Building a Deck: What You Need to Know

Building a deck is an excellent project for a DIY enthusiast: there’s lots of sawing and hammering, tolerances are on the generous side, and the results are hard to beat for satisfaction.

But the real key to a great project is up front — good planning and preparation makes construction go faster and easier, cost less, and ensures outstanding results.

Building a Deck

In this series, Chip Wade shows you how to build a deck from the ground up.

Get a Plan in Hand

Search online for “free deck plans” to access hundreds of possibilities; many include materials lists and pro advice. You’ll also find free deck design tools at the websites of home improvement centers and decking manufacturers. Most include cost calculators to help you choose deck building plans that fit your budget.

Keep traffic patterns in mind. If your deck is a transition from the house to your yard, make sure the walking path from your door to the deck stairs doesn’t cut across seating and dining areas.

Plans often include a materials list. That’ll save you some head banging calculations, plus you’ll be able to gather up everything you need at once — and avoid time-sucking trips to the hardware store for “just one more” bolt or 2×6.

Figure Your Budget

A do-it-yourself deck project runs $10 to $25 per square foot, depending on your choice of materials and how fancy — or simple — your DIY deck plans are. Extras, such as built-in benches and planters, run $15 to $35 per linear foot.

Know Your Codes

Keep your deck safe by checking your local building codes before you begin. Most building codes say a deck with a walking surface that’s 30 inches or more above grade needs a railing that’s at least 36 inches high, with balusters spaced not more than 4 inches apart.

Professional building inspectors say that most deck failures are caused by ledgers that are improperly secured to the house. Use bolts — not nails — to attach the ledger board directly to your house framing, never over the siding. And proper flashing is a must.

Get a Permit

Backyard decks often are candidates for unpermitted, “stealth” construction projects. Resist the temptation. For one, the process ensures the safety of you and your family. And two, unpermitted work can come back to bite you if you decide to sell your house.

Permit costs vary according to the size and complexity of your project, but figure in the $100 to $500 range. Once filed, you’ll have to get your deck periodically inspected. Consider your building inspector as a knowledgeable consultant who can help guide you through the process.

Tool Up

Get everything you need beforehand. Essentials include framing hammer, tool belt, circular saw, cordless drill (two are better than one), framing square, string lines, chalk line, 4-foot level, water level (for cutting posts to the same height after they’re set), socket set, saw horses, extension cords (plug into a GFCI protected outlet), gloves, dust masks, clamshell post hole digger (rent the digger or a power auger), and clamps (AKA a third hand).

Know Thyself

Be honest about your DIY chops. If you’re unsure, keep your deck plans modest and straightforward (square or rectangular decks are easiest). If you’re planning bigger challenges, such as a curved, multi-level deck, give yourself some extra time so you can do the job right.

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