Deck Plan Preparation: Before You Get Started

Deck Plan Preparation: Before You Get Started DIY Deck Plans

Preparation: Inspect Your Deck Building Lumber and Materials

Preparation: Inspect Your Deck Building Lumber and Materials
DIY Deck Plans

Deck building requires a lot of varied materials. This can be a lot for a DIY deck builder to figure out. Here are a few things you should know when shopping for, or accepting a delivery of building materials.

How to Visually Inspect Materials

There are four essential qualities that need to be inspected before accepting a delivery, or purchasing deck materials.

  • Dimensions of the material must be correct
  • Materials should conform to certain standards in shape, especially lumber
  • The appearance of trim and deck top materials is essential to the deck’s appearance
  • Structural integrity should be consistent

How to Check Dimensions

There are three dimensions that matter when inspecting lumber. Hardware and other materials often have important dimensions as well but are fairly standard and can be returned if they are wrong. Lumber is often not returnable, or carries a hefty restocking fee. Getting it right saves time and money.

  • The thickness of the board should be consistent from one to the next in lumber that is the same size
  • The width of the board should also be consistent within the same size
  • The length of the board should be at least the length advertised, sometimes a quarter to half inch longer

Understanding Nominal Dimensions

Lumber is named for its “nominal” dimensions, which are typically larger than the actual dimensions of the board. This is because the piece is rough cut to the dimension it is named for, (for example a two by four)then smoothed on a planer to get the actual dimensions.

  • As a standard rule, the finished dimension of lumber under one inch thick is named for its actual dimension and should be very close to that thickness
  • The finished dimension of lumber one inch thick is approximately ¾ inch thick, having ¼ inch shaved off of the top and bottom faces in the milling  process
  • The finished dimension of lumber more than one inch thick is approximately ½ inch thinner than its named or “nominal” dimension. So a four by four is approximately 3 ½ inches thick.
  • Dimensional lumber is ½ inch narrower than its nominal width. So a two by four, or one by four is 3 ½ inches wide.
  • Sheet goods, such as plywood, are named for their actual dimensions
  • Lumber comes in lengths with two foot intervals starting with six or eight feet, running up to 16 or 20 with longer pieces available by special order

Inspecting Your Lumber

All lumber should be the same thickness and width within a single board size. If, for example, your two by fours (typed as 2x4 from here on) are 1 5/8 inch thick, and all boards are the same, this could cause issues with hardware, but would not weaken it. If the boards were 1 3/8, they would fit the brackets, but would be considerably weaker.  

Check enough boards to get a representative sample. It is not necessary to check each board. Dimensions are typically very consistent. Identify the size of each group of boards to ensure you have the right materials.

Use your materials list as a check list. Mark off each item as it is verified and counted. You will also want to check for the following factors.

  • Twisted, curved, or “cupped” boards. Slight curvature can be straightened in construction. Anything that will not stack properly should be rejected.
  • Checks, splits, or cracks more than an inch or two long and visible on both faces indicate structural weakness, reject this lumber
  • Framing lumber with some bark, or roughness at edges is fine. If it is extensive, or makes the board hard to use, reject it.
  • Decking material and trim should be as close to ideal as possible. Reject material that you find unacceptable visually. You may have to accept the best available material in some cases.

Other Materials

Check dimensions and quantity of fasteners, bolts, brackets, and other hardware. Labeled sealed boxes can be checked by their label. Open bin hardware should be checked for correct dimensions.

Reject rusted, corroded or visibly damaged hardware. The strength of your deck will rely on the fasteners and hardware. As with lumber, use your materials list and check each item for quantity and mark it off your list. It is always best to buy a few extra of everything. One extra bolt could save a half day of going after more hardware.

If you are receiving a delivery, check carefully, since your signature may indicate you are waiving your right to return material or agreeing to pay the restocking fee on returned material.

Preparation: Deck Building Tools

Preparation: Deck Building Tools
DIY Deck Plans

What Tools Do I Need for Deck Construction?

The simple way to create a tool list for almost any DIY project is to start by thinking through the project from the ground up and listing tools needed in each phase. This list is divided into two categories, one for the minimum required tool to get the job done and one for the best tool for the job.

Pro Tip

When purchasing hand tools, heavier is usually better. They last longer and most tools are designed to move things, such as dirt, nails, cutting through boards, so the weight makes it more efficient.

On power tools, look for strength more than features, such as lasers, etc. The most important measurement of power is amperage for corded tools and torque in cordless tools. RPMs (revolutions per minute) sound important, but a faster tool is not necessarily a better tool.

Flashy tools, designed to look cool, are almost always designed for home owners. Professional tools are typically designed for comfort and ease of use.

Deck Layout and Marking

The tools for this are simple, but necessary:

  • Measuring tape: at least as long as your deck’s longest dimension, if possible.
  • Wooden stakes: at least one for every corner on the deck. They should be pointed and stout enough to survive being pounded in.
  • Hammer: for pounding corner stakes. A larger hammer, such as a 3 pound engineer’s hammer, works best.
  • Mason’s line or other string: for tying between stakes. This makes post spacing and marking simpler.
  • String level: for setting the mason’s line level at the correct height.

Tool upgrades:

  • Multiple string levels: They are inexpensive and having more than one can make the job faster.
  • Laser level: used to establish the deck height and level.
  • A measuring wheel or commercial grade reel tape measure: simplifies the measuring process.

Footing Excavation and Installation

There are a lot of tools you can use for footing excavation. If you are working on a budget, you will likely want to use hand tools, or rent rather than buying.

Here are the minimum required tools for footing installation:

  • Handheld posthole diggers: The heavier ones cut deeper and make the work easier.
  • Sharpshooter, or other small spade: for removing rubble and widening holes when needed. The heavier steel will cut into the turf faster. Choose a stout, comfortable handle.
  • Bucket for soil removal: You will likely have left over soil. A 5 gallon bucket works well for putting it where you need it.
  • Bucket for concrete mixing: This can be the same 5 gallon, as long as you clean it.

Tool upgrades:

  • Power auger: can be rented, or purchased from any tool supply. An auger will cut the digging time for each footing to less than half. Especially helpful for large decks, or especially large or deep footings.
  • Wheel barrow: for moving soil and mixing concrete.
  • Concrete mixer: keeps cement moving for large jobs so you can mix larger batches.

Carpentry tools

The tools in this section will be used throughout the rest of construction.

Measuring and marking tools minimum:

  • 25 foot tape measure: for measuring all lumber to be cut and misc. measuring tasks.
  • Framing levels: for leveling frame members to each other.
  • Quick square, or rafter square: for marking square cuts on board ends.
  • Framing square: for checking corners and ensuring square joints.
  • Pencil, chalk or crayon: for marking cuts.

Tool Upgrades:

  • Laser level
  • Board clamps: for holding joints in place while fastening. There are several different styles, use what works well for you. These are very useful if you’re working solo.
  • Chalk line: for marking cuts over longer distances.

Cutting Tools

  • Good, sharp hand saw: a hand saw is only really usable for small projects, unless no power is available, or you are very determined.
  • Box blade or utility knife: for cutting mason’s twine and other misc.

Tool Upgrades:

  • Circular saw: often called a “skill” saw after a popular brand. This is the most versatile of all power saws and will do all of the cutting you need, with a little practice.
  • Miter saw, or chop saw: makes cutting boards to length fast and easy.
  • Jig saw: for cutting notches, or making other shaping cuts.
  • Reciprocating saw: for making cuts in hard to reach places.

Drills and Fastening Tools

  • Standard cordless or corded drill: for drilling holes in framing members for bolts, etc. If you are using a cordless drill, you will need additional batteries. *caution: some lesser models may not survive heavy duty use.
  • Framing hammer: a good 20 oz. claw hammer with a smooth face is best
  • Nail removal bar: a medium sized one will work well for most things. Even if you are not using nails, they can be used for prying other things into position.
  • Wrench: a good adjustable wrench works well for tightening bolts in posts.

Tool Upgrades:

  • Professional grade cordless drill/ driver: the batteries will last longer and a good cordless drill will handle all of your drilling and driving needs. Get heavy duty bits, too.
  • Framing nailer: can be used for some framing tasks, or for attaching decking, building rails, etc.
  • Roofing nailer: works well for attaching decking if you want speed over quality (screws are best).
  • Pin nailer: will come in handy for trim on railings, deck edges, benches, etc.
  • Pneumatic stapler: for attaching lattice and other light weight elements.
  • Air compressor: for use with nailers. You will also need a long, flexible air hose. The more expensive, softer hoses are easier to work with.
  • Socket wrench and sockets: for driving lag bolts and tightening nuts and bolts.
  • Impact driver: for driving bolts, and other driving tasks.

Specialty Tools

  • Deck spacer: for properly spacing deck boards.
  • Nail bags or tool belt: saves time and energy searching for tools and going for more fasteners.
  • Pilot bit with countersink: for predrilling screw holes and setting heads flush with deck.

Preparation: How to Check a Materials List, or Write Your Own

Preparation: How to Check a Materials List, or Write Your Own
DIY Deck Plans

If you are working with one of our deck plans, your plan comes with a materials list. Our lists are very detailed and cover everything from the footings, framing and hardware, up to the deck covering, railing and skirting.

What a materials list should include

A good materials list will include everything from the ground up that is included in the full construction of the plan. A materials list should describe the material, give a quantity and include sizing information. If you are using your own list, or a list from another plan source, here are the basics that should be included:

  • Footings, including concrete, forms if needed and any specialty brackets, or hardware
  • Post materials, including hardware and fasteners, with full dimensions of lumber and board lengths
  • Framing materials including lumber, brackets, fasteners and hardware, with full dimensions of lumber and board lengths.
  • Decking materials including lumber, or other decking, (such as composite materials), fasteners and specialty hardware. (if required for your plan) It should include deck lumber dimensions and board lengths.
  • Step or bench materials including frame materials, decking, hardware and fasteners including lumber dimensions and board lengths.
  • Railing materials including posts, rail, balusters, brackets, other hardware and fasteners including lumber dimensions and board lengths.

Writing your own materials list

If your plan did not come with a materials list, you are working on a custom project, or you have adapted a plan so that materials have changed, you will have to write your own materials list. Working from the bottom up is the best way to ensure that nothing gets left out. You should be able to work from your plan to determine what is needed.

Start from the bottom up

Start from the footings. Will your deck require in ground footings, be set on piers, or is it a small grade level deck set on deck blocks? Be sure to include quantities and sizes of every piece. Start with the concrete required for traditional in ground footings, or grade level blocks. If you are using brackets to set your posts on piers, include size and quantity. Be sure to include any bolts, other hardware and fasteners needed for each footing.

Framing lumber is calculated based on the square footage and the joist spacing. Our plans work from a 16 inch on center spacing, but many small decks are built with a 24 inch on center spacing. The number of joists required will be based on this spacing plan. Joists typically run the whole width or length of the deck, so lengths should be the same in most cases, across the entire deck. You will need one piece for every 16 or 24 inches, depending on your spacing. Select your board lengths as close to the correct length as possible to minimize waste.

Double check lumber sizes for safety on framing

You will also need to consult a span table to ensure your joists are heavy enough to carry the load. These charts will show you how large your joists need to be for the size of deck you are building. Typically, the outside frame, or rim joists, are the same size, or slightly larger than the inside joists. Include enough lumber for the outside frame.

You will need joist hanger brackets and fasteners for each piece, in addition to brackets, screws or nails and possibly bolts for attaching to posts. Give as much detail as you can when describing hardware to make shopping simple.

Always include extra decking material

The decking is calculated by square footage. You will also need to include approximately 15% extra for unusable short pieces, or missed cuts. Remember that lumber sizes are "nominal" meaning a 2x6 deck board is actually only 5 ½ inches wide. You can account for this in your 15% extra. One other tricky definition to be aware of is the 5/4 deck board. This is a fairly standard size of decking lumber that is approximately 1, 1/8 inch thick, as opposed to the 1 ½ thick 2x lumber used in framing.

*When calculating decking material, include stair and bench tops if they will be made from the same material.

Rails, stairs and skirting vary from deck to deck

The materials for the accessories, such as rails, steps and skirt will depend on your deck design. Safe railings can be made from simple dimensional lumber, but many plans call for more decorative or specialty railing products. Skirting is usually optional, unless neighborhood or building codes call for it. Describe these products carefully when writing your list. If you are unsure, consult the website of your favorite home improvement center for information.

As with the rest of your materials list, include quantities, descriptions and sizes on every piece when possible. Home improvement center, or lumber yard employees can be very helpful, but they do their best work when the customer knows what's needed.

Preparation: Tips for Organizing Materials at Your Job Site

Preparation: Tips for Organizing Materials at Your Job Site
DIY Deck Plans

Once you have inspected your material and determined that you have the tools required to complete your project, it is time to think about setting up your job site. Even if this is a DIY project on your own home, working like a professional will save time, material and money. It will also give you the best possible finished product. Here are some tips for staging your job to make it as simple as possible.

Stacking Materials

It is always best to stack materials off of grassy areas for two reasons. First, the dew and moisture from the plant material will seep into your material causing potential warping and making it heavier and harder to work with. Second, it kills the grass. If available pavement is not too far from your deck site, stack materials there.

Use cross blocks to stack material on. Cross blocks are pieces of lumber laid flat on the stacking surface, perpendicular to the material, and spaced to support the material to prevent warping. In general, you will need one cross block for every 4 feet of length in your lumber, plus one for the end. (For example, 12 foot pieces should have 4 cross blocks)

Cross blocks help air circulate around material, drying it. They keep it up and out of water in case of rain, or irrigation. They also make bottom boards easier to lift.

Here are some simple rules for stacking to make it simple to access materials:

  • Stack perpendicular to nearby walls to allow access at the end of the material. This allows you to see material sizes and pull pieces from the stack easier.
  • Stack like materials together. This prevents confusion and saves time in sorting later.
  • If individual stacks are not possible, stack longest material on the bottom and start with materials you will use last so that your first materials are on top.

Setting up your Tools

Tools should be set up in stations. Set up your cutoff saw (miter saw, chop saw, or circular saw) near your materials stack so that leftover pieces can be easily restacked and only cut pieces are carried onto the deck. A miter saw stand, or saw horses are best to get the saw up to waist level where it will be easy to see and work with.

If you are sanding, drilling, or performing other milling tasks before the boards are installed, set those tools up near the saw with another set of saw horses to keep your work at waist height as much as possible to reduce fatigue and make it easy to see and easy to handle.

Pro Tip

Safety is a huge concern with electrical power tools. Here are some tips to keep your work space safe!

  • Use heavy duty electrical cords rated to handle the amperage your tools are pulling.
  • Use heavy duty power strips with built in breakers to plug tools into.
  • Plug large tools, such as miter saws and air compressors, into separate circuits if at all possible.
  • Keep tools that are not being used staged in a separate area out of the construction and traffic zones.
  • Manage cords carefully and keep them clear of traffic areas. Be aware of where your cord is at all time to reduce the risk of damaging the cord and prevent tripping.

Plan to clean up your work site every day. Put tools away so they are easier to find and stack unused materials correctly. Wrap up all cords and dispose of debris. It will save you time getting started in your next work session and save money replacing materials and tools.