How to Choose Wood vs. Synthetic Decking Material

Deck materials greatly impact the cost of building a deck and what maintenance a homeowner will need to provide in the future. Understanding the different types of wood and synthetic decking, such as wood/plastic composite and cellular PVC products, can help you through the decision-making process while maintaining realistic expectations about price, durability, and future maintenance. 

What is wood decking?

Wood decking is a natural and less expensive option for deck material. There are several wood species available, each of which has its own pros and cons.

  • Pressure-treated. Chemically-treated wood extends the life of the deck boards and can prevent rot and insect damage longer than untreated wood can. Regular application of stain or sealer can extend the lifespan of treated wood. 
  • Redwood and cedar. Redwood and red cedar, yellow cedar, and white cedar are good options for a natural wood deck because they’re resistant to rot and insects and don’t contain chemicals. “They have an attractive look, no knots, are very straight-grained, and finishes can be put on them,” says Mike. However, they typically come with a premium cost. 
  • Exotic hardwood. Exotic hardwoods are an attractive, if more costly, option for decking. Many hardwoods are quite durable and able to withstand the elements. Most exotic hardwoods come from the Brazilian Amazon, the most popular being Ipe. Other types of exotic hardwoods used for decks include Massaranduba (Brazilian Redwood), Garapa (Brazilian ash), Cumaro (Brazilian teak), and Teak which is usually sourced from rainforests in Southeast Asia. Exotic hardwoods are typically some of the most expensive options for decks. While some exotic hardwoods are marketed as sustainably sourced, issues with deforestation, desertification, and the carbon imprint of transporting these woods from their source mean these woods have a high environmental impact. 
  • Rot-resistant native hardwood. Some trees naturally produce oils that make the wood resistant to rot, and chemicals that help deter insects and inhibit fungus growth. This makes them great for outdoor use, as they will withstand whatever Mother Nature throws their way for many years. Woods sourced in the United States that have these characteristics include black walnut, cedar, cypress, and redwood. 
  • Thermally modified wood. Thermally modified wood is wood that has essentially been baked in high heat in an environment without oxygen to make the wood more durable and weather resistant. The heat removes any moisture and organic compounds that might facilitate fungus or provide food for insects. Thermally modified wood typically lasts for two to three decades and is not treated with chemicals. 

What is synthetic decking?

Synthetic decking lasts longer and requires less maintenance than real wood. There are several types of synthetic decking options appropriate for deck-building projects.

  • Plastic decking. Hollow PVC, Cellular PVC, Polyethylene, and Polypropylene are types of plastic decking boards. Some are made of recycled materials. These boards are extremely durable and won’t fade or splinter, though some products may experience delamination, expansion, and contraction. That makes maintenance extremely easy, allowing you to avoid having to sand and stain the boards every couple of years. 
  • Wood-plastic composite. Wood fibers are encapsulated by plastic and a more durable option than pressure-treated decking. These boards are quite heavy, but more flexible compared to real wood and may require shorter spacing between joists.
  • Mineral-based composite. This mix of minerals makes a lasting product that is also lightweight. It’s resistant to heat and moisture, so customers won’t worry about warped or rotted boards.

Wood vs. synthetic decking material: How to choose

Cost

Cost is a big consideration for any home improvement project, and there’s a big difference between pressure-treated wood and synthetic deck boards. Pressure-treated wood is usually the least expensive type of decking. Redwood and cedar, and other rot-resistant native hardwood boards come next, while synthetic decking can be as low as $3 per square foot and run upwards of $12 per square foot. Exotic hardwood and thermally modified wood are typically between $4 to $10 per square foot. 

Durability and maintenance

Pressure-treated wood decking requires ongoing maintenance. Tasks include refinishing with an exterior stain. 

Aesthetics 

One benefit of an all-wooden deck is its classic, natural look. Homeowners also have plenty of options for colors and color varieties when it comes to synthetic decking. 

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications, like how to build a freestanding deck. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills.


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Mike Guertin

The only thing Mike Guertin likes better than building new homes is remodeling old ones. After 40+ years tackling every facet of residential construction from excavation and foundations to interior finish work and tile setting, he’s still challenged every day to find more-efficient ways to build better. Mike worked on his first deck build when he was 15 and fortunately it was less than a foot off the ground so no one got hurt when it fell apart several years later. Now he takes deck building a little more seriously - but only a little bit.

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