Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Building a Deck

by Becky BlantonJanuary 31, 2018

There may be a foot or more of snow on the ground, but why not start now to design and plan for the deck you’ll want to build come spring?

Building a deck is one of the top ten easy do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong if this is your first deck. If you’ve never designed or built a deck, take time during this winter season to learn how to build one right. DIY-ers can save up to half of the cost of a professionally installed deck by building it themselves, but only if they do it right the first time.
Carpenter building wooden deck.

Decisions you’ll need to make before designing your deck

  • Wood or composite? While many homeowners love the romance and appeal of an all wood deck, many more love the low maintenance, durability, and ease of composite decks. Choosing a ground level deck where the deck is closer to the ground can lead to dampness as well as leaf and debris buildup. Composite versus wood is a truly critical decision. Expect to have to decide among pressure-treated wood, cedar, hardwood, redwood, tropical hardwood, composites or pre-finished aluminum (popular along waterfront properties).
  • Freestanding/floating or attached? Many homeowners prefer a freestanding deck (one that is not attached to their house). These are also called a “floating deck,” or “ground level” deck. Not only are floating decks not subject to many building codes, they can also be mounted to concrete piers rather than on posts sunk into the ground below frost levels as is required by decks attached to a house. Floating decks are often popular for outdoor features like hot-tubs, pools, wading ponds, fire-pits and gardens.
  • Size and safety. When designing a deck of any size, consider what you plan to use it for, how large it will be, the maximum weight you want it to hold (people, hot tubs, plants, furniture, etc.), and what kind of footings, beams, hangers, ledgers, stairs, railings, and material you’ll be using.
  • DIY versus professionals. There’s no doubt a team of professional builders and a good contractor can install your deck in a matter of days, and guarantee its safety, durability, and adherence to codes. But for the avid, motivated, and dedicated DIYer, a deck is a project that can become a lasting source of pride and accomplishment. It’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of DIY versus professionals. Cost is one thing, safety is another.
  • Deck plans. There are hundreds of free deck designs online. They’ve done the hard work for you – including figuring out the materials or “cut list.” They’ll usually list a per foot cost analysis, or have a calculator you can use to determine the cost of your deck based on square footage.
  • Building codes. The primary reason most decks fail is they don’t meet building codes. Building codes are a set of rules, standards, and procedures that specify the standards of materials and design for constructed objects such as buildings, and non-building objects, i.e., plumbing, and electrical. Building codes regulate the design and construction of structures to protect the public interest and health. Get a building permit before you begin the work to ensure your structure meets code. A building inspection can prevent most DIY deck building mistakes.
  • Easements, setbacks, and variances. Depending on where you live and plan to build, you may need to pay attention to things like setbacks, easements, and variances connected with your project. Since every deck is specific to your area and codes, contact your local city or county building department and talk to officials there about any covenants that might affect the style, location or material and size restrictions for the deck you have in mind.

A craftsman measures lumber with a ruler.

According to Fine Home Building, here are some tips to avoid deck disaster:

  • Don’t try to save money by skimping on materials. Cheaper materials often result in deck failures.
  • Don’t use unsealed wood. It deteriorates much faster than pressure treated wood.
  • Joist hangers are a critical part of all deck building. Use them. Nails and even screws are not strong enough to up the cross members, and those boards can give way without hangers.
  • Use correct footings, flashings, and materials. Don’t try to “make do” with what’s at hand.
  • Avoid bolting deck beams directly to the sides of any support posts for any reason. Use a support post at all beam splices and where a professional design designates a post is needed. Fewer posts result in greater loads at beam connections. Even if your bolts don’t shear from the weight, wood can shred, resulting in deck failure. Use a galvanized-steel post cap, and keep the beam firmly seated atop its support post.

An aerial view of a man painting the exterior of a deck.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Use torx or square head, hot-dipped, zinc stainless steel or silicon bronze screws, if using pressure treated wood. Not only do screws not work loose like nails, they help keep the wood from warping. Use decking screws, like those made by Scorpion or Grabber. Scorpion is known for its proprietary draw tight shank. This feature pulls lumber together tightly, giving you a tougher, longer-lasting deck.
  • Follow the span limits of specific products as outlined in the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Failure to follow span results can result in deck failure.
  • Learn the correct way to install a ledger. How a ledger attaches to a house is one of the most critical elements in deck construction, and many builders get it wrong.

A nicely finished wooden deck of a family home.

There are many excellent and free online articles and resources from decking, fastener, and construction professionals about what and what not to do when building a deck. Read them before you start designing and building your deck so your deck will pass a code inspection. If you build a deck without an inspection, as many do, you run the risk of a catastrophic deck failure.

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About The Author
Becky Blanton
Becky Blanton is a full-time ghostwriter and writing coach for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and business speakers. In 2009 she spoke at TED Global at Oxford University, her first ever public speaking gig. When she's not writing, she's kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Her dream home is to live aboard a sailing or houseboat.