Guide to Choosing a Suitable Wood Type for Outdoor Decks

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A wooden deck in your backyard is timeless. It’s not just a great place for outdoor gatherings; it also boosts your home’s value when you decide to sell. But before building a wooden deck, the crucial step is choosing the right wood because it affects the deck’s durability, appearance, and maintenance needs. Choosing the right wood type for your outdoor deck is about balancing quality, budget, and aesthetics. Though the choices may seem overwhelming at first, it all boils down to how much TLC you’re ready to give, your local climate, and a few other factors. Here’s a simple guide to steer you in the right direction:

Know the Difference Between Hardwoods and Softwoods

To make the right choice for your outdoor deck, you have to know the distinction between hardwoods and softwoods. Surprisingly, the terms “hardwood” and “softwood” don’t directly relate to how hard the wood is (although there’s a scale for that called the Janka Hardness Scale). Instead, it’s all about the seeds and leaves of the trees.

Hardwoods are trees whose seeds are enclosed in a protective outer layer, like a fruit or shell. They also have leaves that drop annually. Some examples include Oak, Mahogany, Ipe, and Teak. On the other hand, softwoods come from trees with seeds that lack protective coverings. These trees typically have needles and remain evergreen. Softwood varieties include Pine, Fir, Spruce, Redwood, and Cedar.

When it comes to decking, the choice between hardwood and softwood is the first decision to make. Hardwoods tend to outshine softwoods in terms of weather resistance, durability, and longevity. They are incredibly sturdy but often come with a higher price tag. Softwood decking, usually treated with preservatives, offers a more budget-friendly option and can last a good while, although it requires annual upkeep to maximize its lifespan.

But here’s the scoop about softwoods: about more than two decades ago, they were a solid choice for decking. Back then, you could easily find clear, all-heart (no sap) Western Red Cedar or California Redwood. The wood quality was high, and you could expect a softwood deck to last 20-25 years. But times have changed. Today’s softwood decking is filled with knots of less durable sapwood, and its lifespan has shrunk to 10-15 years. We’ve all seen those once beautiful decks now riddled with cracked and broken boards, posing risks to your family.

While some chemically treated or naturally durable softwoods can still work for decking, hardwood is the winning choice for several good reasons. Hardwood decks excel in durability, weather resistance, and longevity. While the upfront cost might be higher than softwood, it’s a worthwhile investment when you choose the right hardwood. You won’t need to fret about wood cracking, chipping, or demanding constant repairs as you would with softwood or less durable hardwoods. At most, hardwood decks might require periodic restaining or oiling every couple of years to maintain their stunning, natural color.

Get to know the best hardwood and softwood options below:

Best Wood Choices for Outdoor Decking

Knowing that hardwood is your go-to option for an outdoor deck is just the beginning. Now, let’s dive into the world of hardwood options available.

Remember, choosing the wrong wood decking can lead to unnecessary expenses and a less durable deck than you’d hoped for. Don’t forget to factor in maintenance requirements, too. Here, we’ve outlined the different wood types to consider:

1. Pressure-treated Wood

Typically crafted from softwood like pine, pressure-treated (PT) wood undergoes a chemical treatment to resist moisture, pests, fire, and fungal growth. The wood is placed in a depressurized tank, where the air is removed and replaced with the preservative. This treatment makes the wood resistant to moisture, fire, fungal growth, and pests, making it a durable choice. These chemicals may give the wood a green or brownish hue, which can be concealed with stain, paint, or left to weather into a dark gray.

This treatment makes it suitable for various applications, including decking, fencing, and foundations. It’s the most economical option, but you’ll want to be selective to find straight pieces without loose knots.

In the past, pressure-treated lumber was treated with arsenic-based compounds, which posed health concerns. Production of such treated wood for residential use ceased in 2003, but you might still find them on the market due to existing stock. Newer treatments like ammoniacal copper quaternary (ACQ) are considered safe.

PT wood is favored by homeowners seeking a sturdy deck without breaking the bank. While PT decks can endure for a good while, they require significant maintenance, including annual or biannual power washing, staining, and sealing. They’re known to age less gracefully, with boards shrinking as they dry out. Splinters from PT wood decks can be painful and may pose infection risks due to the chemicals present, making it less ideal for families with children and pets.

2. Thermally Modified Ash and Hemlock Wood

Thermally Modified Woods are a popular pick for good reasons. These woods undergo a special process involving a vacuum kiln and steam, making them less brittle than traditional kiln drying alone.

This thermal modification process not only strengthens the wood but also boosts its resistance to insects and rot by removing natural sugars. The result? Wood with a lovely dark brown hue that can weather to a graceful gray without needing extra maintenance. Ash, a softwood, and Hemlock, a hardwood with lower fiber density, both benefit from this process. You even have the option to paint or stain them.

While the initial investment for thermally modified woods falls in the middle range, their longevity, and enduring beauty outweigh softwoods. In the long run, these wood decking options offer a higher return on investment.

3. Modified Wood

Modified wood represents a significant technological leap forward, consistently proving its worth to architects and homeowners alike. It boasts the allure of real wood, exceptional durability, low maintenance demands, and an eco-friendly profile.

Take Kebony, for example. It transforms sustainable softwood species using a non-toxic liquid that densifies the wood cells, giving it the performance of tropical hardwoods. Unlike pressure-treated wood, modified wood is completely safe, free from harsh chemicals, and ideal for families. It’s available in clear and character grades, offering smooth or rustic aesthetics. Just like redwood and cedar, modified wood gracefully matures into a stunning silver-gray tone, enhancing your deck’s natural charm.

Insects and pests steer clear of modified wood. It’s highly resistant to moisture and thrives in various climates worldwide. Kebony, in particular, has been successfully used as wood decking in diverse environments, ensuring peak performance in your yard. The best part? Modified wood demands only occasional cleaning to stay pristine. It’s as low-maintenance as composite decking, eliminating the need for restaining, sealing, or additional surface treatments unless you choose to do so.

4. Tropical Hardwoods

A garden backyard with wooden deck made of Ipe and Cumaru woods

Tropical hardwoods, such as Ipe, Cumaru, Tigerwood, and Massaranduba, are undeniably stunning and a true luxury for any homeowner. Many regard these wood species as the crème de la crème for decking. They stand out for their exceptional strength, durability, low maintenance needs, and innate beauty.

These hardwood decking materials have a proven track record, with lifespans of up to 20 years or more, requiring minimal to no upkeep. Whether you prefer to keep them looking brand new or let them weather naturally, the time and effort needed to maintain their beauty are considerably less than other wood decking options.

These rare hardwoods are incredibly dense, which can pose challenges during installation. Pre-drilling is essential, as undrilled fasteners can split the boards. Fasteners designed specifically for these woods are preferred over nails or screws. Ipe is so dense that it neither requires nor accepts stains or finishes, while other species can be finished with hardwood stains or oils.

However, they come with a hefty price tag, often costing three times or more than other hardwoods or softwoods.

Additionally, sourcing them can be challenging, especially when looking for responsible and sustainable tropical hardwood forest management. Deforestation is a significant concern with these woods, and overseas suppliers typically lack the same certifications as North American suppliers, such as FSC certification. This means that a significant portion of the supply may come from sources that harm forests, taking hundreds of years to recover. This is why those who value products that respect and care for our ecosystem tend to steer clear of tropical hardwood decks.

Ipe

Ipe, often referred to as Brazilian walnut, stands out as one of the finest hardwood choices for outdoor deck boards, known for its exceptional durability and natural resilience.

It requires minimal special treatment, typically just staining or oiling, to maintain its gorgeous, deep, dark brown hue. Ipe is a reliable option for wet conditions because it naturally resists decay, termites, and insect infestations, making it suitable for a wide range of climates.

What’s more, Ipe boasts a Class A Fire Rating, a distinction also held by materials like concrete and steel, underscoring its reliability as a hardwood product.

The primary drawback to using Ipe is its price point. Typically, homeowners can expect to invest between $3,500 and $9,800 for a 10×15 deck, making it a bit pricier compared to most other lumber options.

Batu

Batu hardwood presents itself as another fantastic option for hardwood decking, showcasing a rich, red hue reminiscent of mahogany. Much like other hardwoods, Batu offers strength, natural durability, and versatile suitability for various projects.

Batu decking also boasts noteworthy qualities. It’s naturally resistant to rot and insects, requiring no treatment. Additionally, it proudly holds a Class A Fire Rating. Originating from Southeast Asia, this wood ranks impressively on the Janka Hardness Scale, with a hardness level of 2,100 lbs. To put it in perspective, it’s three times harder than douglas fir and seven times harder than cedar.

Cumaru

Cumaru wood, also known as Brazilian Teak or Brazilian Chestnut, is another splendid hardwood choice for outdoor decks. This hardwood boasts a captivating reddish-brown hue and offers density, durability, and versatility, just slightly trailing Ipe wood on the Janka Hardness Scale.

As with most hardwoods, maintaining the Cumaru wood’s natural reddish-brown color is essential. Regular application of a quality oil every two to three years helps protect it from the sun’s UV rays. It also has Class A fire resistance and remains resistant to rot, insects, and water.

Angelim Pedra

Angelim Pedra emerges as one of the finest wood options for deck boards, showcasing a delightful beige-brown wood with subtle reddish undertones. Its Janka Scale rating places it slightly below Batu, signifying remarkable density, versatility, durability, and relative resistance to wood-boring insects and fungi.

Thanks to the size of the trees, Angelim Pedra yields a substantial quantity of lumber from a single tree. This characteristic renders Angelim Pedra a cost-effective alternative compared to other hardwoods on the market.

Massaranduba

Massaranduba decking, also known as Brazilian Redwood, stands as a highly durable hardwood that rivals Cumaru wood on the Janka Hardness Scale. When you’re pondering the ideal wood for your deck, Massaranduba is an outstanding choice. This wood surpasses most composite materials in strength, boasting a remarkable Class A Fire Rating.

Much like all woods, Massaranduba exhibits a naturally appealing appearance, tinged with a reddish hue. If left untreated with UV-protecting oils, it gracefully weathers into a silvery gray over time.

However, Massaranduba does have one characteristic to note—it exhibits relatively high movement, which necessitates excellent ventilation beneath the deck. To prevent buckling, deck boards must be spaced 1/4″ apart.

5. Cedar

Choosing cedar for decks remains a popular option due to its durability and resistance to moisture. Despite being a softwood, cedar excels in resisting rot and insect infestations better than many other types of wood. An appealing feature of cedar is its ability to adjust its moisture content to match its surroundings, which is especially important in freezing-prone areas. Cedar is less prone to warping or cracking compared to other options.

In terms of appearance, cedar is an excellent choice for achieving a natural-looking deck, and it’s easy to stain, offering a variety of design options. On average, cedar decking can last about 15-20 years with proper care. Maintenance entails annual pressure washing and refinishing or staining every two to three years. Cedar is commonly found in use, especially in the Pacific Northwest or regions experiencing high moisture levels.

6. Redwood

Redwood, another popular choice for outdoor decks, is a western softwood that shares many durability and ruggedness characteristics with cedar. Like cedar, redwood boasts natural resistance to moisture, rot, and insects, thanks to the natural oils and tannins it contains, which also contribute to its distinctive beauty.

Maintenance for a redwood deck aligns closely with that of cedar, involving annual pressure washing. To preserve the natural appearance of redwood, staining every couple of years is essential.

While redwood decks age gracefully on their own, their longevity is significantly extended with regular maintenance. With proper care, a redwood deck can easily endure for up to two decades, even with frequent use.

Regarding pricing, redwood tends to be more expensive than pressure-treated wood in most parts of the US. However, on the West Coast, you’ll find it to be a more cost-effective option.

7. Hem-Fir

This wood type is not that common, but it stands out as one of the most budget-friendly options for your decking project. Hem-fir represents a combination of Western Hemlock and true firs, and it’s readily sourced from California. Despite its affordable price tag, hem-fir offers surprising durability and resistance to outdoor conditions.

Another key advantage of hem-fir is its widespread availability and ease of procurement. Deck builders typically encounter no issues securing hem-fir materials for their projects, particularly in California, where materials are readily accessible.

All the woods we’ve discussed in this post hold their own as excellent options for your outdoor deck. The choice ultimately boils down to your budget, preferences, and specific needs.

8. Composite Wood

Composite wood decking represents a rapidly growing trend in the world of outdoor decks. Several factors make it appealing to homeowners looking to build a deck. Composite decking is typically composed of polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride—essentially recycled plastic infused with wood fibers. Thanks to its recycled plastic content, composite wood offers a wide range of color and finish options. A major advantage of composite wood is its minimal maintenance requirements. This material stands out as one that doesn’t demand regular staining and cleaning.

Composite wood comes in a variety of durable colors, offering versatility. One of the popular brands of composite wood decking material is Trex. Another noteworthy resin wood brand, Polywood, crafts composite planks from a blend of recycled plastic and wood fibers, although its primary focus is furniture manufacturing.

Consider Maintenance Requirements for Wood Decking

a man pressure washing his wooden deck

When choosing the right wood for your deck, it’s essential to factor in maintenance requirements. After all, you want to enjoy your deck, not spend your weekends fretting over its upkeep.

Every type of wood demands regular care to keep it looking its best. If you neglect your deck, it will inevitably start to deteriorate. However, the level of maintenance needed can vary significantly. Regular cleaning should be part of your deck care routine, done as needed. For certain woods with lower fiber density, refinishing, restaining, and repainting become necessary.

To protect softwoods, applying a transparent or semi-transparent water-repellent coating to each piece of wood is a common practice. Opt for sealants that include UV stabilizers, as they help reduce the damaging effects of the sun on the wood. Keep in mind that you’ll need to reapply this protective coat annually to maintain a vibrant appearance. When it comes to staining, select products with UV stabilizers as well. Many homeowners find staining relatively straightforward and prefer to tackle it themselves. A significant bonus of stain treatment is its ability to preserve the overall beauty of the wood.

However, it’s worth noting that staining agents have some downsides that deter certain homeowners. The overall maintenance costs and the hassle of consistently addressing aging or damaged sections are factors to consider. Moreover, some chemicals used in wood staining can pose risks to human health, making professional handling a safer choice. In comparison, sealants are generally less harmful, but they require regular recoating, which may prove costly in the long run, especially in high-humidity areas.

Understand Grades and Moisture Levels in Deck Lumber

The world of lumber presents a multitude of grades, each indicating the presence of knots, overall appearance, and strength. When it comes to structural components, opting for No. 2 grade or standard-graded lumber is a wise choice. However, for decking and railings, there are grades available that are entirely knot-free, although they tend to be more expensive. Go for the highest grade that comfortably fits your budget.

You can assess the quality of lumber and its moisture content by checking the grade stamp on the wood. When it comes to framing, air-dried lumber is typically sufficient. For decking and rails, look for S-dry or MC-15 lumber.

It’s important to note that grade stamps can vary from one wood species to another, and they differ from dimension stamps. Pressure-treated lumber will have its own stamp, specifying the treatment chemical, treatment depth, and additional information. Pay close attention to both the grade and the moisture content of untreated lumber.

For instance, B-grade redwood boasts minimal knots and consists entirely of heartwood, which is highly desirable but tends to be costly for decking. On the other hand, construction heart lumber includes knots but lacks sapwood, while construction common features larger knots and some sapwood.

If you intend to maintain the boards’ brown hue, make plans to apply stain every year or two. Alternatively, you can let them naturally weather to a different shade over time.

Consider Weather Conditions and Your Wood Deck

In addition to your deck’s intended use, it’s crucial to factor in the climate of your area when selecting the right material. If you reside in a region prone to snowfall, high humidity, or salt-laden air, opting for a more resilient decking material is wise.

Choose How Your Wood Deck Ages

Lastly, when deciding on your wood decking material, think about whether you want it to maintain a fresh appearance indefinitely or allow it to gracefully weather into a silvery gray patina. Weathered wood possesses a unique beauty, but certain wood types demand more upkeep once they’ve aged to gray, particularly softwoods.

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