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

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.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: September 14-16, 2018
Seven Springs, PA

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard