Have you thought of building a deck or resurfacing one to add more outdoor space? We started our DIY deck last spring, when the weather warmed up early in the season and we were itching to spend more time outdoors. We always knew we wanted to add a deck or patio to the backyard, but had no idea how to go about doing it. If you’re in the same boat. This blog post is for you. I am sharing all the details of part 1 of this outdoor project. Cost breakdown, design decisions, the best deck-building tools, and tips and tricks on framing and installing composite deck boards for a beginner.
Sticker Shock (you won’t believe how much it costs to build a deck these days)
After deciding we’re ready to take on the project, the first thing we did was to reach out to a few construction companies. A sales representative from a reputable company came shortly after. That’s when I made my first shocking discovery in this project.
Unlike the old days, material and labor cost had skyrocketed since the pandemic. I knew building a deck wouldn’t be cheap. But when the sales rep showed us an eye-popping estimate of $45,000 (?!) for completing our moderate sized deck (14 feet by 12 feet), my jaw dropped to the floor. He quoted us for top-notch materials–Kiln-Dried lumber, composite deck board manufactured in Europe, maintenance-free aluminum railing. Still, I couldn’t believe how expensive it was. In my mind, that’s the cost for a full kitchen remodel.
There is no way we will build a deck that pricey, even if it’s made of gold. So we asked our neighbors for reference, scouted local ads for contractors, and eventually landed on the DIY route. We decided to work with a local company called UglyDeck and sign up for their DIY program. They help us install the footings and ledger board. It’s up to us to finish the build. Building the deck ourselves will really help our family’s bottom line. It’s $32k of savings that we can use towards other improvements around the house.
In mid-May we toured the showroom and decided to go with Deckorators Voyage product line. It’s a high-end brand, more expensive than pressure-treated lumber. We liked it for two reasons. First, composite decking is low maintenance. Having had to re-stain our old deck every couple of years made us realize it’s not something we enjoy doing. We would rather pay more for the convenience. Second, the Voyage line is mineral-based, meaning there is no wood in the material that would cause rot. It also has the best grip to prevent slipping, which is a bonus point for us.
- Total Cost: $12,000
- Helical Piers $1,500
- Composite Decking $4,000
- Aluminum Railing $3,500
- Lumber and Hardware $3,000
- Basic Statics
- 14 feet by 12 feet rectangle deck attached to the house
- 3.5 feet off ground
- Flush Beam
- Double Picture Frame
We also considered the possibility of building a patio. The quote came at around $5,000, labor and material included. However, we’d need to add stairs to meet code and the stairs will take up too much space in our already small backyard. A deck usually adds more value to a house in the Midwest and can serve as an extension to an indoor space. For all these reasons, deck is a better fit for us.
Footings and Ledger Board
We finalized and signed the contract in late June. After 6 weeks, the crew came to install footings and ledger board.
They used a multi tool to remove a section of the vinyl siding, screwed in a 12 feet long 2×10 to the house, then added drip cap on top. The whole process took 30 minutes.
For the helical piers, a separate group of workers came with a bobcat that had a special drill head. The machine spun the 8 feet long helical pier slowly into the ground, leaving the shaft above ground for attaching the post base. All three piers were done in just a few minutes time. The professionals worked at lightning speed compared to us.
After the crew left, we were on our own. Different from when we built our playhouse, there was no step-by-step instruction on how to frame a deck. We did a lot of research online (TimberTech online resource and Trex Academy were two of my favorite tutorials ) and emailed UglyDeck whenever we’re stuck.
This is what I was able to draw up, after spending 5 minutes on Menards’ website. Super easy to use. And it instantly updated the 3D rendering and estimated price as I changed products.
Hubs found another great website that allowed him to get the actual framing structure and cut list. It is a good resource as well: Simpson Strong-Tie Deck Planner Software.
From this layout, you can see we need to add a second support joist on both sides of the deck and extra blocking to support the double picture frame. The spacing is 16″ on center. Whenever a deck board runs in the same direction as the joists, additional blocking is needed. The other joists in the middle are also 16″ apart. We spaced it out so that we could avoid hitting the screws in the ledger board.
The printout also came with illustrations like this that showed us where to use which fastener and other tips. So much to learn when doing a large outdoor project like this.
The first step for framing was installing the 6×6 posts. We cut each of them using a miter saw in multiple passes, rotating the lumber after each cut. Then we adjusted the locations of the post bases and secured the 6x6s to the metal plates.
We quickly realized how labor intensive it was to manually pound the nails into the posts using a hammer. So slow, it was like pulling teeth.
Tip: before attaching the 6x6s to the post base, use scrap wood and clamps to temporally hold the 6×6 posts in place. It’s easier to check if the posts are level and lined up perfectly this way.
We also bought a laser level to check if the height of the posts aligned with the bottom of the ledger board. Then use circular saw + jig saw + hand saw to cut off the top of the posts. (Note that we’re building a flush beam. For a drop beam, the joists sit on top of the support beams.)
In case you haven’t noticed, this whole project requires a lot of measuring, calculating and checking. The more accurate the measurements are, the stronger the foundation is and the more durable the whole structure will be in the long run. This video (How to build a deck | Problems you will run into and how to fix them by Perkins Builder Brothers) talks about potential problems with deck building. It really left an impression on us.
Here are three easy ways to check for square corners. My favorite is No.2 — checking if the diagonals are equal. It’s reliable and easy to do. For this project, we used all three methods at the same time. It may seem a bit of overkill. But this helped to make sure the framing was structurally sound.
Installing Support Beams
Next up, support beams.
The 2x10s came with various degrees of warping (surprised!). To keep them together and level on top of the 6×6 posts, we used a lot of clamps in a brute-force manner when driving in screws and nails. The beams sat flush on the outside of the 6×6 posts, so there was a bit of a gap on the inside, which is normal. And for those unwieldy curves/bends, we put some shims to fill in the gap and planed the top. After struggling for some time to bend them to our will, we came to terms with the imperfections. Wood, being a living thing, is going to contract and expand no matter what. We did our best to fix the warping, but didn’t stress about it (well, at least we tried).
Tip: when installing support beams or joists, keep the crown pointing up. This way you can cut off excess to flatten the surface, instead of dealing with low spots that could lead to a wavy-looking deck. Composite deck boards are flexible and conform to the shape of the joists.
You can see the pneumatic palm nailer in action in the video above.
Installing Joists (the DIY trick that went VIRAL)
Time to install joists. These are 2×10 in size, 12 feet long, heavy lumber. The idea of holding them steady and flush on the top while nailing in sounded like a grueling, demanding task. We didn’t want to install the joist hangers first, because measuring would take more time and it still wouldn’t be 100% accurate.
Luckily, we came across a brilliant idea of using scrap wood as guide blocks (How to Install a Joist Hanger by finehomebuilding). Simply screw some scrap wood on top of the two ends of the lumber (like wings), hang the 2×10 over the ledger board and the beams, secure the joist hanger underneath, then unscrew the scrap wood blocks. It worked perfectly.
We shared this cool trick on Instagram (here). The reel got over 1.7 million views in a few weeks’ time. It was BANANAS. This was the second surprise in this project: somehow we became internet famous from a 5-second video.
Internet fame aside, we were most proud of getting this far. Look at this drone shot. It was exciting to see the deck begin to take shape!
Before we move forward to the next step though, I must mention three additional tasks that are crucial to the success of this project. 1. Plane the joists. 2. Apply joist tape. 2. Add blocking for top mounted railing and picture frame.
To ensure the deck surface was flat, we ran string lines to check if the joists are level and on plane across the top. Then used an electric planer to trim off the high points. You can see from the drone shot that some parts of the framing were shaved off, showing a lighter color than the rest of the joists.
Then it’s time to apply joist tape to protect the joists from moisture. I don’t remember how many rolls of tape we used. All I remember was we kept running out of it. So stock up on joist tapes. You can always return the extra.
Since we’re doing top mounted railing and picture frame borders for the deck boards, we also added scrap wood between the joists in all corners and a few other spots. This ensures the railing and deck boards will have a solid surface to attach to. By the way, these Irwin clamps are our new favorites. The quick grip/release design makes it very easy to tighten the clamp or make adjustments with only one hand. They work a lot better than other brands we’ve used. Highly recommend.
Installing Deck Boards
It was getting cold quickly. Between camping trips and fall activities, we didn’t have much time to work on the deck. Soon December rolled around. We thought we better hurry up and get as much done as possible before snow comes again.
Since we have a white and black, modern farmhouse exterior, we wanted to go with something that’s in the cooler, modern style. We went with a two-tone design, dark gray (Deckorators Voyage Sierra) for the borders and light gray (Deckorators Voyage Tundra) for the infill.
A helpful tip at this stage is to calculate how far apart each board should be before installing deck boards. Ideally, we want full boards installed all the way from the end of the deck to the edge of the house without ripping any boards. It’s not the end of the world if we need to, but it looks nicer this way.
It’s also important to point out that we got two different types of decking materials. Solid vs Grooved Deck Boards. The ones used for picture frame and stairs have solid edges. They’re screwed on with top-down fasteners like traditional wood decking. The other kind is grooved, meaning they have grooves along both sides of the board. They’re secured to the joists with hidden fasteners. The gaps between infill deck boards (grooved deck board) were determined by the hidden fasteners. For Dekorators, the distance is 1/4″. This meant we could only adjust the spacing between the picture frame borders (solid deck boards). Solid deck boards have more flexibility with spacing. Keep this in mind in your planning of deck board layout.
We mitered the corners of the composite deck board at a 45-degree angle, and installed them with a 1/5″ gap, leaving about 1 1/4″ overhang. This left enough space for the fascia boards. They run vertically on the perimeter of the deck and cover the support beams and rim joists.
Here are two progress pictures of the picture frame. You can see the blocking in the substructure and how it supports the diagonal cuts. We also notched out the deck boards to fit around the exterior trim.
We bought a new composite deck blade specifically for this project. Our miter saw was a thrift find and the saw blade wasn’t the sharpest. You know how a blunt blade can chip and tear out materials easily. We would rather not risk it with this expensive decking. So the new blade was definitely worth the investment.
Once the picture frame was done, it went a lot faster to add the infill deck boards. This process took only a few hours with us working together. I cut the boards, hubs tapped them in place and secured them. It was like an assembly line.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we used the wrong power tool to fasten the deck boards. Did you catch that? In the video hubs used an impact driver to fasten the hidden fasteners. The right way is to use a drill at the right setting, because an impact driver is too powerful and can split the plastic fasteners. This didn’t cause any damage to our deck. But it’s certainly something to look out for.
Something else we noticed was the deck boards were flexible and not entirely straight. It’s like déjà vu all over again. So we clamped the boards tight while tightening the fasteners. This is optional, but helps prevent the boards from having varying distance from the house. You can also use a pull bar and a mallet to tap the boards tight in place.
Very soon, we were at the last board. The moment we dropped it in place, it felt like we’d finished running a marathon. Celebration time!
Wait, the gap was too tight on the right. So we took out the last two infill boards and re-installed them with top-down fasteners and color-matching plugs. The video on the left shows much more even spacing.
The next day a big snowstorm hit Minnesota. We were so glad we could enjoy this view from inside the house. The kids danced on the deck and asked if they could make snow angels there. Everyone was excited of this new build. It’s been a long time coming.
This spring we’re going to finish the rest of this build. We already hit a speed bump and had a very difficult decision. Come back later and check out part 2 of this DIY elevated deck.
Recap of all the helpful tools we used: