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A Reluctant Ode to Composite Decking

Philosophically speaking, I’m not supposed to like composite deck lumber. It’s fake and I’m against all things fake. Sure, composites save the labour of finishing and refinishing real wood, and composites never rot. The problem is that composites also pretend to be lumber when they’re not. That’s an issue for a stickler like me. It’s also the same kind of problem I’ve been dealing with my whole life. Real versus fake, ideal versus doable. The details are different, but the struggle remains the same.

When I started finishing outdoor wood in the early 1990s, I applied my purist attitude to the materials and approach I chose. Well-finished cedar looks amazing, so that’s what I used whenever I could. A fresh cedar deck with several coats of Sikkens DEK still looks better than anything else, but eventually, as always happens, reality rears its ugly head. That fabulous, furniture-grade wood deck won’t look quite so hot after a year. Two years it’s worse. Three years it’s time to strip, sand, and refinish. That’s when the tug-of-war between philosophy and reality sets in.

Being a purist is fine as far as it goes, but it’s also a mental stance that gets tiring over time. It’s not all that sustainable. So, after a decade or so of beating my head against the reality of wooden decks in the real world, I tried something new called Trex. Invented in 1996 and made from a combination of recycled plastic shopping bags and pulverized shipping pallets, I tried their composite stuff for the first time in 2001. I liked it a lot, so I made it a regular part of what I do. These days Trex is the biggest producer of composite decking material worldwide and it’s my favourite.

The best thing about composites is that it aligns with the modern expectations for ease that many people have these days. Two or three generations ago most people had a lot of outdoor wood in their lives and they accepted what that meant. Finishing, refinishing and refinishing again was just a fact of life. While our grandfathers understood that most Saturdays were taken up maintaining their houses, the average Canadian is much more leisure oriented now because the rest of life has gotten so much easier. It always makes me laugh when I meet a young homeowner experiencing wood deck refinishing for the first time. Few of them seem able to keep a smile on their faces after a couple of hours on hands and knees with a sander.

Besides decks, I now use composite lumber for other outdoor projects too. One reason I like solid versions instead of hollow composites is because I can use solid scraps to make good things. An outdoor table, a display frame, spacers to move windows outwards on a rough wall frame so they meet thicker-than-usual siding – composite scraps are very useful in many ways. A support stand I made to prop up the end of a window air conditioner in 2001 still looks perfectly new today, despite almost 20 years of outdoor exposure. It’s for reasons like these that I keep a pile of composite outside my shop. Trex even mills well over a jointer and thickness planer for fancier non-deck work.

Sometimes when you decide to go fake, the best thing to do is go fake all the way. The wood grain embossed on some composites is a case in point. While I doubt anyone would be fooled into believing that the lines simulating growth rings on some composites are the real thing, there must be something primordial in the human heart that finds those lines appealing. Even to a wood purist like me, knowing full well that I’m looking at plastic, the “wood grain” looks and feels much better because of the predictable and perfect wood grain patterns.

I’m still a purist whenever I can get away with it, and I will always believe that real is better than fake any day. But then comes the need for sanity and practicality in the real world, and the sharp edges of my idealism get rounded off a bit. All in all, I count that as a good thing.