Building a Custom Deck

We are at the tail end of the rainy season, and as the weather warms we’ll want to spend more time outdoors. If you’re thinking about building a deck, here are a few ideas.

In Mendocino County, most people build decks out of redwood or composite material. A third option, one most folks don’t know about, is an extremely hard wood called Ipe (pronounced “ee-pay”). It’s also referred to as Brazilian redwood.

I have a composite deck, and although I wish I’d chosen a natural wood, I have to admit that the composite is extremely low maintenance. I chose it because I am still recovering from the summers spent staining my father’s pride and joy: 6,000 square feet of redwood decking around our home. My whole family hand-brushed linseed oil on that deck year after year. If you don’t stain or seal a redwood deck, it will still last a long time, but it will eventually start to deteriorate—and it is really hard to get those redwood splinters out of your feet. Although I don’t have to maintain my composite deck, I have had to replace a couple boards because they didn’t wear well, and frustratingly, the color of the new boards does not precisely match my original decking.

Ipe, on the other hand, is the densest wood I have ever encountered. Trust me when I say, you do not want to try to pound a nail in this wood. If you use it to build your deck, you’ll drill every hole beforehand. Although it is more expensive (per board foot) than redwood, it is so strong that you can use 1×6 boards instead of 2×6 boards (like you would with redwood). And you only need to seal the cut ends. You’d only stain it for color preference, not because it needs protection like redwood.

Before you build, talk to a contractor or at the very least, a well-informed building supply person. Mike Mayfield at Mendo Mill doesn’t keep Ipe in stock, but he can get it for you. Late last year when I checked prices, Ipe was about $12 per board foot, while composite was $6 per board foot, and redwood was $2 per board foot. This means the cost per square foot is really $6 for Ipe since you use 1X6s not 2X6s.

As with any building project, you should review the permit requirements. Most decks require a permit, especially if your deck is a certain distance off the ground. (If it’s at least 30 inches off the ground, you’ll also need a railing or banister to prevent accidents. If a handicapped person could access the deck then it will need a handrail, period.)

I did come across an interesting deck kit where the finished deck doesn’t show any nails. It is installed with pre-made clips with a little lip, and you screw a cleat into the bottom of a board and then nail the cleat to the stringers underneath. But here’s a helpful hint, be sure to install this properly the first time because you cannot simply pull out the nails once they’re in. The great thing about this system is that nails never poke up and cause you to stub your toe, nor do they conduct the sun’s heat and burn your foot. These are foot-friendly decks all the way around. They’re more expensive, but may be worth it to you.

If you do go with a natural wood deck, be sure to install flashing between the deck and your house; it prevents rot around the boards of your deck and prevents termites from moving from the ground to your deck to your house if there was earth to wood contact anywhere.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at or visit If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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