Your latest ultimate guide to composite decking

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Is this the end for timber decking?

Timber decking has been the choice for porches and outside recreation areas for many years and remains the most popular amongst DIY enthusiasts because of its ease of use and familiarity with the material. But recent innovations in plastics has meant that more and more composite materials are being used now, driven mostly by the reduction in maintenance and overall durability. So what choices are available?

In this article, we look at the low maintenance alternatives to timber decking so that you can choose the right one for your project?

What is wood/plastic composite board?

 These boards are made from a mix of materials, which usually includes wood particles or sawdust, and a polypropylene or polyethene plastic. In some cases, recycled plastic is used, making them much more appealing to the environmentalists. The wood and plastic mix is either extruded or pressed, depending on the manufacturer, into long planks with a wood-grain finish and integrated colouring to replicate traditional timber decking.

Plastic composite decking can be hollow or solid. On the surface, they may look the same, but the hollow boards are lighter and therefore easier to handle. However, the solid boards are stronger and more durable over time.

The boards come capped or uncapped. Capped boards have a plastic coating making them more durable and resistant to colour fade. The cheaper, uncapped boards are still hard-wearing and durable but are prone to attack by UV rays that could see them fade after only a few months.

Where can It be used?

You can use these boards anywhere that traditional timber decking would be used. Composite boards are versatile and can be cut or mitred in much the same way as timber, but if you are using hollow boards, you will need to incorporate end caps to cover the exposed edge.

Fixing methods vary with the system chosen. Although composite boards can be drilled and screwed, some decking systems come with their proprietary hidden fixing. The boards are usually fixed to a timber subframe, which is set out and levelled beforehand in the same way as timber decking.

What other materials are available?

Western Red Cedar wood is very durable, despite being a softwood. It is often used as decking material, and because of its natural oil content, it does not rot and is resistant to insect attack. It does not need to be pressure treated or stained, so it is virtually maintenance-free. However, it does wear down underfoot over the years so although you should get 20 to 25 years out of it, in reality, that is more likely to be 15 years in heavily-trafficked areas.

PVC decking is entirely synthetic. Made from polyvinyl chloride, it resists rot and insect attack like composite materials, but it is less stable than composite decking in extreme temperatures and can lead to your decking warping in the heat or cracking in the cold. In more moderate climates, though, this should not be a problem.

How is Green Your Decking?

 If you are looking to maximise your Green Footprint, there are a number of things you need to consider.

  • The use of timber is not necessarily good for the environment. Most timber decking will have to be treated in the factory with a mixture of chemicals, the most common of which in the UK is Tanalith E (hence the term Tanalising). The chemicals are either forced into the timber under pressure or soaked into the wood in a large vat. Either way, there are environmental considerations in the disposal of the waste and eventual disposal of the treated wood.
  • Check that any wood (including substructure) comes from sustainably managed forests. Ask the supplier—it should be labelled as such if it is.
  • Even pre-treated wood will need to be stained or painted, so go for low VOC water-based products. Do not forget; this will have to be reapplied many times over the life of the decking. Bear in mind that some treatments may be hazardous to pets and wildlife.
  • With plastic composite decking, is the plastic content recycled or has virgin plastic been used?
  • Although composites cannot be recycled themselves, the boarding can be re-purposed to make planters, seating, and other garden furniture.

Pros and Cons

Plastic decking is more durable and virtually maintenance-free, and most manufacturers offer a 25-year warranty. All it needs is a good sweeping occasionally. Any spillage can be readily removed using soapy water, but this must be done straight away to avoid staining, particularly with the uncapped variety. On the downside, the plastic surface is prone to damage due to gouging or scratching, and unlike timber, this cannot be filled, sanded and stained to match the surrounding area. Also, despite claims by manufacturers, darker colours will fade in time, particularly in areas of heavy foot traffic.

Timber decking is more cost-effective (probably half the price), and you can stain it any colour you want, so if an area is damaged or needs replacing, you can stain the whole area to blend in. Even though composites may look like timber, they do not have that natural look of wood. However, you will need to reapply the stain every year or two depending on the state of the decking even though some stain manufacturers boast a 6-year life span. However, re-staining does give you the opportunity to change the colour every now and then, something you can not do with plastic.

Plastic coated decking does not absorb water making it slip-resistant and therefore a great choice for use around pools and hot tubs. Timber decking is notorious for growing algae, making it very slippy unless regularly treated.

So that is it. We hope this has given you a nod in the right direction for your decking project.