A friend with whom I used to work managed to buy a house on the shore in Cape Canaveral not too long ago. When it came time to build a deck in the backyard, he called me up. We used to work together building boardwalks along the shore of the Canaveral National Seashore, and he trusted my skills and his above those of any contractors. He also remembered the two-year replacement schedule of those boardwalks, and wanting something that would last longer than wood. Instead of lumber, he opted to use composite decking for his beach house. This caused an unforeseen issue halfway through construction.
We planned to support the railings using the posts of the deck’s substructure, which we left sticking up above the deck surface. However, when we started laying the deck boards, the bare pine posts didn’t look good next to the composite. Deck railing posts are a large part of the aesthetics of a deck–although this might not always be obvious at the outset of building–and if these posts don’t match the deck’s surface, it can cause some head scratching. However, it’s possible to match wooden–or steel–railing posts and composite decking boards. We’ll talk about how in a minute.
Why Use Composite Deck Boards Instead of Wood?
So why would you choose composite over wood–creating this matching issue–in the first place? Well, wood is a versatile material, but far from perfect. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep wood looking good and to keep it from splintering, cracking, and fading. For this reason, many people are now choosing to replace their deck’s surface with composite, which holds its color and doesn’t require maintenance to prevent fasteners from popping and splinters from forming.
Since the deterioration of wood is also a structural problem, it has led some people to look for alternatives to wood for the deck’s substructure as well as the surface. The most common alternative to a wood substructure is steel, which has the obvious benefit of not rotting or being tempting to wood-destroying insects like termites and carpenter bees.
Because of the issues with wood, more and more decks are being built using a combination of materials. The most common combination is a wood substructure and composite deck surface. Steel substructures with composite decking boards are also becoming more popular. In both cases, the composite serves as the foot-friendly surface of the deck while the steel or wood forms the structure supporting the deck. However, when that substructure is visible–as when the posts that support the deck extend above its surface–then a solution is needed to make the two materials match or complement each other. There are a couple different ways to do this.
Getting Your Composite and Substructure to Match
The most obvious way to bring a wood substructure and composite deck boards into harmony is to paint or stain the exposed wood. This is the solution that my friend opted for, and from a purely aesthetic standpoint it isn’t a bad solution. Paint comes in a stunning spectrum of colors, and painting exposed wood on the deck the same color as your home or its trim can unify the deck’s look. Painting and staining also have the benefit of sealing the wood against moisture, and can help the wooden substructure last longer, lengthening the time before a deck repair or replacement is necessary. Personally, though, I wouldn’t recommend this option. Why? The bottom line is that it’s a short-term solution that may very well cost you much more in maintenance and headaches than you originally imagined. Here are some of the issues with painting or staining your deck posts:
- Scratching can damage the paint or the stain. A layer of paint is, after all, just a thin film on the surface of the wood. This means that it’s easy to scratch, and even with a stain these scratches can penetrate through to the wood, making them very noticeable. This is even more likely to happen if you’re installing railings or handrails after painting the posts.
- Color matching is a science, and you may find yourself making several trips to the paint counter at your local hardware store trying to find a paint or stain that matches your home’s or composite’s color.
- Fading is inevitable with paints and stains, as UV rays destroy pigments. While it is possible to repaint, this can be complicated by chalking, which is what happens when UV light causes small bits of paint to flake off. If you’ve ever rubbed a painted surface and found powder on your hand, you’ve experienced chalking. Even oil-based stains will also fade, and will need to be reapplied every so often.
- Curing of the paint can take time. This can delay finishing a deck since you’ll need to make sure the paint is thoroughly dry before installing railings or doing other work. The issue of color matching comes up here, too. Paint is a different shade wet than it is dry, and this makes it difficult to know if you’ve found a color match before the paint is completely dry.
While these are not insurmountable challenges, they do negate some of the benefits of composite. If you’ve bought composite specifically so that you won’t need to think about maintenance for the lifespan of your deck, then painting or staining your wood posts probably isn’t a good idea, because they will likely call for repainting while the composite is still in good shape. This makes painted or stained wood a poor match for composite, which is designed to create a virtually maintenance-free deck. While high-quality composite decking has a lifespan of 25 years, painted wood only lasts five to seven years.
So what if your substructure is metal rather than wood? Well, painting metal framing is much more of a challenge than painting wood. Metal isn’t absorbent, and paint doesn’t bond with it easily. In steel-framed decks where the steel is likely to be galvanized, there is also saponification to worry about, a reaction in which the paint and the galvanization react with each other to form a kind of soap. There are ways of treating the metal to prevent this, but they can be quite involved. The best option is my solution of choice for both metal and wood: covering the exposed material with composite to match the decking surface.
Post Sleeves Create the Look of Composite Deck Railing Posts
The best solution for most mixed-material decks is to cover the posts with a sleeve of composite that matches the deck boards. Unlike paint, there is no waiting or special treatment needed in order to use a composite sleeve. You simply cut the sleeve to fit and slide it over the post. This option combines the long-lasting durability of composite decking with a material that is structurally strong, i.e., the post underneath the sleeve. The only issue with this solution is that it isn’t cheap. Post sleeves usually cost more than the deck boards they match. However, it’s the best way to create a uniform look for the deck, and the only effective way to get an exact color and texture match between the posts and the deck surface. Composite decking companies will usually offer other composite pieces, such as fascia boards and dedicated stair treads, to cover exposed wood in the substructure.
When you choose composite decking, make sure your manufacturer offers composite post sleeves and other pieces designed to make your deck look uniform. In particular, make sure you the composite decking you choose has post sleeves that match all the colors on offer. Some composite systems offer only sleeves in a few colors which don’t match all their board colors, at which point you’re probably better off painting or cutting the posts off below the deck and using a railing system that provides its own posts. If you’re building a deck on a two-story home, you’ll also want to double check that the composite manufacturer you choose makes post sleeves in lengths long enough to cover a post supporting a second level deck.
One composite decking system that has all these features is Fortress Deck’s Infinity decking. Infinity has composite deck railings posts in every color their deck boards come in, and these sleeves are available in lengths of ten feet. Infinity decking is a super-tough, moisture-resistant bamboo composite with a full resin cap designed to look like real wood. To find out more about Infinity, contact Fortress Deck. For more beautiful, intelligently-designed products that will last, take a look at the rest of Fortress’ catalog of products.