Hardwood - Softwood Vs. Composite Decks: Which is best?

If I had been writing this article some 5 or so years ago, I would have had a very different approach to what I write now. (September 3rd 2010). Then, I was managing director of a decking company in UK that specialised in softwood decking.

 I was just starting to be swayed by some of the arguments from the plastic - composite manufacturers, and had even recommended and specified composite decking for one large school project.

 Alas, delivery in the quantity that I required, was a problem and the project went ahead with softwood - not because it was better, but because it was available. 

The problem with trying to research the benefits of composite over wood decking, is that

  •  a/ Many of the 'research' articles are old hat. They have not moved with the times or with the advancements in manufacture of plastic decking products. And, all too often, the same junk writing is recycled by other websites, and so, like much on the web, one has to be very careful about the 'advice' given.
  • b/ There is still a lot of bad vibes about composite decking - which undoubtedly had problems a few years back, and more or less all brands in the USA were subject of either law suits or at least heavy criticism. Mud sticks! (Though some would argue, not quite so much to plastic decking as it does to wood!)
  • c/ The cost element difference is now narrowing between good wood and good composite - plastic.

Environmentally Friendly

You will note that I have not mentioned the environmental aspects. This is mainly because I am unsure in my own mind, about the 'suggested' environmental plusses for plastic and composite, or the so called environmental 'problems' with using wood. I do not simply believe, at face value, the reports in favour of plastic decking that suggest that recycling is best! If you take the overall energy aspect into account when comparing wood with plastic, then there are many, many 'hidden' aspects which I suspect will even the equation up a little. If you are a dyed in the wood (oops! no pun intended) greenie, then you will disagree with most of my assumptions - and, probably anything that does not support your own viewpoint. So be it. I am not here to argue the case for an environmentally friendly product.

Having visited many forests where timber is commercially grown, I am happy that the work done in producing that timber is as environmentally friendly as can possibly be. The only exception to that, is some of the hardwood production - especially from so called managed stands of tropical hardwoods. I know for a fact, that teak can be grown in a sustainable way. That is not to say that I know that teak is being made available from sustainable forests.

Let Battle Commence - Wood v. Composite

It is very easy to get emotional about the 'friendliness and warmth' of real wood. Understandable, it has been around for a long time. That does not give it sole rights as being better or the only suitable material to carry on building things like our fathers and forefathers did. Things progress.

Some arguments for wood against plastic have been round for years. We put the other side and show that yes - plastic is better!

  • Wood is warm, and natural, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
    • Rubbish. Have you ever trod barefoot on an untreated - bleached - deck in the hottest of weather? The hotness - or coolness - is related to it's inherent colour more than the material construction. Light surfaces reflect heat - and so are cooler. (Touch a bit of white uPVC in the hottest of summer and see how cool it is. In the same area, touch something that is dark in colour!)
  • Natural wood is easier to maintain than composite decking.
    • Anything in the open air will get dirty, and much depends upon where you live. That's why people have to wash their cars and windows. Dependent upon the species of wood used in your deck, it will need oiling at least each year and maybe more. Yes plastic decking - as wood decking - will get dirty from your local dirt. So, just wash it off - wood or plastic.
  • There is a mold problem with composite decking.
    • Correction - there 'was' a mold (mould) problem with earlier types of composites. There are also mold, mould, or fungal problems with most woods in shaded or damp situations.
  • Composite Decking is Slippery when wet!
    • This aspect has been rectified by the manufacturers long ago. More or less all plastic decking types have now passed the anti slip regulations for the USA. Anyway, don't take my word for it, simply search on Google for the term 'slippery decks' and see if it is wood or plastic which is the problem on the first 20 or 30 results!
  • Stains hard to clean on plastic decking.
    • I am not even going to enter into this argument! See our article on cleaning decking.
  • A Sinking Feeling with Composite Deck boards.
    • Because of the way and materials that are used in the manufacture of composite decking, they are not classed as having  'structural' properties. If for example you tread on a substantial timber deck board that is supported at say 1.8m (6 feet) it will probably sag - not break. If you do the same to a composite deck board, it will most certainly break. To overcome this, you simply position your decking joist closer than with wood decking.
  • Wood Decks looks better than Plastic Decks.
    • Oh yeah! It really is time to take your head out of the sand if that is your view. Have a look round at the images on this site - and others. Both materials look good, if used properly. Plastic composite decking is normally of uniform thickness and colour. Wood is not. That is not an advantage or disadvantage - just fact!
  • Wood deck last longer and wear better than plastic composite decks!
    • I guess that is why most of the 'decking' surfacing at the London Olympics 2012 has been specified for the use of composite decking. Maybe something to do with the fact that in a high traffic use area in London Zoo, it was decided that composite decking was the way forward. Both of these after long consultations and scientific tests.

It is is interesting to note that some manufacturers of Composite decking are now offering a 25 year guarantee, and that lab tests by Cooin group in China on one of their top end composites, has predicted a minimum 40 year lifespan!

The way forward!

Last word down to a friend of mine at Greater London Decking. This guy - Angus - is an out and out skilled carpenter by trade and has lived wood for most of his life.

Composite decking is a fairly new idea and the quality of the raw materials are now of an extremely high standard. The Greater London Decking team have a lot of experience using composite decking and are glad to offer it to clients as an alternative to wood. Composite decking has many advantages over traditional hard and softwoods including the following.


  • Zero slip
    • Zero maintenance
    • High strength
    • Zero cracking or splintering
    • No change in colour over time
    • Sleek and minimalist finish 

    I can tell you now, Angus is no idiot, and still loves his wood as well.

    By all means differ - and let us have your opinions - but please no PR splurge from timber or Plastics producers - just facts and experiences.... 

    Plastic, Composite, Wood decking. They all have their place.  The advantages of plastic composite are plain. Maybe, the deciding factor of wood over plastic composite will be price. That would be a short term advantage.

By David Hughes

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