Decks are definitely hot: When public television's master carpenter Norm Abram was in town a few weeks ago to give seminars on deck building, his lectures were standing room only.
In fact, deck building is where a lot of budding home carpenters get their start. The structure is mostly visible, it's fairly straight-forward carpentry and the rewards are nearly immediate.
Plus there's a wealth of information available -- books, videos, and seminars.
In some neighborhoods, people band together to form a roving deck-building crew.
But before you call up the gang and order the pizza, you'll need two things: a good design plan and a building permit. The second is required in almost all locations, and you'll need the first to get it.
In addition to the design of the deck itself, your plan sketch should include the yard and notations of distances to the property line.
The deck plan should be detailed enough to help you compile the third thing you'll need -- a list of materials.
It helps with compiling the list if you break it down. Basically decks have three components:
*Support (footings, posts, beams and joists).
*Decking (the part you walk on).
*Trim (balusters, railings, stairs, planters, built-in seating, trellises, screens).
The materials list will also give you a good handle on expenses. Even if you have to spread out or put off the job, try not to skimp on any component. If you must err, do so on the conservative side. Build for the next millenium.
How do you accomplish that? Here are some tips from Kip Humphrey of Deckcraft Inc., of Baltimore:
*Don't set posts into ground or concrete. Use a post anchor with a bolt into the concrete footing. The anchor raises the post above the concrete, which allows the wood to dry out. Also, lime in the concrete can dissolve the surface of the wood. Although most jurisdictions allow it, setting posts directly in the ground exposes them to moisture, and they could rot.
*Suit the nails to the circumstance. While Mr. Humphrey doesn't like to use pressure-treated wood for decking, if it's called for, he nails it, three nails across at every joist, with spiral galvanized decking nails. (Technically, these nails are siding nails, with heads slightly smaller than common nails. "Use good-quality, American-made, hot-dipped nails," Mr. Humphrey says.) Cedar decking gets the same treatment. For redwood, he uses stainless steel ring shank casing nail (the head is even smaller; redwood is much less likely to warp).
*When they're working with pressure-treated wood, Mr. Humphrey has his carpenters wear a good gas-particle mask and heavy gloves. (He also has a clause in his contract warning homeowners about the dangers of contact with pressure-treated wood. You should get a pamphlet about precautions when you buy the wood. If you aren't offered one, ask for it.)
Mr. Humphrey is no fan of pressure-treated wood. "If we could, we would use redwood for everything," he says. Since that would be expensive, what they do "95 percent of the time," is use pressure-treated wood for ledgers, joists, and support posts, redwood for the decking, and cedar for vertical elements, such as balusters.
*Be sure your support structure is strong enough. If the distance from the footing to the beam is more than three feet, use six-by-sixes instead of four-by-fours, Mr. Humphrey says.
Most building inspection departments will provide a specification sheet that helps calculate loads. (In Baltimore County, it's called a "span chart" for decks.) Mr. Humphrey suggests that when you apply for a permit, you ask the building inspector to look over the framing plans. "Usually they are more than happy to help," he says.
Next: Roof decks.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.