Question: We want to build a deck this summer, but now we are confused about what to use: wood or a composite product such as Trex. Any suggestions?
Answer: This can be somewhat of a "personal preference" issue. If you're totally in love with wood, you should use wood. But not just any cheap wood. For all the money and effort that will be expended, you want your deck boards to last and look good for 10 or 20 years.
Wood does require staining to keep it protected. A very popular wood these days -- dare I say trendy -- is ipe, a durable and naturally insect-resistant hardwood from Brazil. If you don't want to contribute to the destruction of the rain forest, find ipe that is certified by the highly respected Forest Stewardship Council (www.fsc.org), which promotes responsible stewardship of the world's forests.
If you're not wedded to wood, however, you might prefer the maintenance-free qualities of a composite product such as Trex, and the fact that these products are made of recycled or reclaimed materials including plastic jugs, plastic bags and sawdust. There are at least a dozen composite decking manufacturers to choose from.
If your deck will be near a spa or pool, you definitely want to choose a composite material, as it will hold up much better than wood in those conditions.
One caution: I have seen composite decking in at least one spot where it didn't look good -- on a covered porch in Santa Barbara, where it was stained and looked trashy. The homeowners told me they thought that if the sun could reach it and bleach it out, it would look better. Next time, they would use wood there, or perhaps a newer composite decking material with better stain resistance.
Landscapers who work with these materials all the time have good insights. So I contacted Los Angeles-based Pamela Berstler of Flower to the People (www.flower2people.com), a company known for being environmentally sensitive, to get her perspective.
Expert's answer: Composite wood materials have come a very long way just in the last four or five years. As you may know, many composites have an unnatural sheen and faux wood grain that is too prominent. We try to avoid these, as they tend to scream "fake."
However, there are three brands of composites we have used in various situations and been pleased with both the aesthetic and functional results.
As a substitute for ipe in a very high-traffic and water-splashed area around a pool, we have used Fiberon Tropics. This product's warm brown color requires no maintenance and has taken the beating of a gaggle of children without fading, pitting or splintering.
In several projects, where we have designed ground-level decks, and where wood simply would not be appropriate because it doesn't wear well when in contact with the earth, we have used both Trex (saddle color or natural gray) and ChoiceDek. We usually turn the side up that does not have the wood grain stamp, but occasionally, we have gone with the ChoiceDek grain because it matches some other wood on the residence.
Unlike redwood, which eventually fades to black, both of these composite materials fade beautifully to a silvery gray that looks very close to a natural cedar deck. Again, neither ChoiceDek nor Trex requires significant maintenance except occasional washing (especially if it is under trees).
One thing to keep in mind about installing composite decking is that in most cases, the material does not provide the structural integrity of real wood. Therefore, the substructure must be more robust to support the deck, which means the joists holding the boards up must be closer together.
If you're installing the deck yourselves, you should go to the website of the manufacturer you decide on and get complete installation instructions.
Also, during installation the composites can get "gummy" on hot saw blades and drills.
Installers generally know about this and will bring some backup blades and bits so that the project is not held up.
Kathy Price-Robinson can be reached at her blog: latimesblogs.latimes.com/pardonourdust.