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Six Tips For Decks Built to Last

With only a few dozen deck screws, lag screws, galvanized nails, bolts, joists, posts, braces, flashing, concrete bags, gravel, stain, thinner, drill, level, plumb bob, hammer, measuring tape... you too can build a deck. Sounds complicated already, eh? No one can teach you to build a deck in one page. But here are some tips about how to build a deck that's stronger, lasts longer and gives you the result you want.

First, this is one time doing things the old-fashioned way may not be entirely the best idea. Get one of the many good software packages to help you design your deck. It won't cut wood, but they're terrific at helping you visualize the result. They provide design alternatives, materials lists, tools needed, measurements and sometimes even building codes.

Once you have careful plans you need materials. Pressure treated 2 x 4's or 2 x 6's and 4 x 4's of pine, cedar or redwood are good choices. But consider also the newer alternatives. Several manufacturers offer composites that look and feel very much like wood, especially from further away than a few feet. Though the initial outlay is higher, they'll far outlast even stained wood. They require no staining or painting every few years and are stronger and less subject to warping.

Every deck needs a strong foundation. Unless you have the tools and skills to level prepare ground, create good concrete pier holes and pour concrete, then apply perfectly vertical anchors at the proper moment, this is a step you may want professional help for. All other steps are well within the reach of the average do-it-yourself'er with a little assistance.

Building codes in most localities determine the required distance between support piers. Within those limits, though, you have some choice. Since most lumber comes in 8 foot or 12 foot lengths, making support distances equal to or less than that leads to fewer cuts. Make it easy on yourself.

In most designs, ledger boards lay up against the house to support the joists (support beams under the walking surface). Some designs have Z-shaped flashing that lays up against the house, on the ledger board top and side surfaces.

If placed correctly that can work well. But metal flashing can warp with temperature changes. Nail or screw holes can leave small entrances for water. Sealing the flashing is one extra step that requires skill and care.

To avoid the hassle and avoid moisture buildup - leading to mold, corrosion, etc - move the ledger board away from the wall slightly with metal washers. That can also eliminate the need to remove siding.

Use screws and bolts wherever possible, not nails. Even the best nails rust. Stain, used on most decks, doesn't stick well to them, eventually leaving them exposed. Over time they're more prone to becoming loose. Screws rust, too, of course. But they retain their fastening power far longer.

The downside is: nails are often quicker and easier to hammer in than installing screws or bolts. But with a good power screwdriver attachment to your hand-held drill, that problem is easily solved.

However you choose to build your deck, one old-fashioned idea is still valid: thorough planning, measuring and careful execution avoids costly and unsightly mistakes. Take your time. The results will show.