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Cedar Decking vs. Composite Decking

Building Your Dream Deck Starts with a Top-Performing Building Material

“Should I go with real wood or composite?” That is the question many homeowners ask themselves before building a new deck. And rightfully so. There’s a lot to consider: appearance, maintenance, longevity, price and the environment. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. But a deck is an investment that can improve your quality of life and increase the value of your home. So, to make a truly informed decision, you need facts based on independent studies – not a home improvement influencer sponsored by a specific brand name. Here, then, is a breakdown of cedar decking vs. composite decking.

Design Versatility

Wood: With wood, in particular Western Red Cedar, your options are endless. That’s because Real Cedar comes in a variety of grades and profiles so you can create almost any desired look. It’s also easy to work with – It’s light, cuts easily, lays flat and stays straight. This allows you to create interesting visual points of interest such as herringbone patterns. There’s a reason composite decking companies try so hard to look like real wood. Nothing beats the natural beauty of a Real Cedar deck.

Composite: Companies that produce composite decking materials spend a lot of time in research and development – all in the name of imitating wood’s natural beauty. Some brand names come closer than others with manufactured texture and faux grain patterns. But at the end of the day, your deck will look like plastic. Try as they may, they can’t outdo nature. So, what it really comes down to is – do you want to pay less for the real thing or pay more for a poor imitation?

Finishing Options

Wood: Cedar is pitch and resin free, which means it accepts and holds a wide range of finishes beautifully. You may choose to apply nothing which is your lowest maintenance option, or you can choose from a vast selection of transparent and semitransparent products (note: semi-transparents last longer than transparents). With transparent stains, you can highlight the wood’s natural beauty and character. With semi-transparents, you can choose a tint that will add drama to your outdoor living space or give your deck a decidedly modern look. In short: you can finish your deck anyway you like.

And you’re not stuck with that color for life. If at some point down the road you decide you want a different look for your deck, you can simply restore your deck to its natural state and refinish it the color of your choice.

Composite: You can select the color of your choice when buying composites, and there are plenty to choose from. But there are few refinishing options when it comes to these synthetic materials. The plastic composites don’t accept or hold finishes very well and cannot be easily resurfaced. And, most composites will fade with exposure to sunlight, so they won’t even hold their original color.

Performance Properties

Wood: Cedar is naturally resistant to rot, decay and insects with an expected service life of 25 or more years. This makes making it ideal for outdoor applications. Cedar decking is a top choice for homes in temperate as well as extreme climates. That’s because its natural preservatives stand up to the elements. It’s dimensionally stable with a low shrinkage factor, so there’s no warping, cupping, or twisting. Cedar is also always cool underfoot, which is what you want, especially if there are going to be any little feet or paws pitter pattering across your deck.

Composite: Composites come in hollow boards or solid boards. The hollow boards are more cost effective, but they are not as sturdy and can hold water, which may lead to warping. The solid boards, which look a little more like real wood, are sturdier, however, they tend to expand and contract, which can lead to cracking. Another factor to consider is when composite decking is exposed to sunlight, it gets hot for little feet and paws.

Environmental Impact

Wood: Looking for a sustainable renewable building material? From cradle to grave, woods such as Western Red Cedar leave the smallest carbon footprint when compared to other building materials. According to independent studies, wood products use less energy during manufacturing and transportation. They produce less air and water pollution than man-made products. Cedar also helps reduce global warming by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. And cedar decking is naturally biodegradable in a landfill. Western Red Cedar comes from responsibly managed forests, where more trees are planted than harvested. This makes cedar a renewable source and a much-needed carbon sink for the planet.

Composite: Processing composites produces greenhouse gasses – compared to cedar which actually reduces them. Composite materials do not decompose easily in landfills. [Download A Study here]

Maintenance & Finishing

Cedar: There is no such thing as a maintenance-free deck. But some decks require less maintenance than others. With cedar, it’s good practice to clean your deck once a year. All you need to do is remove the debris and then wash it with a non-phosphate detergent solution. If mold is present, wash with a mild oxygen bleach solution. If the deck is finished with a semi-transparent stain, you need to reapply the product as directed – usually every 2 or 3 years. For the lowest maintenance option, you can let your deck weather naturally, eventually turning a beautiful silvery patina.

Composite: Composite decking grows more mold and mildew than wood does and requires more chemicals to clean it properly. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for composite manufacturers to discontinue colors and styles, so finding the matching pieces to replace these damaged parts of a deck can be quite challenging.

Material Workability

Cedar: Ask any DIYer or building professional and they’ll tell you the same thing: cedar is a durable wood, but it’s also incredibly lightweight so it’s easy to move around the worksite. And it’s easy, cut, saw, nail and glue. Plus, the tools love it. The distinct smell also makes it a pleasure to work with. That’s why it’s been dubbed “catnip for contractors.”

Composite: Composites are generally much heavier than wood, making them harder to work with and they can require a more reinforced substructure. And they’re heavier and cost more to transport, resulting in a negative impact on the environment.