How to Install Composite Decking Even If You’re Not Handy

One long weekend (or two), one much, much better outdoor space.

by Sal Vaglica
A beautiful deck, off of a modern home, with lounge chairs, a fire pit, and composite decking
Home Depot

A wood deck requires plenty of care to look its best. Skip a few seasons of washing, then top coating with a sealer or stain, and you’ll be rewarded with splintery boards, some grungy algae, and maybe even a little wood rot. It’s not exactly something you want to stride across with bare feet or have kids playing on. But, if you have a wood deck that’s looking a little past its prime, you — yes, you — can revive it by replacing the boards with composite decking that’s far easier to maintain.

Installing composite deck boards is a bold step, but it will save you time and money: There will be no annual staining and power washing — for 20 or so years, which is about how long composite decking lasts. And you can forget about splinters. In fact, you might not need more than a hose, maybe some spot cleaning with a soapy brush, to get it looking as good in year 10 as it did when you installed it.

“But don’t I have to call a deck guy to replace the boards?” you might be asking. Nope. If you’ve tackled some DIY projects around the house, like installing a pre-hung door, molding, or maybe some Ikea cabinets, and can gather a handful of power tools, you can reface your deck. Add some basic carpentry skills, and you (and a buddy or partner) can make short work of it. Depending on the size, it might take you a long weekend (or two) — time that you’ll get that time back in the form of low maintenance.

How to Know It’s Safe to Rip Apart Your Deck

The most important parts of a deck are the elements you don’t immediately notice, like the joists underneath and the posts that carry all the weight. Do some checking from the underside of the deck with a flashlight, and if the structure looks good (you don’t see any rot, and nothing is cracked or pulling away from the house), then upgrading dingy wood boards with composite ones is easier than you think. If you’re on the fence about it, have a contractor who works on decks take a look. Keep in mind you can work on the project over a few nights or weekends and it can take a few weeks for the new decking to arrive, which depending on the brand and color might be a special order. If you’re replacing the deck boards, you’ll want to also upgrade the balusters and handrails around the deck with synthetic material, too. Leaving wood railings with new deck boards will look odd. Luckily, each deck board manufacture makes a railing kit that’s easy to install, even along the staircase.

Why Composite Decking

Synthetic deck boards will never splinter, rot, or require sealing or staining. In short, they cost much more than a basic pressure-treated pine deck, but are easier to live with and save you hours of maintenance every summer. You’ll hear these deck boards referred to as composite, or often by the generic term Trex (of the first brands to offer this style of decking), but there are two main styles of man-made decking: Composites and PVC. Here we get into the benefits of both.

What You’ll Need

Modern composites and PVC can be heavier than pressure-treated pine, and muscling 12- or 16-foot lengths might require help, but installing composite decking is a doable job. You’ll need a few tools, but nothing specialized since the saws and drill bits that cut wood will also work here.

Most modern decks are installed with a hidden fastener system so you won’t see any screws through the face of the board. These fastening clips cost more than screws alone, but they automatically space the boards properly for you and you can remove the clip if you have to take up a board. Typically, the manufacturer of the deck board also makes a hidden fastener system. All you need is a drill/driver to install them — nothing fancy.

Regardless of the makeup of the board, you’ll need to know how much to order to gauge an accurate quote, which can be tricky. Decking is sold per lineal (or linear — they’re the same thing) foot. But you’re covering an area, not a plank on a pirate ship, so square footage helps you understand how much material you need. If you’re like most people, working with 6-inch-wide deck boards, you can calculate lineal foot by multiplying your existing deck’s square footage by 2.2. So, if your deck is 200 square feet, multiplied by 2.2, you’d be looking at roughly 440 lineal feet of material that you need to order. This equation takes into account a 6-inch wide deck board plus a 3/8-inch gap between the boards so water can drain through.

Once the new boards are on site, you can use the existing ones as a template. Pull up one board, use it as a template for the new one, then trim it to length and screw it down. Rip one up, put a new one down — working across the deck. This also means you’ll always be working on a safe platform with very little risk of stepping off or through the deck. The railing systems for synthetic systems are also easier to work with than real wood and designed for DIYers.

The Best Composite Decking

Composite decking is made from wood fiber mixed with recycled polyethylene (milk jugs). Because wood absorbs moisture and can stain, some of the better composites are “capped” with a plastic surface that’s similar to PVC. You’ll want to look for the term “capped” or “shell” in the marketing lingo. Composites are handsome, low-maintenance, and they come in a range of colors and textures. Typically, the more the board replicates the variegated colors and graining of tropical hardwood, the higher the cost. Those that are textured do a surprisingly good job of replicating real wood. And while the colors have come a long way from the first-generation composites, no one is going to be fooled into thinking it’s a real wood deck once they’re standing on it. Composites are closer to a real wood look today, but the single color versions look more like a pine deck coated with a stain for a uniform color.

The Best PVC Decking

The newest kid on the block is a solid PVC deck board — like the white drain pipes in your house, but thicker. These boards are about as close to true maintenance-free as decking can get because, unlike composites, there’s no natural material inside for mold to cling to (though algae can still cling to pollen that falls on the surface of the deck). These are covered with a very hard and durable layer, but the tradeoff is a limited color pallet of mostly neutral tones. Variegated colors tend to be even more expensive, but these don’t really look all that much like real wood. You might not care, though, since you can clean them with a leaf-blower or a hose.

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