Hardscaping 101: Decking Choices
When selecting decking material, there are several options to choose from, all with different pros and cons, including price, durability, maintenance, and sustainability (visit the Forest Stewardship Council website to learn more). Here are the most commonly used woods and composites.
Pressure-treated lumber, generally pine, is one of the most common decking materials. It is resistant to termites, rot, and fungal decay and is often the least expensive option.
What is pressure treating? As the name implies, pressure-treated lumber is treated with chemicals under pressure (the force drives the preservative into the wood cells). In almost all use cases, there aren’t any health concerns with pressure-treated wood, but it shouldn’t be cut or burned. Manufacturers caution against its use in gardens because of the increased chance that it will come into contact with water and food.
To protect the wood from fading, checking, splintering, or turning soft and porous, you have to stain it and apply penetrating sealers annually. If you don’t take proper care, the wood retains blemishes and stains from falling debris and leaves.
Redwood is one of the most expensive decking materials, but it receives top marks for sustainability and beauty. If you’re installing a redwood deck in California, the wood likely hasn’t traveled far to get to you as nearly all redwood is harvested in CA redwood forests, meaning a lesser carbon footprint.
High-grade redwood is naturally resistant to insects and doesn’t rot, but it does require regular sealing to maintain its beauty.
Cedar is an excellent choice because it is well-priced (low- to mid-range) and is environmentally friendly, but it does have some notable downsides.
Cedar has a net negative greenhouse gas effect, is renewable, and biodegradable. It’s produced in sustainably managed forests, so it doesn’t degrade our natural forests. Cedar is also rot-resistant because the sap in the wood impedes most moisture absorption.
The big downside to cedar is that it isn’t as durable as other decking choices. Under ideal conditions, it can last 15-20 years (pressure-treated wood can last up to 40 years) and is easily scratched, dented, and stained. Cedar requires regular sealing.
Hardwoods include ipe, camura, and tigerwood. Ipe (pictured here) is the most common hardwood (example) because of its rich brown color and its unparalleled smoothness. Hardwood tends to be the most expensive wood option, and because it’s grown internationally, it has a significant carbon footprint. When buying hardwood, it is essential to make sure that it is sustainably farmed and FSC-certified.
Composite decking has the highest up-front cost of any of the materials discussed here, although the lifetime cost is comparable to wood when you take into consideration the durability (it lasts forever) and reduced maintenance (no sealing—scrub it!).
Composites are often made of recycled materials, like waste wood and recycled plastic, making composite a good choice for sustainability-minded customers, although there are questions about whether composite decking can be recycled.
Even though composite mimics wood, it doesn’t have the same beauty or feel. One of the most significant downsides is that composite can get incredibly hot.