Deck durability begins with the house design. In hurricane
zones, multistory decks over porches or integrated into the
foundation footprint have a better chance of withstanding a major
storm, while attached decks (inset) are more vulnerable to being
ripped apart by storm waves and hurricane-force winds.
Decks and porches on beach homes take the brunt of any storm. Add
to that the homeowners' desire for low-maintenance finishes that
stand the test of time even in a salt environment, and it's clear
that builders have to be especially fussy about their deck
materials choices and installation methods.
We asked three East Coast builders who work on waterfront homes
what materials and techniques they recommend for exterior decks.
All agreed durability is the goal, but they each take a slightly
different path to get there.
Peter Kroll of Cape Painting and Carpentry in North Falmouth,
Mass., has been building and renovating homes on Cape Cod for 25
years. Many of these decks lie a few feet from the water. His
customers tend to stick with him, many from the beginning of
construction, and most of them are neighbors. "We live here, so we
need to get things right," he says. In this marketplace, Kroll also
has to walk a line between durability and aesthetics. His customers
want materials that offer low maintenance but that also look good
on an expensive home. In this tradition-bound New England market,
that usually means natural wood, not plastic.
Despite the moisture-resistance of composite decking, you won't see
it on any of Kroll's projects. "There are too many things that can
stain it: hamburger juice, suntan oil — even daily foot
traffic can leave stains," Kroll notes. "And once it's stained, the
stain is almost impossible to remove."
Most of his deck surfaces are either ipe (Brazilian walnut) or
vertical-grain fir. Although ipe stands up well to traffic and
turns an appealing silver gray over time, Kroll prefers fir (Figure
1). "It has a tight grain and comes in a better mix of lengths," he
explains. He insists that a fir deck will last 20 years, and he
notes that the quality of the material he's getting these days
remains good. Kroll doesn't oil these decks. "I think it's a waste
of money. If you put a color on the wood, you're stuck with that
color and you have to reapply it every year."
FIGURE 1. On outdoor decks, Peter Kroll of
North Falmouth, Mass., prefers vertical-grain fir for its tight
grain and the ready availability of mixed lengths. He doesn't oil
the wood; instead, he allows it to weather naturally. This reduces
the maintenance for clients, as any outdoor finish would have to be
reapplied every couple of years in a coastal
Fasteners. Kroll points out that the
durability of an exterior deck includes the fasteners used to build
it. Builders take a chance with galvanized fasteners, he says. His
crews recently replaced a set of beach steps where the galvanized
fasteners had rusted completely through. "They don't last," he
Instead, Kroll relies on stainless steel nails for fastening deck
boards. But he's found there's really no alternative to galvanized
framing nails. He never uses nail guns on exterior decks, either.
It's tough to get anything but an electrogalvanized nail from local
suppliers. Kroll maintains these quickly corrode in a salt
Hardware. Ordinary galvanized hardware is problematic
as well. Ordinary joist hangers, in particular, quickly corrode
outside in a salt environment. This problem has been exacerbated in
recent years with the use of ACQ-treated lumber and other
copper-based wood treatments. While a "triple zinc" product will
hold up longer under coastal exposure conditions, Kroll has begun
reinforcing the connection with stainless steel L brackets. He
prefers to get other framing hardware from a marine-supply store.
In Kroll's experience, marine-grade hardware lasts longer in a
Anthony "Smokey" Saduk, project manager of Haffelfinger and
Standeven Construction, builds beach homes in the Cape May County
area of New Jersey. He stopped using cedar about five years ago
because it was getting too soft. Although he likes ipe, he tends to
use a more mahogany because it's less costly. He likes the way it
looks, and he doesn't mind having to treat it each year. "Any wood
will have to be treated," he insists. He uses Cabot's Australian
Timber Oil (Figure 2), which he says "is super durable; it doesn't
flake, peel, or yellow."
FIGURE 2. Cabot's Australian Timber Oil will
maintain a deep tone that contrasts well with white PVC trim
(left). However, in a coastal environment, this finish will need to
be maintained. If left unfinished, mahogany and ipe will gradually
weather to a silver tone but maintain their integrity (below). In
12 years of using unfinished ipe, Eric Borden says he's never seen
it appreciably deteriorate. "I suspect it will last much, much
longer than it has already," he states.
Saduk is also ambivalent about composites. He tried composite
decking when it first hit the market, but backed off on using the
stuff after it had some problems with mold. Today, he will use it
at the customer's request, and he has used TimberTech composite
decking with no mold problems. However, he never uses composites
around oak trees, which he says put a black stain on the deck
that's difficult to get out. And while he also mentions problems
with staining from grease and oils, he hasn't heard complaints
about it from customers.
Fasteners. Saduk doesn't use regular
stainless steel screws or nails on composite decking: screws tend
to leave a mushroom at the surface that has to be removed, and the
material moves so much that he's afraid nails would tear out. He
has had good luck with TrapEase deck screws (www.fastenmaster.com), which have a coarse thread at
the bottom and a machine thread at the top, and will pull the
boards tight to the framing with minimal mushrooming. But most of
the time when fastening composite decking, Saduk prefers a hidden
fastener system. He has used Deckmaster, Eb-Ty, and Tiger Claw
Deckmaster (www.deckmaster.com) uses a metal bracket that's
fastened to the top edge of the joists before the decking is
installed. The installers then lay the deck boards in place and
drive screws through the bracket up into the underside of the
boards. Saduk likes this fastening system but finds it labor
intensive. The deck also has to be high enough off the ground for
someone to get underneath it.
Eb-Ty (www.ebty.com) consists of a polypropylene biscuit
installed between each deck board at every joist. The installer
uses a biscuit joiner to make a kerf in the edge of the deck board,
slips the biscuit into the kerf, and screws it into the top of the
joist. The installer must also lay a bead of construction adhesive
under each board. Saduk finds Eb-Ty to be about as labor intensive
as Deckmaster, but he prefers it because his crew can do all the
installation from above. And he says that big decks can be
completed quickly: "We set up a table with jigs and someone on the
jig table pre-slots all the boards."
Tiger Claw (www.deckfastener.com) relies on 3-inch-long
stainless steel fasteners that, like Eb-Ty, are driven into the
edges of the boards and screwed down into the joists. But, unlike
Eb-Ty, there's no need to cut slots: prongs on the sides of the
fasteners are simply hammered into the edge of the deck board. This
sounds easier than it really is, according to Saduk. "The fasteners
are made for composites, but composite decking is so hard that we
end up beating ourselves to death. It's really a pain; I won't use
this fastener again."
Roof decks. Many of Saduk's homes include
rooftop decks above living spaces. He used to cover these with
fiberglass, but says that after a few years the fiberglass would
crack and delaminate, and its color would start to fade. About
three years ago he heard about a spray-applied surface that's made
by Vortex from a blend of polyurethane and polyurea (www.vortexsprayliner.com). It was developed as a
sprayed-on liner for truck beds but has a good track record on pool
decks. It creates what Smokey describes as "a 1/4-inch-thick solid
rubberized shell," which he now uses it for all of his rooftop
Saduk sprays the Vortex surface over an AdvanTech oriented strand
board sheathing, because he finds that AdvanTech doesn't swell as
much as conventional OSB or plywood. Before applying the spray, he
fills nail holes with auto-body filler, sands them flat, and then
preps the surface with a Vortex-supplied sealant. Saduk sprays the
surface before the siding goes on, extending it a foot up the wall
and structural posts, so it will act as a flashing (Figure 3). The
finished surface is coated with a UV inhibitor. He also uses the
spray-on liner to mold door pans.
FIGURE 3. Along the East Coast, deck and porch
surfaces over living space are usually treated with a fiberglass or
polyurethane topping. Typically, the seams of a plywood subdeck get
treated with fiberglass tape and Bondo epoxy before the topping is
applied (top). Smokey Saduk has had problems with fiberglass
toppings cracking and delaminating, so he prefers a spray-on liner
over an AdvanTech OSB surface (above). This topping was originally
developed as a truck liner, but it also has a good track record on
So far, Saduk has been impressed with the material's durability.
"If you whack it with a hammer, you will dent the underlying wood
but won't tear the surface. And if you step on a roofing nail, the
nail head won't go through the material." It's even too tough to
cut with a standard utility-knife blade. "The only way to cut it is
with a roofing-hook blade."
One drawback to using the material is that the sheathing has to be
perfectly dry: you can't install it if there's high humidity, or if
it has rained recently. And according to Saduk, it doesn't adhere
well to stainless steel flashings, but scuffing them up with a palm
or disk sander solves the problem. (Stainless steel nails don't
pose a problem because they are set and then filled with auto-body
Eric Borden of ESB Contracting in Toms River, N.J., has been
building vacation homes around the Mantoloking, N.J., area since
1986. He builds on a narrow barrier island that ranges in width
from three blocks to 1/2 mile. Most of his homes are traditional
Shingle-style with natural wood exteriors, including cedar roofs
and siding. Most have white trim and all have some type of exterior
Design and structure. Borden says that the biggest challenge with
decks isn't durability but rather local zoning codes. "Zoning codes
include raised-level decks in a home's square footage. That means a
2,000-square-foot house with a 500-square-foot raised deck is
considered a 2,500-square-foot house." To avoid this penalty, he
builds a lot of grade-level decks. "If the deck is on grade level,
we can build a bigger house."
Local zoning also gives grade-level decks preference over patios,
according to Borden, because decks don't count toward the
impervious lot coverage, as pavers or concrete would. The purpose
of the restrictions is to reduce storm-water runoff into bays and
rivers. Surrounding a house with too much paving would defeat that
purpose, while a deck with open spaces between the boards provides
a way for water to drain into the ground around the house.
He says that the code requirements concerning wind uplift are
straightforward. He simply has to take steps to securely anchor the
deck structure, such as embedding galvanized straps in concrete
piers and wrapping them over the deck beams.
However, when a major storm hits, the beach environment can create
problems for conventional footings. "Everything we're building on
is beach sand, and if it gets waterlogged it acts more like water
than sand," he says. Because of this, some houses — and some
raised decks — have to be built on piles driven deep into the
sand. (Supporting the corners on piles and putting concrete piers
between them is often sufficient.) Borden says that pile depth
requirements for the deck are based on FEMA regulations, and are
the same as for the main house. "In one house the elevation was 12
feet above sea level, so we had to drive the pilings 25 feet deep,"
Railings. As for finish materials, Borden
says that he picks the most durable ones he can, but he makes sure
his customers know that any material will weather. "We build close
to the dunes, so when a storm hits it's like putting the house into
a sand blaster. I don't care what you build, there's going to be
For more durable exteriors, Borden will use composite materials
instead of wood if they perform better and don't look like plastic.
For instance, he makes deck and porch railings from Fypon (www.fypon.com), a
high-density, closed-cell urethane railing system that includes a
baluster with a structural pipe going down the middle (Figure 4).
The railing and baluster pieces are glued together, then installed
on the posts. While Fypon isn't cheap, it's easy to install and
requires little or no maintenance over time. "With a wood railing,
I guarantee it will eventually rot unless you're constantly
maintaining the paint," he predicts. And he says that homeowners
never guess that the material isn't wood. "If I custom-turn a cedar
baluster and paint it and then put it next to a Fypon railing, they
can't tell the difference."
FIGURE 4.Hefty Fypon balusters cost
Eric Borden around $50 each, while the top and bottom rails each
run about $23 per linear foot. The alternative for Borden is
custom-milled redwood or western red cedar balusters at $35 apiece
and handrail at about $16 per linear foot. However, substantial
savings with Fypon comes in the installation. Borden estimates the
labor of installing wood is easily 30% more to assemble and finish,
and the wood will have to be maintained frequently as
Borden says that common installation problems are the same as with
wood, including installers that cut rails too short or drill
balusters in the wrong places. "Sitting and reading the
instructions is the best 20 minutes you will spend," he
Decking. When it comes to decking, Borden
and his customers are still partial to wood, although he finds
today's choices less than ideal. "I don't like the cedar they're
selling these days, even in the higher grades. It's not as weather
resistant as it used to be." He also has been displeased with
mahogany. He says that the species of mahogany he gets varies by
delivery, so he can't predict how it will perform over time. And he
dislikes the fact that mahogany needs to be stained and restained
each year in order to maintain its appearance.
One thing Borden likes about ipe, which he has been using for 12
years, is that he gets the same product from all the major
distributors. "With ipe I know that the quality will be consistent.
This is important, because we maintain a lot of the houses we
build. We've had quite a few decks in place for years and we
haven't had to do any repairs." While some builders have complained
about shrinkage with ipe, Borden doesn't find it to be a problem.
He has seen customers get disappointed if they don't understand how
the wood will weather, so he makes sure to tell them what to
expect. "I show them some weathered samples so they know how it
will look in two years if they don't finish it," he says.
As for composites, aesthetics can also be a problem for Borden's
customers. "In our high-end $6-million vacation-home market, people
feel like composites are not quite as high end." As with any
material, he says that helping customers understand how it weathers
can reduce callbacks. "If you educate the client about how the deck
will look in a year, you won't get complaints about its
Fasteners. Although Borden's customers
would rather not see fasteners on the deck surface, the fact that
he builds a lot of grade-level decks in areas where the zoning
requires him to space boards 3/8 inch apart (in order to allow sand
to get through to help maintain the dunes) means he sometimes can't
use hidden fasteners.
When he has, he's used the Eb-Ty and Tiger Claw systems (Figure 5).
He says that while Tiger Claw is "easier and faster," he has more
experience with Eb-Ty. "It's easy once you're used to it," Borden
says. "But getting set up with biscuits and learning to use them is
more time consuming, It wouldn't be worth it for a small deck."
FIGURE 5.Borden relies on hidden deck
fasteners when zoning requirements allow. He typically uses Eb-Ty
"biscuits" (top left) that get installed in a kerf cut in the edge
of a board with a plate joiner, or Tiger Claw fasteners (top). The
Tiger Claw install faster in hardwood, but they're difficult to
pound into the edge of composite decking. For composites, it's
better to use the decking manufacture's proprietary fasteners, such
as those made by Eb-Ty for CorrectDeck (bottom).
Charles Wardell writes on construction topics from
Vineyard Haven, Mass.