Deck Construction Basics
You’ve decided on your deck design. You’ve selected the materials. You have all the permits and plans in hand. You know what you need to do, and why. If your site is graded for drainage, your supplies have been delivered, and you have your brother-in-law lined up to help, it’s time to build.
Construction is different from planning in several key ways: Mistakes are more expensive, can be dangerous, and take longer to correct. So work carefully, at an easy, steady pace, and use help from others whenever you can. The extra time you spend will pay off in reduced frustration and well-built results.
Watch Where You’re Going with Your Deck Construction
By now you should have a complete list, or construction schedule, that organizes the tasks to be accomplished. If you haven’t made one, do it now. Make sure your list includes every step of the project, from applying for your building permit to sending invitations to your first deck party. Then review the list to see how much time each step will take, and add cost estimates and dates. Here’s a sample list:
- Order materials
- Grade building site for drainage
- Prepare outside of house
- Set up materials at work site
- Attach ledger board
- Set up batter boards
- Locate and pour footings and piers
- Set anchors and posts
- Install beams and joists
- Attach decking boards
- Install railings and balusters
- Build stairs
- Build additions such as benches
- Finish deck surface
Be sure to complete each task before starting the next one. Put everything away when you stop work each day. Even if your neighborhood is secure and the weather won’t harm materials left out overnight, keep the site orderly so you can start work right away instead of hunting for materials buried under yesterday’s scrap heap.
Anatomy of a deck
The first step in building a deck is to familiarize yourself with some terms. So here’s a quick deck-builder’s dictionary:
- BEAMS OR GIRDERS: Hefty framing members attached horizontally to the posts to support the deck structure.
- DECKING BOARDS: Attached to the joists to form the floor of the deck.
- JOISTS: Horizontal framing members that sit atop the beam or girder and support the decking boards. Joists can be either 16 or 24 inches on center (the distance between the centers of adjacent, parallel framing members in a series).
- LATTICE: A gridwork of plastic or wood slats that conceals base framing and keeps out windblown debris while permitting free airflow for ventilation.
- LEDGER: A horizontal support attached to the house to hold up one side of the deck.
- PIERS: Masonry columns that support the posts and the structure above. They protect the posts from water and insect damage at ground level. On sites subject to frost heaves, concrete is poured in a hole dug to frost depth. Consult your building department for frost depth in your area. Precast concrete piers may be set on shallower bases, or footings, where frost heaves are not a factor.
- POSTS: Timbers set on end (vertically) to support the structure above.
- RAILINGS: The horizontal timbers that extend from one deck post to another to form a safety barrier at the perimeter of the deck. The term often refers to the entire rail structure, including posts, top rails, and balusters/spindles. The balusters, the smallest vertical components, are positioned to fill the space between the top and bottom rails and between rail posts. Minimum baluster spacing for child safety is 4 inches.
- RAILS: Components that provide a safety barrier at the edge of the steps. Rails should be built so the handrail can be completely gripped by the person’s hand, and should be securely attached so they are strong enough to support a falling person’s weight.
- RISERS: Boards that enclose the vertical spaces between stairway treads. Risers are often omitted on deck and other exterior steps.
- SKIRT BOARDS: Finished lumber that covers and finishes the exposed face of rough perimeter joists.
- STRINGERS: The long wood components that support the weight of the step load and to which the treads are attached.
- TREADS: The horizontal stepping surfaces of a stairway.
If your deck will include outdoor lighting, a pool, or a hot tub, you need to be familiar with plumbing and electrical work. These advanced projects require a greater knowledge of structural support, so take them on only if you have confidence and experience. Be honest with yourself in this assessment. Remember, electrical and plumbing installations need to meet building code requirements and will be inspected very closely.
If you have concerns about your skills, strength, or how much time a task will take, talk to a contractor before you start. Expect to pay for any consultation time. The contractor can check your construction schedule to see whether it makes sense, and give you information on the costs of hiring out certain parts of the job. Some contractors will work with clients who want to do some of the labor themselves. Good advice from a professional can save you a great deal of time, money, and frustration.