Five strategies for DIY deck-building

As the snow melts, our thoughts turn to decks, docks and patios. In anticipation of the upcoming CHW Deck Issue (April), here are some tips and techniques from CHW technical editor Steve Maxwell.

By Steve Maxwell

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3. Safe & Solid Railing Design

The most powerful railing design advantage begins with your deck’s support posts, the ones that rest on the concrete piers. Instead of cutting them off at deck-floor level, extend the posts high enough to form the main uprights of your railing whenever you can. This takes a little more planning up front, but the result is a super-solid railing that never loosens.

The best design for your project depends on how high the deck floor is above surrounding soil. If it’s low to the ground, then building codes typically don’t require railings to meet safety parameters. (Double-check with your building inspector to determine what’s right where you live.) In cases like these, the best railing designs include routed pockets in vertical railing posts that hold horizontal railing members. These look good, they don’t interfere with snow removal and they’re very easy to paint or stain.

If your deck is going to be high enough to require a railing for safety reasons, then consult your building inspector for the proper spacing and height required to stay out of trouble. You may also find that a removable railing design is worth thinking about. The ability to take sections of railing down for refinishing and repair is a valuable advantage.

4. Non-Laminated Support Beams

No matter how good a deck looks when new, the real test is how it stands up structurally over the next two or three or four decades. And even if you choose rot-resistant materials such as cedar or pressure-treated lumber, that’s not enough to guarantee long life. Under conditions often found in conventional decks, rot can overtake key structural areas in 20 years or less. And this is especially unfortunate since it’s so easy to postpone rot with diligent design. This makes at least as much difference as the type of wood you choose.

You need an arrangement of deck parts that minimizes large wood-to-wood contact areas between pieces of lumber. And the biggest rot zone of this kind is the ubiquitous laminated beam. It’s certainly easier to spike together three or four 2x8s or 2x10s to get the support beams you need, but one-piece beams are better because water can’t seep in between the layers. This is key.

Pressure-treated 6x6s or 8x8s are your best bet for deck beams. They’re widely available, and the advantage goes beyond just rot resistance. If you need bigger beams, pressure-treated 6x12s and 8x12s are available as special-order items. Regardless of the shape, large timbers such as these also allow you to create the kind of decorative details on beam ends and edges that can vault your work beyond the ordinary. At a minimum, trim the ends at a 45º angle. For the investment of a few more minutes of work with a router, chamfered edges make any deck beam look terrific. Even if you only see the ends peeking out from under the deck, the results are worth it.

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