Deck material is a topic that gets debated heavily. Your friend, your local contractor, the coworker who thinks he knows everything, composite decking companies, lumber companies – everyone has a different opinion. So who should you trust?
Us of course! In all seriousness, we don’t care what you pick. We just want you to be happy with what you pick. Because the only thing we want is for you to enjoy your yard and enjoy being outdoors.
So we’re going to tell you the pros and cons about each material – paying special attention to things that don’t seem so obvious at the store – to give you a greater understanding of what you’re getting yourself into. As long as your choice best aligns with what you value, you’re going to be happy with your decision.
Factors Affecting Your Decision
We’re going to look at the many factors that may influence your decision to go with wood or composite decking. Some of them may influence your decision greatly, while others may seem less important.
Staining (Advantage: Composite)
Let’s start by talking about staining because it’s arguably the most important factor for many people. Composite decking appeals to many homeowners because they don’t need to stain it to keep it looking like new. Over the years, the color may fade to a lighter shade because of the sun, but that’s about it.
A wood deck, on the other hand, needs stain if you want to maintain the look and provide added protection from the elements. You can definitely choose not to stain your wood deck and let it weather into a silvery gray that some people find attractive. But staining extends the life of your deck by preventing water damage and whatnot.
If you’re not too keen on staining a wood deck every 2 to 4 years, you may choose composite decking for this reason alone. But if you don’t mind spending a couple of hours every few years to re-stain your deck, then don’t cross out a wood deck just yet.
Cost (Advantage: Wood)
We can’t compare the two without speaking about another big factor: cost. There are basically two big costs that you should be concerned with: upfront cost and maintenance cost. In short, when you factor in both these costs, you’re generally going to save more money by going with a wood deck.
We can do some quick calculations to give you a ballpark idea. Prices will vary by region, but the price of a basic pressure-treated wood deck is generally around $12 to $15 per square foot. Let’s go with $15 to avoid under-budgeting. So the cost of a 500-square-foot deck – which should be plenty big for most people – would be $7,500.
As far as staining goes, let’s go with a frequency of every 2 years. At the time of this writing, a 5-gallon can of quality wood stain costs about $150. So over 20 years (most decks have a service life of more than 20 years with proper care), you’ll pay $1,500 for stain. That brings our total to $9,000 for a pressure-treated wood deck.
Composite decking costs $35 or more per square foot. So it will cost at least $17,500 for a composite deck of the same size. Since you don’t have to stain composite decking, the staining costs are $0. In total, you’ll save at least $8,500 by going with a pressure-treated wood deck, which is almost the price of a brand-new installation.
We should mention that there are pricier wood options like cedar, redwood, mahogany, and ipe. Some people like the smell and look of cedar and redwood, and those will cost around $20 to $25 per square foot. Dense, exotic hardwoods like ipe are as expensive as composite decking, but they will last longer than anything, even without stain. Ipe is used for public boardwalks exactly for that reason.
We briefly talked about longevity in the last section so let’s continue here. Whether wood or composite, most decks will last over 20 years. With prompt and proper care, you won’t have any major issues with either material. So we think this is a tie. That said, select wood species like ipe have a high tolerance for neglect. Even without stain, an ipe deck can easily last 50 years or more.
Cleaning (Advantage: Wood)
Both wood and composite decks need to be cleaned regularly. Some simple soap and water or deck cleaner is usually all you need to clean a wood deck. But a composite deck requires a number of different cleaning products to tackle different stains.
For instance, besides soap and water or deck cleaner for regular dirt and debris, you may need to use a degreaser for barbecue stains, a composite deck mildew remover for mold and mildew, and vinegar to remove calcium deposits from water. Tough stains, unfortunately, may remain noticeable on your composite deck for a long time and there’s little you can do about it. You can’t use harsh cleaning products because that may permanently change the appearance of your deck.
Also, you can use a pressure washer to clean your wood deck and not have to worry about accidentally voiding any warranty. Composite decking requires you to be more careful when cleaning and is less forgiving with damages. So all things considered, we think it’s easier to clean wood than composite decking.
Repairs (Advantage: Wood)
Let’s say your pressure washer damages your deck. Or something heavy drops and puts a healthy dent on your deck. That’s OK, stuff happens. If your deck gets damaged, you can easily and affordably replace a damaged wood board, but not a composite board.
That’s because composite decking products get discontinued and color varies from batch to batch. You may end up having to replace the whole deck to get everything to match. With a wood deck, you can simply pick up a new board from your local home center and stain it with your go-to stain.
Needless to say, beauty is highly subjective. Some people like the natural look of wood, and other people like the modern look of composite. So we can’t really compare looks for you.
What we can say is that composite offers more flexibility because of the way it’s made. Those tiny pieces of wood fiber and recycled plastic can me molded into any shape. Composite is great for curved deck designs. But if you want to make curves with wood, you have to cut and place them into shape.
Familiarity (Advantage: Wood)
You know what you’re getting with wood. But there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding composite decking, which was only first introduced in the late 1990s. Which brands are reliable? Which products will last? Have all the major problems with this new technology been worked out? What kind of problems may come up later?
Going with composite decking can be like taking a leap of faith. A wood deck would be the better option if peace of mind is what you’re after.
How user-friendly is each material? Well, with composite decking, it can get unbearably hot under direct sunlight in the summer. We’re talking 130°F or higher. Darker colors get warmer than lighter colors. This could be a concern for you if your deck is exposed to direct sunlight most of the day and you have pets, children, or want to walk barefoot on your deck. In comparison, wood is a lot cooler.
However, wood decks are known for producing splinters. You have to keep an eye out for them – especially along handrails – and sand down your deck to keep them at bay. A good time to do this would be right before you re-stain your deck.
So which one’s more of a concern? A hot deck? Or splinters?
Humidity (Advantage: Composite)
Moisture and wood don’t go well together. When wood absorbs water, it expands. When wood dries, it contracts. This constant cycle of expansion and contraction eventually causes wood to warp and crack.
You can minimize this problem by sealing or staining your deck and choosing dense wood species that absorb very little water, but generally speaking, engineered materials like composite don’t absorb as much water and move at 1/10th the rate of wood. So if you live in an area with high humidity, composite decking provides greater stability.
You’re Ready to Make a Choice
The only person who can make the right decision for you is you. Not your friend, not your local contractor, not your coworker, not a composite decking company, and not a lumber company.
Think about what you value most – is it affordability, the look of wood, the look of composite, the lack of staining required, etc. – and make your decision based on that.
Have Fun Out There!