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Composite or Natural: Which is the Best Material for Your Deck?

If you’re putting in a new outdoor deck, there are a few important decisions you’ll have to make. One is which professional deck builder you’re going to work with—this obviously has a big impact on how your deck will turn out. Another important decision is the overall design and layout of your deck, and which amenities you’ll go for. A third key factor is which material you’ll use.

This last decision is something that leaves a lot of homeowners scratching their heads. Aren’t the materials used to build outdoor decks pretty much the same, all things considered?

The answer: Not really. When you’re in the process of planning for your new deck, there are two main types of material you’ll have to choose from: Composite or wood. If you choose wood, you’ll then have to decide whether to use pressure treated wood or not.

Spacious villa patio with garden swing

For now, let’s focus on the choice between composite and wood. Here are some important questions to keep in mind while making this decision:

  • What’s my budget right now?
  • What’s the best and cheapest solution in the long-term?
  • Is one material or another better suited to my home and tastes?

Wood

Who can argue with the look and feel of real wood? In the case of outdoor decks, it’s also typically the more budget-friendly solution—at least up front. If you with a wood deck, be prepared to hear the following from your deck installation specialist:

You’ll need to stain and treat your deck every two years or so.

Around the five year mark, the wood should be stripped of all treatment and sanded down before applying a new treatment.

To some owners, these maintenance requirements are entirely manageable. Others would prefer a more worry-free solution.

Another important note about wood: There are many varieties that can be used for your outdoor deck. Cedar is very popular on the lower end of the cost scale. Redwood is also popular, but costs more. These woods do contain natural oils that preserve them against the elements, and against hungry insects.

In terms of variety, there are many types of natural wood to choose from. The most common softwood is cedar. Redwood (another softwood) is also popular. Both contain oils and tannins that make them naturally resistant to rotting, insects, and decay. Hardwoods such as Ipe and Jutoba are also commonly used, and are even better suited to withstand the elements. Hardwoods are, however, more expensive.

Composite

Most of the problems associated with natural woods—decay, maintenance, weathering—have been addressed with the invention of strong composite materials. Made from different blends of plastic, natural fibers, vinyl and other recycled materials, composites can last years without any change in appearance. The overall maintenance requirements and financial costs are lower once the deck is installed—but the installation itself will cost more, simply because composite materials are more expensive to make.

A good composite deck might run between $30 and $50 per square foot, compared to the lower cost (as little as $25) for a natural softwood. To get an estimate that’s specific to your project, you’ll need to consult a qualified pro in your area.

As for the drawbacks, composite doesn’t have many—except that the surface of the deck can get very hot if you live in a warm climate. People who live in tropical areas, where the weather is warm all throughout the year, are often advised to choose a natural wood surface for their deck, in order to keep it cooler throughout the year.

What’s the best choice for you?

The answer really depends on where you live, how much you want to spend up front, and what kind of maintenance requirements you’re looking for in the long term. Both natural wood and composite materials have strong advantages and can be installed with excellent results—provided you work with an experienced and reputable contractor!