Monday, January 29, 2018


Come on—you could knock this deck out in no time!
It’s almost deck-building season, folks. If you’ve had a deck project on the back burner for a while, this might be a good time to start thinking about it.

Remember that a deck usually requires a building permit, and hence plans. Whether you design and build the deck yourself or hire a pro to do it, here are some basic practical guidelines for both economy and good looks:

• Minimize the number of piers. Usually, you can support the entire deck on a pair of widely-spaced main girders (or even a single girder if the deck is attached to the house on one edge). Unless the deck is gigantic, these girders can usually be supported by as few as two piers. The girders, in turn, support the deck joists. Fewer piers means less concrete work, and less chance of errors and misalignments.

Cantilevered deck framing allows you to add skirting
that will conceal those ugly piers.
(Image courtesy of Boston Decks and Porches Blog)
•  Cantilever the deck. Set the piers back a couple of feet from the deck edges and let both the main girder and the joists cantilever (overhang) beyond them. The cantilever serves two purposes: It reduces the span of the girders and joists, which often allows you to use a smaller size lumber; and it serves to tuck the piers beneath the completed deck so that they’re not as conspicuous. Then, if you like, you can skirt the deck with lattice or lath, and the piers will be completely invisible.

Screws in hardwood decking need to be predrilled and
countersunk. The Smart Bit, shown here, is one way to do it
•  Choose the right decking. Redwood is the traditional material, but decent quality redwood has become so costly that it's being used less and less. As a result, tropical hardwoods such as Ipe have gained popularity, and they appear to hold up very well. There are also a number of wood/plastic composites on the market, but alas, I can't recommend any of them. I've seen many failures over the years, and I'm not convinced that these problems have been overcome.

•  Consider different decking patterns. Standard 2x6 spaced decking is fine for Modernist-era houses, but a more interesting pattern might be better suited for traditional home styles. Try using 2x6 deck planks alternated with 2x4s or 2x2s to produce a visual rhythm. Very small-scale decks will look better with narrower decking—using 2x4s flat or even on edge will help produce a finer scale.

No matter what style of deck rail you choose,
make sure that it matches the style of your house.
(Image courtesy Salter Spiral Stair)
• Choose deck fasteners carefully. In the past, decking was usually attached with galvanized 16-penny nails, which often worked loose or popped up when the wood shrank as it dried. Today, most decking is attached with screws, which have several advantages: they don’t pull out as easily, they’re easily retightened if the decking shrinks, and they allow individual deck planks to be removed without damage. They’re easily installed with a good heavy-duty power screwdriver and don’t require predrilling in softwood deck planks. Tropical hardwood planks, however, do need to be predrilled.

Screws are available in stainless steel, or with a galvanized or black oxide coating. I’ve found that galvanizing usually splinters off the heads of the screws as they're being driven, inviting rust in the worst possible place, so I prefer the oxide-coated or stainless variety. They look better, too.

Since the screws heads are quite noticeable, take care to drive them in neat rows—use a chalkline if you have to. Set the heads either flush or just ever so slightly below the surface of the decking. If the heads are set too deep, they’ll collect water and promote rot. If the wood shrinks later on and the heads become proud of the surface, you can always re-tighten them until they're flush.
All done. Time to grab a cool one and relax.

When you install fasteners, neatness is important—nothing will ruin a deck’s as quickly as sloppy, meandering lines of screw heads driven to ten different depths. If you're a masochist and you choose to use nails rather than screws, lay them out neatly and drive them slightly above the deck to avoid marring the wood. Then go back and set them just below the surface with a nail set.

•  Use a simple guardrail that matches the style of your house. For example, a heavy, complicated wooden railing might be at home with a Craftsman or Ranch-style home, but it will be at odds with a Spanish Revival house. Any railings that already exist on the house—on the front porch, perhaps—will provide a good clue to the style of railing you should use on the deck.

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