Jul 19, 2008

How to: Build a deck

By: Colleen Tully

How to: Build a deck Author: Style At Home

Jul 19, 2008

How to: Build a deck

By: Colleen Tully
With such a sliver of time to enjoy the outdoors, building a deck to sit outside is an attractive option for most Canadian homeowners. But like any home renovation project, the design and construction of a deck requires a skilled hand -- or at the very least a well-researched one.

With the help of Jon Eakes, Canada's home improvement expert for 30 years and author of Do it Yourself (DK publishers, 2007), the following is everything you need to know to build a safe, enjoyable and durable deck for your home.

Before you begin: Have a plan
The last thing any homeowner wants is an accident, so make sure your deck design plan eliminates any and all safety hazards that may arise. Ask yourself the following:

1 What are the rules and regulations of my municipality?
Municipal rules and regulations are unique to each community, so be sure you understand what restrictions apply to you.

2 Will my deck block municipal access to hydro?
If your deck or fence is blocking access to hydro, the city won't think twice about bulldozing through in an emergency!

3 If a swimming pool is involved, think about neighbourhood kids
Will your new deck provide free access to a swimming pool? Could a child fall into the pool from the deck? Do you need an alarm or special latch for the entrance onto your deck? Run through every scenario and to avoid the worst from happening.

4 Get the proper permits
Avoid headaches before they start with the proper permits for your deck's dimensions.

Essential deck-building tools
Eakes suggests collecting the following tools before you begin:

  • Circ (Circular) saw
  • Hand saw for finishing
  • Impact wrench -- these really drive the screws into the wood. Most hardware stores have impact wrenches for rent or sale.
  • Electric screwdriver
  • Pneumatic (air-powered) nailer -- essential for fixing up your fence or railing.
  • Gloves, safety goggles, dust mask.
  • Wear a mask especially if you're working with cedar -- the natural insect repellent in cedar can cause violent reactions in some people.
Pressure-treated wood is the strong and durable standard. Even specialty decks are built with pressure-treated wood with specialized wood varieties laid on top.
Tip: Eakes cautions against using the extremely light or white-coloured woods. "It's like being on a boat all day -- the reflection of sun in your eyes can be blinding," he says. White railings may be a more attractive alternative.

Waterproofing and stains
Pressure-treated wood already has some waterproofing done at the factory. Eakes says you need to wait and let the wood weather before staining and waterproofing, the length of time depending on your wet or dry climate. He suggests sprinkling water onto the wood -- if the water soaks into the wood it's ready for staining and waterproofing (never waterproof then stain -- the stain won't stick.)
If you're thinking of using an opaque stain, Eakes strongly advises reading the can first. "They all say 'Not for horizontal surfaces' because opaque stains are for fences and rails -- they can't stand the traffic [on a deck floor]," he says. If you want a splash of colour for on your deck, he recommends using a transparent stain.

You will need either:
  • Double-dipped galvanized nails - indicated for ACQ (Alkaline copper quaternary) lumber, or;
  • Stainless steel nails if you live in a very wet climate

Why not regular nails?
On January 1, 2004, Canada halted the distribution of CCA (Chromated copper arsenate) wood for residential construction due to the toxic arsenic and replaced it with ACQ lumber which contains no arsenic but much more copper. Though less toxic, ACQ lumber literally dissolves aluminum nails, making your deck unstable and hazardous within a couple of years. Eakes says if a contractor offers to build your deck for an unbelievable price, he or she is likely not using the more expensive but necessary hardware. In wet environments where the deck never truly dries out, stainless steel is your safest bet.

Design techniques
Decks can quickly become expensive, and when people creep over their budget they begin to cut corners. How can you tell if the deck of your dreams is in your budget?

"Live on the deck before you build it," says Eakes. He suggests laying out the parametres of the deck you think you want with rope or a garden hose, including stairs and an entrance. Place pickets in the corners and host a barbecue. "Make a rule that anyone who steps over the rope has fallen off the deck and gets no more beer," he jokes. During the party, guests will move the ropes and stretch the deck into what's naturally comfortable. You'll be able to see traffic paths: where the kids are running and how to route them, whether the chef is in an awkward corner, or if the steps are in the wrong spot.

After the barbecue, take a look at the revised space and see if it truly fits your budget. If a tiny deck is all you can afford, maybe build a few steps and create a patio instead.

The foundation
The most beautiful deck is worthless atop a bad foundation. Dust off the old shovel and prepare to dig four deep holes for your posts. Generally, the postholes must be below the maximum frost depth to ensure frozen soil doesn't heave the posts upwards. Check with local codes to see exactly how deep they must be.

Eakes' perfect post tip: Pour concrete in the bottom of your holes - just three to four inches deep. Let it dry.

Place your 4x4 or 6x6 on top of this dried concrete. Don't lock the posts into place -- let everything just stand. Build the basic frame of your deck while your posts are still loose. "This way the tops are all nailed together and it's just the bottoms that are twisting. Small mistakes are always made in the post digging, but now the posts will line up perfectly," he explains.

Secure your boards to hold the basic framework and then fill in the holes with concrete to stabilize the structure.

Laying down the floor
Despite best intentions, your floorboards will never line up perfectly. While most people tend to begin the floor against the house and work outwards, Eakes suggests beginning on the outside perimeter of your deck and working towards your house. "You'll always have an ugly board, but if it's tucked against the house it gets hidden," he explains.

Building steps

Awkward or poorly built steps will make your deck the last place anyone wants to be. Eakes outlines a few step-building essentials:
  • Avoid having slopes or surfaces that slip when they're wet.
  • If you have more than two steps, you need a handrail.
  • Ensure all your steps are equal! "Humans are creatures of habit," he says. "Our feet memorize how far each step is. If the bottom or top is different, you stumble!"
  • If you build terraced steps, make sure they're at least one or more than two steps wide -- not 1.5 steps. "These look nice but they're so uncomfortable," he says.


Like decking dimensions, each municipality has unique requirements for railings so be sure your railing complies.

Generally, Eakes says railings are never allowed to have horizontal rungs in case kids want to climb, nor can the vertical rungs have spacing larger than four inches -- roughly the size of a baby's head. "The real interest with railings is the health and safety of the people involved and respecting your neighbours," he explains.

Eakes' railing tip: If you're going to have a stand-up, cocktail party kind of deck, make sure you have a nice railing that's wide enough to hold a glass. If you know there will be smokers, creatively nail some ashtrays to the railing so your guests don't bring cigarettes into the house.

Decking extras
If you live in an area with high winds such as a coastal area, consider installing temperate glass walls. Eakes says they can be installed all the way around, or just as panels to allow some air to come through. These allow you to enjoy the outdoors without being blown away.

Beware the temptation to roof your deck. While most municipalities prevent roofing the deck, Eakes explains this is because owner after owner may add more and more to this roofed deck until it eventually becomes an addition to the house. Built on a poor foundation not strong enough to hold a snow load on the roof year after year, this spells disaster for the last homeowner.

When it's time to call in the pros
Before you start, really consider what you have the skills to do -- and not do. You may just need a hardware store professional to help with the design.

If your back isn't so good, hire a professional posthole digger. Eakes says they'll enter your yard with a tractor-like gadget and in one hour your postholes are dug. "No broken back and you go on with the rest!" he says.

Or, you may just want the finishing or just the structure done professionally. Anything can be accommodated, just make sure you are very specific with your contractor about what you want: where to start, where to stop and how much they need to clean up. Draw up a written contract that specifies what you want them to do so there isn't any confusion.

Enjoy your outdoor space with our best outdoor living ideas.

Jon Eakes has been Canada's home improvement guru for 30 years. His latest book, Do It Yourself (DK publishers, 2007), outlines even more decking tips plus over 400 home improvement projects. 
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How to: Build a deck