Wood vs. Composite Decking

If it’s time to update your client’s deck, or build a new one, then a conversation about wood versus composite decking is almost inevitable. With the right design and construction, both of these materials will result in a great looking deck, but the best decking material will depend on the project budget, maintenance requirements and client lifestyle.

The Basics of Wood Decking

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As a leading lumberyard in Iowa, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois, Spahn & Rose has a wide variety of wood decking products. But not all wood is created equal. Many people choose wood for its relative affordability or because of its naturally warm look and feel, but as a contractor, be sure your clients look at all the options before making a decision.

The most commonly chosen wood for deck construction is treated lumber, also called pressure-treated or PT wood. PT wood is soaked in insecticides and fungicides to protect it from rot and infestation. It’s brown-green after treatment but can be stained or painted any color.

An alternative to PT wood is a more natural, untreated product such as cedar or redwood. These are stronger than the lumber used to make PT wood and tend to last longer. At the very top end of wood decking options is imported wood such as mahogany or ipe. All of these materials have their own color palette, which may give your project a unique look.

Wood Decking Pros and Cons

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The biggest challenge with wood decking is weathering and mold growth. Your client will need to clean it at least once a year and restain or refinish every two to three years. As wood ages, it dries out and can splinter and crack, which may require additional sanding or even replacement of individual boards to keep homeowners safe.

Wood is almost always cheaper to install than composite decking, which makes it an attractive choice for budget-conscious homeowners or for use in rental properties. But the annual maintenance adds up when combined with the cost of stain and any additional lumber needed to keep the deck looking nice.

One way to offset the costs of wood decking maintenance and replacement is to choose a higher-end wood. Cedar and redwood are more expensive than PT wood but will resist warping, cracking and splintering better over the long term. Mahogany and ipe are even more expensive but also even longer lasting, if your client can manage the purchase price.

While wooden decking needs regular maintenance, it can last for 10 to 15 years. Depending on how long the owners plan to live in their home, it might be a good choice.

If you’re considering building a deck on a first home in which the inhabitants don’t plan to live more than five years, for example, a wooden deck may become more affordable since the owners don’t have to factor in rebuilding and replacement costs.

And wood decking may appear to be a more natural choice than a plastic-based composite product, but most wooden deck materials have been chemically treated to withstand water damage, weathering and insect infestation. Of course, it is possible to buy chemical-free lumber, this will be more expensive and require even more maintenance.

The Basics of Composite Decking

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Spahn & Rose offers a variety of composite decking products and has been a Trex dealer and a Fiberon dealer for over a decade, and modern offerings have come a long way from their predecessors.

Composite decking, as the name implies, is composed of a variety of materials, particularly scrap wood, sawdust and recycled plastic, typically polypropylene. A manufactured product, composite decking is designed to look like real wood but maintains enough of its plastic properties to be more durable and long-lasting. While it can’t be painted, it can be made in almost any color.

Composite Decking Pros and Cons

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Composite decking was once billed as “no-maintenance,” but current suppliers typically sell it as “low-maintenance.” Certainly, in comparison to wood decking, you won’t need to sand, repaint or refinish your composite decking during its lifespan.

It’s not completely maintenance-free, though. Composite decking is essentially waterproof and weatherproof, but it can be prone to mold growth. Both Fiberon and Trex recommend cleaning it twice a year with specialized composite decking soap, water and a soft-bristled brush.

And while composite decking has fewer maintenance costs, its upfront purchase price can be significantly more than that of wood decking, particularly PT wood. Composite decking can cost as much as double the wood decking, and this may be a deterrent to many buyers.

However, one of the biggest selling features of composite decking is its durability and lifespan. Some suppliers give an average replacement time of 25 years. If the owners plan to live in their home for a long time, the amortized cost of building with Trex or Fiberon may make it more cost effective over time.

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The one downside to composite decking: Many composite products can’t be painted. If a client is happy to leave the deck the same for decades, this is beneficial. But if a client wants to change the color, perhaps as part of a larger exterior renovation, the composite decking may need to be completely replaced to match.

Although composite decking may not seem to be an eco-friendly product, the manufacturing process is actually quite green. Because composite decking is made from sawdust and recycled plastic, it can reduce the amount of this scrap material sent to landfill or incineration by hundreds of thousands of tons a year.

The modern composite manufacturing process is also more sophisticated than it was in past decades. Depending on the finish, the completed product can look like real wood grain, complete with subtle color variations across each board.

Composite decking is also potentially safer than wood. Because it does not dry out and splinter like wood, older materials remain safe to walk on, even in bare feet. And while owners of older versions of composite decking complained that it was slippery, modern composites are texturized to help prevent slips, even when the material is wet.

Which Is the Best Decking Material?

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Which is the best decking material? While in the past, the plastic look and feel of composite decking made it less desirable for homeowners and builders, modern products are nearly identical to real wood. And composite decking’s durability and longevity are tough to argue with.

Many considerations will come down to cost. While composite is still more expensive than PT wood at the outset, the average cost over its lifetime goes down significantly when customers factor in maintenance. If they’re considering a more expensive hardwood product, composite decking becomes increasingly more affordable.

Spahn & Rose is pleased to offer a variety of composite decking materials from two great suppliers: Trex and Fiberon. Installing composite decking is not as simple as wooden decking, and both of these suppliers have great installation resources on their websites. Spahn & Rose representatives, who have decades of experience, are also ready to discuss the installation process with you.

If you’re ready to get started, why not try out the Trex Deck Designer (if you’re on a Windows PC) or Fiberon’s Product Visualizer? Then, let Spahn & Rose bring your next project to life.