Deck Building Tips
By Mark Clement
Why do I love building wood decks so much?
I think it’s because a well-crafted deck is more than a box and some boards on the back of a house. A lot more.
Because I’m a contractor and a carpenter, I find that decks are part layout, part site work, and fast framing where thoughtful design, dialed-in trim details, beautiful materials, and fun carpentry bring life to a pile of lumber.
No matter how big a deck is, it’s the trim details and fundamentals—yes, that includes tools, glorious tools—that transform projects from cringe-worthy to the creative carpentry I get so much satisfaction from.
So here are some tips I use from design to carpentry.
Here we go.
I’ve built lots of decks, playgrounds, docks and retaining walls. One of my very favorite things to work with is round posts. Where I’m from, we call them ‘pilings’. They’re called ‘poles’ or ‘round posts’ in other parts of the country.
Mainly Southern Yellow Pine, they’re (1) gorgeous and (2) awesomely versatile. They have sensational structural integrity, which I love. And they have truly signature style: The round shape is pleasing and the grain just leaps out of the lumber. So if you’re building a deck and want a look as natural as the surroundings, look at round posts. They’re also awesome for fences.
I don’t mean full-sizers. I mean smaller pergolas integrated into the guardrails. They’re awesome for everything from a subtle division between yards (think: zero lot line homes) to creating a sense of a space (think: Niche for a grill or seating area). In other landscapes, they work as what I call static busters, say, for example where you don’t want a wall between you and your neighbor, just something to break up the line of sight.
One thing I really like to do is make them from built-up or ‘laminated’ posts. I create an ‘I’ of sorts, 2×6-2×4-2×6.
Nails and Metal Hardware
There’s a mistake nearly everybody makes installing metal hardware, namely joist hangers.
That mistake is using the same nails for the angled holes as the face-nail. What you’re supposed to do is use a 16-penny nail for the angled hole through the joist into the ledger. The longer nails criss-cross in the ledger and make an awesome connection with major pull-out resistance.
While I often use screws for deck connections, when I do use a nail it’s often for connecting a joist to a beam. Since starting the nail when the beam is in place can be a headache and a finger-smacker, I sometimes start them before I roll the joists into place. Gun nails work, but hand nails really drive the joist into place.
The world of what I call the ‘structural screw’ has come many-a furlong in recent years. Once the stuff of timber garden beds and cordless drills letting their smoke out, they’re now the go-to for most pros. They’re insanely awesome for ledger boards on decks and anchoring pergola girders to their posts. You can rip ‘em in with an impact driver, and it’s like welding the wood to itself.
One place structural screws have not found a home until recently is in the post-to-beam connection and in guard posts. You have to check the code reports because not all screws are rated for this, but the brand I use, Spax PowerLags are.
You can use two through the face of a beam and into the shoulder cut of a 6×6, as shown in the photo detail. Because I’m a fan of the over-build, I’d use four, two in front, two in back.
In case you didn’t notice, I’m a big fan of building wood decks, from beauty to ease-of-use, to good-for-my-soul carpentry. And unlike denser materials they don’t retain nearly as much heat in the summer, like a stone patio for example.
Other materials try to mimic wood, because wood is worth mimicking. And, while you have to take care of anything that lives outside (a concrete slab gets mold on it too), caring for wood is reasonably easy.
From the carpentry standpoint, it’s versatile, I don’t have to alter my framing for diagonal decking (other decking types typically require framing 12-inches on center for diagonal decking). Obviously, wood’s structural integrity works for framing, and its natural beauty makes it the gold standard for trim and finished surfaces. I just like it.