naturally, or you can stain it or apply a transparent water-repellent finish, thought the latter will probably require renewal every one to three years. Painting is a definite no-no; the finish won’t hold up to foot traffic, and wood decking will rot more quickly since it can’t “breathe”.

•  Don’t scrimp on the steps. Even the most stunning deck will be ruined by a steep, miserly 3-foot-wide stair.  The large scale of the outdoors demands generous proportions, so make deck steps at least six feet wide, and even wider if possible. Make the risers no higher than 6 1/2”, and the treads at least 10 1/2” deep. In addition to looking more substantial, broad, gentle stairs also provide an inviting place to sit.

•  Make sure the deck railing matches the style of your home. If there’s an existing porch rail someplace, use it as a protoype, but beware: current building codes specify  that a 4” sphere should not be able to pass through the railing. If the existing design doesn’t meet this requirement, you may be able to satisfy your building department by adding 4x6 welded wire to the inside of the railing.  

•  Lastly, if you’d like planters or screens to add privacy or to create smaller areas, spend a few moments to integrate them into the design. Build planters of the same type of lumber, and try to echo motifs such as baluster spacing and the like. It’s little details like these that can turn a ho-hum wooden platform into a genuine outdoor living space. 

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