Dock Decking 101: Wood vs Composite vs Plastic [Compared]

Decking is an essential part of any pier or dock. It is one of the first things you see, responsible for the dock’s overall look and aesthetic. It’s the part people will walk on, a core component of the foundation of the dock itself.

When it comes to decking there are many different choices of materials to use for the planks themselves with pros and cons of each.

Wood is the most traditional choice, but is it the best option? Many people nowadays are turning to composite or plastic for their pier decking needs.

In this post, I’ll break down each material’s core characteristics, pros, and cons and then discuss their maintenance and upkeep.

Why people typically choose wood decking for docks

For many people, the look and feel of wood decking (combined with a lower price point) is enough to tip the scale against alternative materials. Owners can generally expect wooden docks to last for about 20 to 25 years with proper maintenance.

Any wood will require a decent degree of care to maintain, so this is another thing to keep in mind. Each year, it’s a good idea to clean these wood planks, which can be done with a pressure washer. You may also want to sand and stain it from time to time to maintain its finish.

To learn more about the process of protecting wooden docks, check out my post Wood Dock Preservation 101: 4 Sealants and Products to Use.

There are several different types of wood that are used for pier decking, which include:

Pressure treated wood

For docks, pressure treated wood is the most economical wood option, but it will involve the most maintenance. Decking made from this kind of wood needs to be sealed annually to prevent the early onset of rot, bug infestation, and mold and algae growth. Pine is the most common kind of softwood to be pressure treated and used for decking, but cedar is also popular.

Pros:

  • Has a 20-year life span
  • Lends itself well to being stained
  • Has some natural resistance to rot, and certain insects
  • Doesn’t retain heat on hot days
  • Completely recyclable

Cons:

  • Must be waterproofed every year to remain durable
  • Contains knots
  • Splinters are inevitable, regardless of maintenance
  • Will eventually rot, regardless of maintenance

Ipe and other hardwoods

Hardwoods can be beautiful and durable, but like any pressure treated wood, some maintenance and upkeep is necessary. Ipe decks will have to be cleaned and oiled to maintain their deep, dark appearance, but are some of the most beautiful in my opinion. However, if they are not well-oiled, they will eventually fade to a grey color.

Ipe decking is generally more resistant to the early onset of rot, bug infestation, and mold and algae growth than pressure-treated woods are.

Pros:

  • Can be made from sustainable wood
  • Somewhat resistant to rot, mold, and algae
  • Lends itself well to refinishing
  • Can have a 75-year life span with regular upkeep
  • Can be left to gray to reduce maintenance
  • Completely recyclable

Cons:

  • More expensive than pressure-treated wood
  • Requires yearly oiling to maintain color

Why many choose composite decking for their dock

There are many types of composite decking, but they are all blends of recycled wood and plastics, making this an environmentally friendly option. The lifespan of composite decking is approximately twenty years.

Composite decking planks are more expensive to install than wood, but is almost maintenance-free by comparison. This is vital to consider when factoring in costs. Many composite boards are manufactured with particular qualities, such as fade-resistance, resistance to microorganisms, and extra durability.

Pros:

  • Has a 20-year life span
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Low maintenance

Cons:

  • More expensive than wood
  • Blemishes are hard or impossible to fix
  • Tendency to fade
  • Not completely recyclable

The benefits of PVC and plastic dock decking

Plastic decking, also called PVC decking, usually lasts for about 30 years. It is also resistant to rot, bug infestation, mold, and algae growth. Plastic decking is similar to composite decking because composite boards also contain plastic fibers, but they are not the same.

To see a good contrast between these two materials, check out an informative resource here.

Pros:

  • Has a 30-year life span
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Low maintenance
  • Completely recyclable
  • Never rots

Cons:

  • May expand or contract in extreme environments creating instability
  • Will retain and even radiate heat
  • May “feel” less stable
  • More expensive than wood

Conclusion

In the end, it’s really a matter of personal preference as well as your budget. Each of the materials commonly used to build docks will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind, that pilings used to support the dock will almost always be composed of wood or concrete, where as the top portion (decking) may contain composite, wood, or plastic.

Your choice of which to use will likely come down to the style of dock or pier that you have, the general climate you are located in, budget, and your taste and preference.

Hopefully, the information outlined in this article will allow you to make an educated decision when choosing decking for your pier.

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