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Building a Great Deck


Nothing beats evenings on the deck!

With permits in hand, it was time to get started building the deck. Well, technically, it was time for the contractors to get started on the framing for the deck. Since I’d never built a deck before, having someone else do the actually framing on it was one of the better decisions I’ve made in quite a long time. In the previous post we offered some pro tips on digging footers - namely, do NOT dig them when it’s going to be rainy. The nice thing about this particular pro tip is that we got to watch someone else learn it the hard way - one bucket full of muddy water at a time.


Once the footers were done and finally passed inspection (at that point they were a little over 40in deep and the inspector visited 3 times), the contractor team set to work framing up the deck - a task that took them 2 days that would’ve taken me as many months. They got dinged on a few small things at inspection time, namely using toenailing where the joists meet the edge (you have to use screws) and not using the proper epoxy anchors on the ledger board. Sidenote: the required epoxy runs about $36 per tube! So with a successful framing inspection in hand, the remaining work was all ours.


Waterproofing below your deck

Before diving into the decking itself, we decided to install a layer of waterproofing under the deck that would convert the patio below into a dry space. In addition to wanting to be able to use the patio in the rain, we realized that if the deck were installed above and the water allowed to run through, the area beneath the deck would never dry and we would forever be dealing with various forms of mold and mildew. There’s a myriad of different ways you can do this when you have an unfinished deck with exposed joists (things get quite a bit harder and more limited for an existing deck) and we decided to go with the DekDrain Top Side system (you can check it out here). The system itself is an ingenious design where the manufacturer cuts long strips of heavy roofing rubber in a trapezoidal shape. When stapled to the joists the rubber is tighter at one end of the deck and then loser at the far end, creating a nice trough for the water to run down, as pictured below.

DekDrain Topside system

Image courtesy of DekDrain website

Each of the rubber strips gets stapled to the joists to create a nice trough, and then an additional layer of rubber is applied above each joist to seal up the seams. For the size deck pictured above (which is a bit smaller than mine), you should probably plan on a solid day or day and a half of work if you’re working alone. But it is well worth every minute! If DekDrain is a bit cost-prohibitive for you and you want to put in some extra sweat equity into your deck, you can always buy the rubber and then measure and cut it yourself. If you end up doing this, please post some pictures of the results and let us know how long it took to measure and cut!


DIY Tip: Buy a couple of pieces of plywood to span across the joists for you to walk on so you can focus on the work and hand and not worry about singing a few octaves higher should you make a misstep.

Tools Needed: A decent staple gun and a crap ton of staples!


Time for deck boards

For amateur DIY’ers, certain projects can move along deceptively quickly at times. Laying deck boards is one of those times. While this provides an immense amount of satisfaction at seeing a lot of work get done very quickly, it can also cause you to significantly underestimate the amount of work left to do - especially if it’s a project you’ve never done. And so it was with the deck. We managed to cover half of the deck in a matter of an hour, before coming to the tricky spot where boards placed a diagonal were meeting up with boards that were being placed straight and thereby needing to share a joist and line up exactly perfectly.


DIY Tip: When laying down deck boards, allow the boards to hang off the edge of the deck, and then, once you are done affixing them, make a single cut all the way across off the boards with a circular saw. In addition to being a lot less work, you’ll get a much straighter and cleaner edge. If you aren’t that steady with a circular saw, affix a lengthy 2x4 (or even a deck board) across the top of the decking to use as a guide.


You can greatly speed up the process of laying down deck boards by using a nail gun and if you’ve ever watched the pros build a deck, you’ve seen this wonderful device at work. However, we did not use a nailgun for this project for a couple of key reasons and, despite the fact that we rent tools for a living, we would encourage you to consider these potential pitfalls as well:

  1. A single errant nail missing a joist could have poked a hole in the rubber waterproofing beneath, resulting in a disastrous amount of rework or, at least, some really irritating patchwork

  2. If you screw something up, undoing the work of a nail gun is a non-trivial endeavor, further complicated in this case by the fact that the underside of the deck was inaccessible for a hammer

  3. Deck boards constantly expand and contract, inevitably loosening the nails. While this will happen with screws as well over time, the process takes a lot longer and screws will hold tighter and delay the board's inevitable desire to warp

While screws were the obvious choice for us, they do take a lot longer and require you to be either sitting or kneeling for extended periods of time. At this point, if you haven’t already, you’re definitely going to want to invest in some knee pads and a decent tool belt to hold all the screws. There are a few other tips you should keep in mind while installing the deck boards.


DIY Tips:

  1. Depending upon the type of screws you’re using, you may need to drill pilot holes. Regardless of screw type, however, you should drill a pilot hold anytime you are working near the end of a board to prevent splitting.

  2. If you’re doing pilot holes - have a second drill available. This will allow you to work in one place at a time (moving around on your knees is miserable) while avoiding constant bit changes. Also, remember to countersink the nails so that they are slightly below the surface of the deck board. This will help them hold, and also save your toes

  3. If you are using pressure-treated pine - the boards will shrink substantially when they dry. As such, you probably do not need to space them at all when you lay them as you will end up with gaps when they dry. You may want to space them 1/8 or so to give yourself a margin of error on alignment as you work your way across the deck, but anything more and you’ll end up with wider gaps than you probably intend.

Depending upon your jurisdiction and their building codes, you’ll likely be presented with the option of either installing cross bracing beneath the deck or installing your deck boards at a 45-degree angle. For the sake of aesthetics as well as a desire to avoid putting in cross braces underneath, we decided on placing the deck boards at a 45 and the results were fantastic.

Future 3rd-generation deck builder

One tricky spot to be aware of (that we screwed up, unfortunately) is placing the kick boards or backers on your stair treads. This is part of the code and is intended to keep little Johnny or Suzie from crawling through the back of the stairs and taking a nasty tumble. When you go to mount these, leave the gapping at the bottom, not at the top. Why? If you don’t have the gapping at the bottom, the stairs will become debris collectors and it’s way harder to clear them off if you create a nice edge for dirt to hang out in. Oops.


Railings

Once the deck boards are down you’re left with a usable, if exceptionally dangerous, deck. Before welcoming the kids and other family members onto it, however, you would do well to go ahead and get the rail posts and railings installed. A seemingly innocuous and low-effort tasks, rail posts present some unique challenges depending upon the design of your deck. The key thing here is to plan out where each and every rail post is going to go before you start installing them (once again, a lesson learned the hard way). The reason is that there are going to inevitably be obstacles that will preclude you from placing the posts exactly evenly apart around the perimeter as you planned in your head. Some common obstacles you’re likely to encounter are gutters along the edge of the house, blocking or cross bracing beneath the joists that you forgot about, or a tight corner that is completely inaccessible if you install the posts in the wrong order. So before you get started installing your deck posts, do a walk-around and mark where each of them should go, assessing the surrounding area to be sure you can mount them correctly. And mounting correctly means additional blocking around the posts unless they are installed at the end of the joists. Redoing them either for aesthetics or to meet code (they can only be up to 4ft apart) usually means having some big ugly holes in the side of your deck where the bolts used to be for the post you shouldn’t have put there.


Deck rail posts
Note the tricky spot at the top right of the stairs where 2 posts need to fit side-by-side.

With the rail posts in place, all that’s left is to slap on some 2x4’s and mount the pickets. While installing the pickets is unbelievably tedious (ok - this is where we should have used a nail gun but didn’t!!), it’s also one of those brain-dead tasks where the progress is very evident. While the 45 minutes spent walking around the deck and planning out where each post should go is time well spent, when your spouse walks out and wonders why no progress has been made, it’s a hard one to answer. But pickets and deck boards are wonderful - immediate and obvious satisfaction and demonstrable, spouse-approved progress.


Once the posts, braces, and pickets are all in place all that’s left is the topper. We went with a specially designed 2x6 PTP for our topper that had grooves cut into the bottom that were supposed to reduce warping. Whether or not these actually work is anyone’s guess. That said, after about 3 years outside (even after being sanded and finished), these began to splinter pretty severely. The deck boards, however, remained smooth as a baby’s bottom until the day we sold the house, nearly a decade after the deck was built. If we had it to do over again, we would fork over a few extra bucks to throw some Trex or another composite atop the railings for a splinter-free finish.


The End Result

Once the railings are up and installed, the deck was pretty much done. We had a few inspection items to tie a bow around (blocking around the rail posts, hurricane clips on the joists, a hand rail on the stairs, and a light at the top of the steps), with the light at the top of the stairs being an unforeseen hurdle. However, to avoid having to schedule an electrician in order to get our inspection done, we just installed a solar-powered flood light with a motion sensor right outside the door. Box…checked!


No more walking downstairs to grill!

The deck quickly became our favorite feature of the entire house. We have countless memories of sitting out on it for dinner or drinks and enjoying many conversations. A few times we rigged up the hose and a water table and the kids would play out there for hours. But beyond the enjoyment we got out of it, there’s something to be said for the pride that comes from building something (even part of something) with your own two hands. When you sit on a deck that you built, I’m convinced the steak tastes a little better, the beer is just a little colder, and the sunset slightly more enjoyable.


Tools needed for a great deck:

  • 2 drills

  • 1/2 drill bit at least 6in long

  • Miter saw (12in sliding recommended)

  • Circular saw

  • Framing nailer and compressor

  • Staple gun (if you’re installing waterproofing)

  • Standard wood tools: tape measure, square, chalk line, plum, level, clamps

  • A comfortable tool belt and some knee pads

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