Design & DIY

5 strategies for planning your next deck

A well-built deck is a huge asset to your cottage, but if you don’t get it right, it can be a time-sucking nightmare that sucks up your budget. So to make sure your next build goes according to plan, here are some strategies I’ve honed over years of designing and building decks.

 1) Look for inspiration and ask the right questions

If you’re tackling the design yourself, your best bet is to start by looking at other decks and asking a few key questions. What style of railing do they use? Do they have built-in benches or other features you never considered? And what about the finer touches that might offer extra functional value, like the ends of boards being eased to remove sharp edges? As you analyze other decks, create a list and take snapshots of the features you want to incorporate in your design.

And if you’ll be hiring out the creation of your glorious deck, be sure to have a look at the builder’s prior projects. Prices don’t mean much if you don’t know the quality of what you’re buying.

2) Establish your parameters

Every project starts with a design, so before you get too far into the creative process, you need to know what the building code and bylaws allow and require. A trip to your local building department to pick up relevant brochures is time well spent, and if you have any leftover questions, be sure to contact your municipal officials. Ask about limits on joist cantilevers, railing specs, and whether you’re permitted to build where you want. It’s far better to find out at the outset before you spend too much time working in the wrong direction.


3) Start with a solid foundation

Over time, various products come onto the scene that make a builder’s life easier. But to ensure desired outcomes, we really need to be certain of how we can best use these innovations. The foundation is a great place to start, because if you get this wrong, the rest of your work will be affected.

Deckblocks are precast concrete footings for wooden posts that can be used to support a deck, but they have a limited range of applications. Generally, ground-hugging decks—say, two feet high or less—are considered patios, which have different rules and considerations. If you use Deckblocks for such a deck, you shouldn’t attach it to your cottage, as the two structures won’t move in unison.

A building will have a foundation with footings that are on stable ground like bedrock, or that will extend down below the frostline, where the ground doesn’t heave due to freezing soil water. A free-floating deck on Deckblocks is able to move as a unit, but if it’s attached to a building that is static, this change in position can rip off parts of the deck or building where they join.

A larger deck should have footings that are as stable as the structure it’s attached to. This will generally entail a concrete column that extends to below the frostline, and rests on a wider footing of concrete that anchors this pier. Your building department will be able to tell you the specific frostline for your area.

4) Pick the right materials

To choose the right materials for your deck, you need to be honest about upkeep. You may want composite lumber, cedar, or preserved wood, so look into the surface treatment options and maintenance of each before you commit.

Most composite lumber is flaw free, but have an eye as you pick. With solid wood comes more potential for warpage and defects. Small flaws can often be turned away from view, but when you’re selecting structural components, be sure the wood’s flaws aren’t compromising strength. Hold a piece of lumber up at one end, and look down its edges. Is it modestly crooked and able to be clamped into position, or will it give you grief? Remember, too, that slightly curved lumber is OK for shorter lengths.

5) Plan ahead for easy maintenance

On a hot summer’s day, nothing makes me quite so apoplectic as seeing the endcuts of pressure-treated lumber that’s been left untreated. Excepting the saturation process for preserved wood foundation lumber, the chemical treatment applied to lumber for outdoor use is only skin-deep. When you cut into the lumber, you expose end grain without treatment, and it’s this very part of a board that is most vulnerable to rot. These exposed areas should be coated with liquid preservative, not only to keep them solid but also to uphold any treated lumber warranty.

After building a deck of preserved wood, I like to leave it exposed without finish for a couple months. This allows the darker, treated endcuts to dry and lighten, and it lets any oxides on the lumber surfaces to wash off. When lumber is milled, the surface grain gets somewhat compressed. Exposing the deck to rain over time will help the fibres open up, creating more tooth for the stain. When the time comes, clean the deck well and then apply at least two coats of penetrating stain. I don’t recommend solid, film-forming stains for decks, as they always end up peeling and creating a ton of remediation labour. With a penetrating stain, you can touch up high-traffic areas, as there’s no lifting of the finish.