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Build a No-Rot, No-Maintenance Deck

Low maintenance and good looks can go hand in hand

FH06APR_MAIDEC_01-2Family Handyman
Build this spacious, semi-private deck, which features planters, a handsome railing, low voltage lighting and a wide range of low maintenance, durable materials. It's a big project, but our photos and drawings show you all you need to know to assemble it successfully.

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Overview: Benefits, time and cost

When a deck is inviting, you know it, and here’s one that will definitely draw you outdoors. It’s spacious and attractive. It features large planters to put green plants and flowers close at hand. And it has a versatile railing system that lets you combine solid panels for privacy and open sections for great views and cooling breezes.

We framed the deck with pressure-treated wood, which will last for decades, and then covered the framing with plastic/ wood composite decking and an engineered wood trim, aluminum balusters and fiber cement siding (more on these later).With these materials, your deck will look great for a decade with little more than an occasional cleaning.

In this article, we’ll show you in detail how to build the unique features of the deck: the planters and the railings. We won’t go into as much detail on the framing, although the drawings provide all the necessary details for you to complete the project.

A deck project of this size is an entire summer commitment, so getting the planning done now will give you more time to enjoy it later in the season. Despite its size, the project is no more difficult than an average deck, so if you’re an intermediate do-it-yourselfer, you’ll be able to tackle it. Low-maintenance materials come with a higher price tag (about 30 percent more than wood), but the extra years of service more than offset the difference. We paid about $7,500 for the materials for this 12 x 30-ft. deck.

Spacious, Semi-Private Deck

This deck spans the back of the house. Large planters provide partial privacy, while the open railing sections offer nice views. It has several low maintenance features listed below. Tall plants help it blend with the yard.

Key low maintenance features

Composite decking, railing and caps

Durable all-weather composite decking and boards are used on all flat surfaces.

Fiber cement lap siding

This pre-primed siding is impervious to rot and decay and holds paint like a magnet.

Aluminum balusters

Cut these factory-painted tubes to length and install them into the rails.

Engineered wood trim

Engineered wood composites cut and nail easily and stand up to the weather.

For the decking, we chose Trex, one of the many composite materials available. A big advantage is that it’s available in standard decking sizes (2×6 and 5/4 x 6) as well as in 3/4-in.-thick boards that work well for outdoor trim. We used it on all the weather-vulnerable horizontal surfaces, including the rail and caps, since it’s virtually unaffected by water.

For the trim pieces where we wanted to add color with paint, we used an engineered composite called Miratec (one of several similar products). It’s highly water resistant and can be cut and nailed just like wood.

And for the lap siding on the planters and the panels we chose fiber cement, a product now widely available. It’s heavy but it won’t rot, and it holds paint extremely well. You’ll be able to find this and the other products at your local lumberyard and home center.

Step 1: Draw up a good plan to save time and money

You’ll no doubt have to modify our deck plans to fit your house, so here are some things to consider along with other planning issues:

  • Sketch your house with your window and door locations as well as your lot lines so you’ll be able to adapt the deck size.
  • Consider the location of the stairway. You may need to change it to the side or even the front.
  • Take a detailed sketch of your plan, including all the structural information, to your local building department for a permit, and be sure to get your underground utilities marked before digging.
  • Lumberyards may need to special-order some materials like composite decking or balusters so check with your supplier at least three weeks before you plan to build.

Figure A: Deck Overview

This deck plan shows the basic deck parts and the framing details. See Figures B, C and D for planter, railing and staircase details. Figure A is also available as a pdf in “Additional Information” below.

Step 2: Lay out and dig the footings

You’ll need to lay out the concrete footings and anchors (Figure A) precisely, because the posts that attach to the footings are an integral part of the railing above. Measure out from the house 140-3/4 in. in two spots and run a string line exactly parallel to the house. The first footing location (Photo 2 below) must be square with the house along this line, so use the 3-4-5 triangle method to triangulate it precisely.

  • Stake the location of the center of the first footing and then measure along your string to locate the centers of the others. Keep the measurements an equal distance from each other for uniform railing sections.
  • If you locate the stairs at the same spot we did, make sure the post adjacent to the stairway aligns with the house (Figure A, Detail 3), so you can attach the ledger to it.
  • The design requires accurate positioning of the posts, so double-check your measurements to make sure they’re square and parallel. If a utility marker shows that an electrical, phone or gas line is in the way, revise your layout.
  • Consider renting a power auger to dig the footings to frost depth. Make the hole a bit wider at the bottom for a solid base. Once the holes are dug and inspected, mix the concrete in a tub and fill each hole. Our holes required about six 80-lb. bags of concrete mix each. Use short sections of Sonotubes (12-in.-diameter cardboard tubes) to form the tops of the footings a few inches above grade. Before the concrete hardens, add a 1/2-in.-diameter anchor bolt at the center of the footing with 1 in. of the threads exposed. Let the concrete set for two days before you set the posts (Photo 2).

Step 3: Attach the ledger and set the posts

Photo 1: Install the ledger

Remove the lower two or three courses of siding to reveal the rim joist of the house, then measure the length of the ledger. Fasten the ledger to the rim joist with 1/2-in. x 4-in. galvanized lag screws.

Photo 1A: Bolt positions

Position the ledger bolts every 8 in. in a staggered pattern for strength.

Photo 2: Pour the footings and set the posts

Lay out the post positions with string lines and pour the footings. Anchor and brace the posts. Screw a cleat to one end of an uncut joist, lay it on the ledger, level it, and mark the top and bottom joist heights onto each post.

The ledger supports half the weight of the deck, so be sure to anchor it with 1/2-in. x 4-in. galvanized lag screws every 8 in.

  • First check the condition of the rim joist on the house (Photo 1) to make sure it’s rot free.
  • Cut 12-in.-wide strips of No. 15 roofing felt and staple them to the house rim. Tack the 2×10 treated ledger into place with 16d nails and then mark the joist layout on the ledger.
  • Drill pilot holes for your lag screws so they won’t interfere with your joist layout, then drive the lag screws.
  • Bolt the galvanized steel post brackets to the anchor bolts at the top of the footings. Stretch a string parallel to the house again so you can perfectly align the post anchors.
  • Lift the 6×6 treated posts onto each post anchor and nail temporary braces onto the post. Screw the base of the post into the anchor, and plumb the posts by driving stakes into the ground and screwing the braces from the post to the stake (Photo 2).

Step 4: Install the rim joists and regular joists

Photo 3: Nail up the rim joists

Nail the double rim joist and the side rim joists to the posts. Then cut and nail 2×6 vertical supports below the outer rim (see Figure A).

Photo 4: Hang the regular joists and bolt the rims

Nail up the joists using joist hangers. Then tack the outer rim joist even with the inner rim joist and drill a recess and a clearance hole for the 1/2-in. x 10-in. galvanized carriage bolts. Insert and tighten the bolts.

Now you’ll want to mark the inner rim joist location onto the posts (Photo 2). This can be tricky, so to make the job easier, cut a 6-in. piece of 1×2 and screw it to the top of a joist, leaving 1-1/2 in. protruding. Now you can rest this cleat atop the ledger while you mark the rim joist locations on each post.

  • Next, cut pairs of inner rim joists to fit inside the posts. Measure these lengths at the bottom of the posts because the upper part of the post could be slightly out of plumb at this stage. Tack these inner rim joists to the posts with a pair of 16d nails, making sure they won’t interfere with the bolts that you’ll install later.
  • Transfer the joist layout from the ledger board to this inner joist.
  • Next, cut the treated 2×6 vertical rim supports (Photo 3) and nail them with a pair of 16d galvanized nails every 10 in. to the inside face of the posts to support the joists above. These rim supports should be in contact with the top of the concrete footing.
  • Cut your joists to length and screw a 1×2 to the top of each end as shown to support them, and set each joist on layout and secure them with joist hangers.
  • To finish the deck framing, you’ll need to add the outer 2×10 treated rim joist.
  • Remember to slip a strip of metal flashing under the siding and building paper and over the ledger as shown in Figure A.

Step 5: Fasten the decking with trim screws

Photo 5: Install the decking

Screw the decking to the tops of the joists, leaving a 1-1/2-in. overhang on the front and sides. Use special self-drilling trim screws.

Photo 6: Lay decking straight

Snap lines every 3 ft. as guidelines to make sure the decking courses run straight. Cut 3/16-in.- thick spacers for accurate spacing and stagger end joints.

We used special self-tapping trim screws to fasten the decking to the joists. The slim profile and small heads allow you to sink them just below the surface for a nice, clean look (Photo 6).

  • Start the decking at the outer edge of the deck (Photo 5).
  • You don’t have to fit the decking tight around the posts because the posts will be built out later. If you have to install the decking up to a wall, maintain a 1/4-in. gap to allow for expansion in warm weather.
  • Drive the screws 1/8 in. below the surface of the decking. This will pucker the decking slightly. Flatten the dimpled surface with a blow from a smooth-faced hammer to make the screw hole nearly invisible.
  • Buy about six or more extra Torx driver bits because you’ll probably strip or break a few of them.

Step 6: Build the planters

Photo 7: Build the outer walls

Cut the posts to length. Then screw the 2×4 outriggers to each post (Figure B). Build the outer planter walls from 2x4s and 3/4-in. plywood and screw them to the outriggers.

Photo 8: Build the inner walls

Build the inner planter walls in two short sections and screw them to the outriggers. Then screw 3/4-in. plywood side panels into place to enclose the planters.

Now that the basic deck is framed and decked, it’s time to build out the planters using the 6×6 post as the core. First, measure up 28 in. from the decking on each 6×6 post (Figure B), use a square to mark all four sides and cut the posts along the mark. Your circular saw won’t cut through completely, so finish the cut with your handsaw.

To build the posts out to the larger dimensions of the planter, you’ll need to build four sets of outriggers for each post. These outriggers are cut from treated 2x4s and screwed to each post with 3-in. galvanized deck screws. Keep the bottom outrigger set 1-1/2 in. above the brackets.

Next, cut 22-in.-wide pieces from 3/4-in. treated plywood to use as sheathing for the front and rear of the planters. Measure the lengths of plywood so they’ll be flush with the bottom outrigger and then extend 40-1/4 in. above the decking. Complete these front and rear panels by screwing a pair of treated 2x4s at the outer edges (Photo 7). You’ll notice that our length was a bit over 8 ft., so we added a piece of plywood to fill later. Screw the plywood panel to the outriggers. Make the inner section of the planter in two separate pieces (one above the deck and one below). Check the positioning of each panel with a framing square to make sure the planter box will be square when you finish it. With the front and rear plywood panels screwed into place, cut and screw the side panels into place to complete the box. Finally, cut lengths of 2×4 to fit between the upright 2x4s of each box to support the trim at the top. Cut 2×6 blocks to support the railing (Figure B).

Figure B: Planter Details

Figure B is also available as a pdf in “Additional Information” below.

Step 7: Add trim to the planters

Photo 9: Trim the planters

Trim the top sides of the planters with 3/4-in.-thick Miratec composite boards and cap the planters with 5/4 x 6 Trex decking screwed to the trim.

The tops of the planters are first trimmed with Miratec boards. This trim is nailed to the perimeter of the top and then ripped and cut to make the corners of the planters. The very top and the bottom of each planter are trimmed with Trex material, which is even more water resistant. This composite will withstand the moisture rigors of rain and plants at both the bottom and the top of the planters. Be sure to screw each layer at the top and bottom with the decking trim screws. Check the size of your plastic pots and make the trim at the top fit snugly around the rim of the pot.

Now rip 3/4-in. Trex boards to 5-1/2- in.-wide, and cut them to fit at the bottom of the planters. You may need to taper these trim pieces to follow the grade (Photo 13), making sure they’re above the ground 1-1/2 in. Then make corner boards from the 3/4-in. trim as shown in Photo 13 and nail the trim to the corners of each planter.

Step 8: Assemble the open railings

Photo 10: Drill the rails

Drill the holes through the top and bottom rails for the aluminum tube balusters. Use an adjustable auger bit for holes slightly larger than 3/4 in.

Photo 10A: Close-up of auger bit

The adjustable bit allows you to make a hole to exactly fit the aluminum baluster.

Photo 11: Assemble the rail

Cut and screw on 2×4 subrails. Then fit the rail section between them. Center the rails and then screw the rails to the subrails (see Figure C, below).

Photo 12: Trim the railing

Cover the railing side joints with trim pieces. Secure the bottom center of each railing section with a treated 2×4 block screwed into place from above and below.

First measure between the planters and then cut top and bottom subrails from straight 2×4 treated wood (Photo 11). These are the structural supports for the railing system. Set 4-in.-long spacers under the lower subrail, then center the subrail in the planter side and toe screw the bottom of it into the planter on each end. Screw the top subrail into the planter sides so the top of it rests just under the trim as shown in Figure C.

To make the balustrade insert between the subrails (Photo 10), rip a 3/4-in. x 6-in.-wide Trex board for the bottom rail and another the width of the 2×4 (ours was a fat 3-5/8 in.) for the top. Lay out the baluster positions every 4-1/2 in. on center for the 3/4- in.-plus holes. Set your adjustable auger bit (Photo 10) so it will drill a hole just large enough to allow the metal baluster tube to slide freely.

Tip: Drill the holes through the Trex board and into sacrificial plywood backer below to avoid tear-out around the hole.

Also cut your aluminum balusters to length with a 40-tooth carbide blade in a circular saw.

Now you can partially assemble the rail before fastening it to the subrails. First, apply 1-1/2-in. tape to the underside of the lower rail to close off the drilled holes. Stack the upper rail over the lower so the holes match and then insert the tubes. Pull the upper rail slowly and deliberately up along the tubes until it’s near the top. The friction will hold the top rail in position as you carefully insert the balustrade (Photo 11), center it on the subrails and then screw it in place with 1-1/2-in. decking screws. Next, cover the top of the upper subrails with a 3/4-in. Trex board ripped to 6 in. wide. To cover the joints between the rails and subrails, rip trim pieces (Photo 12 and Figure C), then nail them on with your finish nailer.

Figure C: Railing Details

Figure C is also available as a pdf in “Additional Information” below.

Step 9: Build the solid end panels

Photo 13: Trim the plywood boxes

Trim the plywood planter boxes at the bottom with 3/4-in. Trex boards. Trim the vertical corners with ripped lengths of Miratec trim.

Photo 14: Build the railing end panels

Frame the solid end panels with the treated 2×4 top subrails and a treated 2×4 fastened to the deck with 3-in. galvanized screws. Add 3/4-in. plywood to cover the sides.

Photo 15: Finish trimming the railing

Trim the inside faces of the 2×4 frame, then install the lower 2×4 subrail, baluster assembly and trim. Cap the panel with a wider 3/4-in. x 7-1/4-in. Trex board.

To add extra privacy at the ends of the deck, build 2-ft.-wide walls extending from the planters and from the house (Figure A). Use the top subrail as the top plate of these walls (Photo 14 and Figure C).

To make the trimming easier here, cap the ends of the short walls with trim, and then install the lower 2×4 subrail over the trim. Make the balustrade the same way as before and then add a 7-1/4-in.-wide railing cap instead of the 6-in.-wide cap that you used for the other rails. Trim the rest of the panels as shown in Figure C and Photo 15.

Step 10: Nail cement siding to the panels and planters

Photo 16: Install fiber cement board

Cut cement board siding to fit between the trim pieces, leaving a 1/16-in. gap at each end. Use galvanized siding nails and a pneumatic nail gun to secure the siding to the plywood.

Cut the cement siding with a dry diamond blade in your circular saw. You must wear a good-quality dust mask and safety glasses and pay attention to which way the wind is blowing. This stuff really kicks up the dust as you cut it. And if your neighbor’s convertible is downwind, ask her if you can move it before you cut.

Fitting the siding around all the railing parts is definitely tedious. A jigsaw will help you make the intricate cuts, and a sharp wood chisel will let you knock out hard-to-cut sections. Fasten the siding to the plywood with a framing nailer fitted with galvanized siding nails (Photo 16). Adjust the pressure of your compressor to set the nail head flush with the surface of the siding. Caulk all the joints with siliconized acrylic caulk when you’ve completed the siding.

Step 11: Build the stairway and paint

Photo 17: Assemble the stairway

Cut your stair carriages from 2×12 treated wood, making sure the span between the carriages is no more than 16 in. Position the end carriage on the column so it aligns with the deck joist on the opposite side of the column. See Figure D for details.

Because you’re using composite decking for the stair treads, you’ll need to cut enough carriages to support it at least every 16 in. on center. Each stairway will be unique to each deck, of course, but the basic construction process shown in Figure D remains the same. To make the railing complement the other guardrails of the deck, we made the stairway wider than necessary. The outer carriage that fits against the planter box is exactly the same as the other carriages but is cut short at the top. Make sure it aligns with the rim joist of the deck on the other side of the planter. Cut riser boards from a 1×8 Trex board and cut the stair treads from 5/4 x 6 decking. We placed an additional hand railing against the house for a continuous grip from top to bottom. Note:The stair balusters are not drilled into place like the other balusters but are held with special heavy-duty angled plastic connectors.

Paint parts of your deck to match your house The cement siding and Miratec trim are already primed, so spot-prime any cut ends or nail heads and then paint the trim to match the house. The Trex material can be painted as well. We painted the Trex boards at the base of the planters and the risers of the stairway. The rest of the Trex pieces have a warm natural color that may fade a bit over the years but will be maintenance free.

Figure D: Staircase Details

Figure D is also available as a pdf in “Additional Information” below.

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4 ft. level
  • Air compressor
  • Caulk gun
  • Chalk line
  • Circular saw
  • Corded drill
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Framing square
  • Hammer
  • Jigsaw
  • One-handed bar clamps
  • Posthole digger
  • Sawhorses
  • Socket/ratchet set
  • Table saw
  • Tape measure
  • Wood chisel
You’ll also need an adjustable auger bit, Framing nail gun, 1/2-in. drill bit, 12 in. long