Build a Deck: A Step-by-Step Guide from Start to Finish

Design, plan, and build your own deck with these guidelines that walk you through every step in the process, from getting a permit to buying lumber to maintaining the finished deck.

| June/July 1992

  • 132-032-01i2.jpg
    Decks are for expansive living, so be sure your deck will be large enough to allow for seating.
    PHOTO: ORION SALES COMPANY
  • Deck Plan Diagram 5x10
    A 5' × 10' entry deck plan.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Deck Plans Diagram 12 x 16
    This 12' × 16' deck rests on a ledger and 6 piers supporting 2 paired 2 × 8 beams. Joists are 6' long, supported on hangers. Use short boards (10s and 6s), staggering joints.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 132-032-01i1.jpg
    Designing a simple four-square deck and doing the elementary masonry and carpentry yourself, you can add 100 cents of every dollar you spend directly onto the market value of your home.
    DEBRA TETREAULT
  • Deck and Wall Details
    Deck and Wall Details
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Ledger to Wood-Framed Wall
    Ledger to Wood-Framed Wall
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Framing Elevation
    1. 2 × 10 rim joist2. Existing stone foundation wall3. 2 × 4 stud wall framed 16" on center against stone4. Double 2 × 10 beam5. 4 × 4 foundation post6. Steel post base7. 8”-diameter concrete pier8. 4 × 4 railing posts fastened to joists9. 2 × 10 rim joist10. Double 2 × 4 top plate11. 2 × 4 stud wall framed 16” on center against stone12. J-bolt anchor13. Concrete foundation wall poured against stone wall14. Rubble stone wall15. Poured-concrete pad16. 2 × 6 top rail17. 2 × 12 stair stringer18. 2 × 4 bottom rail19. 2 × 4 treads20. 14”21. 2 × 4 decking22. 7”23. 2 × 6 cap24. 42 ¾”
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Deck Structural Anatomy
    Joists should cantilever no more than one-fifth their total length
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Framing Details for Stairway
    Framing details for stairway.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 132-032-01i10.jpg
    1. 4×4 railing post2. 2×6 decking installed at 45º angle to joists3. 2×4 blocking nailed to brace and between joints4. 2×10 joist5. 7 1/2" × 3/4"- diameter machine bolts.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Deck Corner 1
    The Well-Crafted Corner: Notched Post and Mitered Rim Joists 1. Inner rim joists butt against sides of post2. Outer rim joists are mitered at corner3. 6 × 6 post is notched to create shoulders which support rim joists  
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Deck Corner 2
    The Well-Crafted Corner: Rim Joists against and outside the post  1. Inner rim joists butt against post2. Lag screws driven over washers3. Outer rim joist4. Nail through overlapping rim joist into end grain of adjacent joist 
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Deck Corner 3
    The Well-Crafted Corner: Rim Joists outside the post with Mitered Skirt Boards  1. Foundation post2. Doubled rim joists installed in overlapping pattern3.4 × 4 post4. One-by cedar, redwood, or pine skirt boards cover rim joists and are mitered at deck corners. 
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • 132-032-01i2.jpg
  • Deck Plan Diagram 5x10
  • Deck Plans Diagram 12 x 16
  • 132-032-01i1.jpg
  • Deck and Wall Details
  • Ledger to Wood-Framed Wall
  • Framing Elevation
  • Deck Structural Anatomy
  • Framing Details for Stairway
  • 132-032-01i10.jpg
  • Deck Corner 1
  • Deck Corner 2
  • Deck Corner 3

The best improvement you can make to your country home and active indoor/outdoor lifestyle is to build a deck of warm and inviting wood—for family cookouts, parties, close supervision of kids and pets, or simply for someplace to sit back in the sun and watch the tomatoes ripen. And, it needn't be the sort of architect-designed, megabuck extravaganza you see in the slick magazines and "ideabooks." Designing a simple four-square deck and doing the elementary masonry and carpentry yourself, you can add 100 cents of every dollar you spend directly onto the market value of your home. Indeed, if you shop carefully, you may even be money ahead!

First, visit (don't phone) the local building inspector to see if you need a building permit and inspection(s). In most populated areas, you will. Built right, decks are permanent structures and, like it or not, society has legislated itself a say in the appearance and durability of structures that will outlive their builders. Communities determine setbacks (distance of buildings from property lines) and interpret regional building codes to specify size and spacing of structural members, depth and size of foundations, dimensions of stairs and railings and more.

Some inspection departments encourage owner/builders, and offer deck plans and tips for satisfying the code. Others are biased toward the building trades and may be sticklers for detail. All can force you to tear down a deck if it fails inspection. But, as a town assessor once advised: "If you don't need a permit, don't get one. Filing it will alert us and your property tax may go up." Even if a permit is not required, to build a deck that will hold up in your climate, learn code requirements and follow them.

The Site Plan

To obtain a permit, you'll need to submit a scale site plan and construction drawings. Draw them up even if you don't need to. Measure the distance of buildings from property lines. Using square-ruled graph paper, ink in a birds-eye-view scale outline of applicable setback lines, structures, drives, walks, and permanent plantings. Then make graph-paper cutouts of your deck ideas and try them on for size, location and effect on household traffic patterns. Decks serve best when connecting the family's most-used inside and outside activity areas—linking back or side yard with kitchen or family room. But try your ideas all around the house.

Decks are for expansive living. As one builder puts it: "Everyone needs ample 'butt-space."' So, be sure you build a deck that's large enough. Make a full-page scale plan of the deck, then mark a 3' arc access area at entries and stairs. Make paper cutouts of a 3'×4' rectangle for a barbecue grill in use; 4'×6' rectangles for occupied deck chairs; 4' diameter circles for standing people. See if, with furniture moved aside, you have a 6' wide track for your youngster and a pal on Hot Wheels. The deck may demand that the garden be moved or suggest a whole new landscaping plan. Take your time; paper's cheap.



Plan to spend $3.50 to $5.00 per square foot. In these tight-pursed times, bank financing may be a problem for those who want to build a deck themselves. However, many building supply outlets will finance up to $1,500 worth of materials. Lumber and fittings for few home-builder-scale decks will cost more; a discount lumber yard near me sells lumber and fittings for a 6'×8' entry deck for $170, and a 16'×24' model (railings included) for $1,300.

A Trial Layout

Next, make a string-and-stick mockup. Set stout boards or poles at the corners and every few feet around the deck's outline, run taught cord around them, clear and rough-level the land and try living in the space for a while. Be sure you have easy access from the house. An existing door may suffice, or you may need to cut a door in the kitchen or family room wall.





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