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Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 3: Decking and Railings

Ok, your framing is up and you have the solid foundation for a deck. Now you have choices – what decking to use, and what type of railings?


I break decking up into four categories: pressure treated, composite, exotic hardwood, and other. Here’s a little more info on each:

  • Pressure-treated lumber: this is the most common and least expensive option. P/t lumber is the base model at the car dealership, something to get you where you’re going but with no power options. Common sizes are 5/4 x 6″ and 2″x6″. I prefer 2″x6″ decking because it’s a little stiffer underfoot, is less prone to warping and moving than 5/4 board, and it looks more substantial. I cheaped out and did 5/4″ board on my back steps, and they look like wood pallets. Mistakes were made. Speaking of my deck, p/t lumber requires maintenance in the form of regular pressure washing and sealing. I never bothered doing this to my back steps, and they are a lovely shade of Kermit Green. You’ve been warned.
  • Composite lumber: composite is a catch-all category for brand name fake wood like Trex, Fiberon, Veranda, AZEK, and any number of others. It’s significantly more expensive (typically costing two to two and a half times more than pressure treated lumber) but it requires less maintenance. The two caveats are that 1) it gets really warm underfoot in direct sun and 2) joist spacing has to be appropriate for this material. Because composite lumber is more flexible than wood, joists spaced for wood may cause composites to flex.
  • Exotic hardwood: these are your ipe, cumaru, garapa, and other (typically South American) hardwoods. The cost of exotic hardwoods is comparable to composite lumber, and the labor can be higher than other choices because the wood is hard to cut and each board needs pre-drilled. Hardwoods require annual maintenance, especially if you want to maintain the rich color you started with. These make a gorgeous, durable deck.
  • Other: Your deck doesn’t necessarily have to look like wood. If you want a stone tiled deck, you can have it. You can even have an aluminum deck, if you want to minimize maintenance (one of my carpenters recently built one for a client’s lake home).


The simplest and most basic deck railing is built from pressure treated lumber and is specified in your county’s deck detail packet.


Personally, I really like iron railings for decks. They provide a much more open and airy look, and they offer dozens if not hundreds of design options.

Not only can you have composite decking to minimize maintenance, you can opt for composite railing systems that look like wood but demand very little from you.

There are also contemporary rail systems, like glass or Lexan panels in areas with great views, or stainless steel cables. I’m a fan of always having somewhere to set my drink, which is why I really like what Glasshouse Winery in Charlottesville added to their deck.

As you can see there are a lot of options to select from when designing and building a deck. My job is to help my clients settle on the material palette that suits their style, maintenance needs, and budget. Are you interested in have a deck designed and built in Virginia, Maryland, or DC? Contact me for a consultation and we’ll discuss the next step!

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