All decks succeed or fail for the same reasons—the quality or grade of the decking material and the maintenance of that material. High-end deck materials are dimensionally stable, resistant to shrinkage, and often inherently insect-repellant. Costs for these materials vary across the United States, so check first on the availability of the product, whether extra shipping costs are required, and what long-term maintenance costs will be involved. Compare these figures to the costs of replacing a typical deck in ten years time and you’re likely to find that quality decking is worth the investment. Whatever your choice, a high-quality deck should be enjoyable for decades to come.

High-end decking lumber is graded for appearance as well as strength, so when selecting quality woods such as cedar, redwood, mahogany, or ipe, first look at the grade of the lumber. Heartwood, the tight-grained, slow-growth part of the tree, is rot-resistant and can last as long as three decades. Faster-growing, light-colored sapwood has less natural rot resistance and durability. Dense woods are more difficult to cut and frequently require predrilling, but the denser the wood, the better it will stand up to foot traffic and weather. Granted, all wood deck surfaces should be treated every two years with a synthetic sealant that is water repellant. These sealants contain UV-blockers, mildewcides, and algaecides to promote graceful aging of the wood.

Cedar decking. Photo courtesy of The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association

Cedar, a member of the cypress family, is richly colored with heartwood can last anywhere from 9 to 30 years. The top recommended grades of cedar decking are Architect Clear or Custom Clear deck grade. Western red cedar weathers rapidly to a beautiful deep glow. Port Orford cedar is a lighter in color than red cedar or redwood, allows more options for staining, and is rated for 20 years of wear. Predrilling is not usually required for cedar, but is recommended near the ends to prevent splitting. Deck fasteners may react to the tannic acid in the wood, so stainless steel fasteners are your best bet. Cedar, like redwood, is also a good insulator, making it a good choice for decks located above living space.


Redwood decking. Photo courtesy of The California Redwood Association

Redwood has a deep reddish brown color that deepens with age. It is fairly tight-grained and knot-free, lightweight yet strong. Redwood resists splintering and is less damaged by weathering than other woods with heartwood that can last over 30 years. In the South, where deck climates are harsher, sapwood lasts about 15 years while the heartwood lasts for over 20. Select Heart and Construction Heart are the optimal grades for redwood decking. The other four other grades, Select Structural, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, allow sapwood and should only be used if pressure-treated before installation. Like cedar, predrilling is not required but should be done near board ends to prevent splitting.

Ipe is a South American wood that is also called ironwood, and by the trade name Pau Lope. Ipe is very durable and resists cupping, splintering and twisting. It is very strong and heavy, is low-maintenance, and will not shrink. It is extremely difficult to cut, however, so you can expect labor costs for installation to be very high. Ipe only requires sealant on the ends, but homeowners may choose to seal the wood and maintain its natural color or allow it to weather to a silver-gray while remaining smooth and splinter-free. Ipe is extremely dense and should last over 25 years.

Mahogany decking.

There are many different species and sub-species of mahogany. Colors can range from white and yellow to light and dark red. Meranti, a Philippine mahogany, comes in all colors and even has a dark red variety that looks like teak.
Each Meranti color variety has its own faults and a wide range of decay resistance. It must be maintained with water repellant to protect it and keep its dimensional stability. Meranti is not as durable or dimensionally stable as real American mahogany, which comes from the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America. American mahogany has a beautiful, dark red appearance that will last for decades. When buying mahogany, research the wood and be sure to ask for the species name of the wood you are buying.

Composite Decking

Composite decking. Photo courtesy of TimberTech

Known by a number of brand names, most notably Trex and TimberTech, this durable blend of wood fibers and plastic weathers without disintegrating, maintains its shape, does not shrink or expand, and will last the lifetime of the residence. These plastic-wood composite products compare favorably with traditional pressure-treated wood decking and typically come paintable or stainable in brown and gray. Composite decking weathers, like wood, but will age to an even tone without deteriorating. It is dimensionally consistent, won’t splinter, has no knotholes, is completely rot-resistant, and requires no annual sealing. Composite decking lacks the strength of wood, however, and won’t span the same distances as wood. With appropriate structural support, composite decking is well suited to first floor and above-ground decks. Plastic structural beams are not readily available in all markets and tend to make the deck bouncy, so pressure-treated wood is most commonly used to support this type of decking.

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac