Timber vs Composite : balancing the facts with the hype.
In the last decade a plethora of new and exciting landscape products have entered the market pushing the envelope of outdoor design and aesthetics. At the vanguard of these products is Composite decking available in a bewildering array of specifications and qualities. Here we will review the truth behind the timber vs composite debate.
The claims are that Composite solves all the problems of traditional timber decking but what are the real pro’s and cons such as cost , durability , useability and serviceability and what exactly is it and how’s it made?
Let’s answer the last questions first. What is it and how is it made?
Composite is an engineered product made primarily from wood fibre (often pulp or wood flour) Plastics , binders and adhesives. The product can be solid or hollow section and varies greatly in its constituent parts. Wood fibre is generally a by-product of timber and paper industries , which is then mixed with plastics and polymer (petro oil based) resins . Clearly these ingredients and a high energy production chain make these products expensive to produce and create a lot of CO2. This however needs to be balanced against the longevity of the product and all the other cost factors associated with maintaining this and other materials over the life of the deck.
Below I have compiled a list of approximate costs per m² for a variety of decking materials , including my go-to Southern Yellow Pine or SYP ( I have also included SYP as the framing material for all cost comparisons apart from Baltic pine decking which I have costed on a mixed softwood or Baltic pine frame). I have included SYP as the frame material for Composite as it has a great stress rating C24+ (it’s very strong) and a long lifespan in excess of 30 years. There’s no point spending good money on a fancy top if the frame is going to turn to rot in 8 years or so.
Material cost/M² for decking products including frame and fixings based on a flat deck structure circa 20m² :
Baltic Pine : £45/m²
Southern Yellow Pine : £60/m²
Hardwood Balau decking : £85/m²
Trex composite decking : £125/m²
Millboard composite : £160/m²
As we can see prices vary a lot but the 2 market leading composites top the chart . There are lesser composites available at lower prices but generally you get what you pay for. Also be aware you can spend a lot more on Composite constructions if you use the recommended composite joist materials such as Millboard’s Duoframe or similar, add a £60 premium/m².
Composite decks are more expensive to build not simply because of the cost of the material but also because it takes more joists more fixings and more time to work with a decking material that lacks structural integrity. Composite is not usually stress graded and is prone to move and bend when under pressure , meaning joists need to be installed at around 100% closer centers than timber. This means more wood more fixings and more time , all of which equates to more cost and a higher footprint. Check out our Southern Yellow Pine range here.
What are the pro’s and cons of Composite over timber?
Composite has a definite maintenance cost benefit over timber. This doesn’t mean it cleans itself it will still need regular cleaning , algae moss and lichen will still grow in the cracks on composite and air born pollutants will still stick to it making it dirty , but it does not need to be “serviced “ like a wooden deck. A wooden deck will need cleaning , ideally with a quality alkaline cleaner such as Sodium metasilicate, never bleach, it may need flat sanding periodically and it will need feeding with a good quality penetrating oil, all this needs doing every 18 to 30 months . This all costs money . The question is whether it’s worth doing ?
Before we answer that let’s look at the cons of composite .
Non porous textured material is slower to dry out. Composite is textured in order to increase friction without which it will be slippery as smooth plastics inherently are. These textured pockets hold water after rain and this is what algae mold , moss and lichen live on.
All materials fade and weather with UV exposure despite what some manufactures might claim .
Millboard market this fading as “UV tone down and slight yellowing over time” . In reality this means parts of a composite deck with higher UV exposure will be a different colour to those more shaded areas. I have seen a lot of faded yellowing decks.
Composite just like timber will stain and discolour as a result of animal faeces, tannin from falling leaves and also juices from berries . They will also suffer scorching from BBQ’s and other heat sources. With timber this can be sanded off if it gets into the wood , it’s more difficult to remove from polymers . Specialist cleaners and some recoating products are available but this is all still maintenance.
Scratches or burn marks are also usually simple to sort on timber and require replacement on composite as it loses its top coat when sanded.
With all decks the more you use it generally the better it will look as continuous foot traffic will lightly abrade and clean the surface making it a tough place for anything to grow. However unlike timber with composite the thin top surface layer of the board will be worn away over time often leaving a dull flat patchy surface. There’s a very good reason Millboard only offer a 5 year commercial warranty , it gets more traffic. Clearly each time you service a wooden deck you are removing a very small layer of timber revealing beneath great looking wood that matches the rest of the deck.
Composite warms up more than timber in the sun. This can lead in some products to warping and distortion, particularly so in products with hidden fixings and clips which are not as robust as top screw fixed decks.
To quote Millboard again “ As with all composite products the boards tend to get hotter than timber when exposed to direct sunlight. They may be uncomfortable to walk on and footwear may be necessary, darker colours particularly.”
So what of old fashioned timber? It needs regular maintenance yes.
It can also rot where a pot has been left standing for years .However it’s easier to repair it can be re coloured to any tone you chose and if the correct timber’s selected and well maintained will last as long as any composite deck. After all a deck’s only as good as its frame .
To conclude :
I have weighed up both sides of the timber vs composite debate and the question is how does a well maintained quality wood deck stack up against a premium composite in terms of maintenance cost over the duration of its life?
If we take the example of a 20m² deck . Millboard cost for materials would cost around £160/m² or £3,200 excluding VAT and installation cost (as of May 2023). It will also need cleaning ,and there’s a cost to that, let’s call it £5/m² per annum for a jet wash and proprietary composite cleaner. That adds up to around £1,000 over 10 years, realistically a lot more if you pay someone else.
Compared to an SYP deck of 20m² at £60/m² or £1,200 excluding VAT and installation cost. That gives an approximate budget of £2,000 for servicing the deck.
Working on a generous £25/m² service cost that’s £500 to service the deck , on average, every 2 years. That means that after 14 years and 6 services your composite and timber decks are breaking even.
Obviously all this does not take into account factors such as increased composite installation costs , potential higher composite replacement board costs due to scrapes , scuffs and staining.
The risk of your composite manufacturer deleting your deck board model etc .
Clearly composite avoids the hassle of finding a quality service contractor as many can wield a pressure washer but few, as yet, have the knowledge to correctly maintain a timber deck.
I am however delighted to say that change is coming with knowledge spreading and Deck service “Universities” springing up thanks to the likes of Steven Shires at DeckCleen (here) . Products are improving dramatically too with Expert Stain and Seals penetrating timber oils (here) in a wide range of colours offering amazing long lasting results. Knowledge and product advances are spreading and real wood decks have never looked so good or lasted so long.
To summarise. There are those who don’t want the hassle of real wood and prefer to spend more on Composite’s initial outlay safe in the knowledge that they don’t need to service the deck as thoroughly. However a composite deck owner still needs to pick up a phone or pressure washer lance and get the deck cleaned.
They will also watch the surface fade , wear and stain over time , even with the best available products and despite all those headline marketing promises .
While with a carefully selected timber deck you can have a long lasting great looking deck and change to another colour whenever you service. Safe in the knowledge that real wood can be fed , nurtured and re-finished. It has soul and personality which far outweighs that of it’s composite brethren (in my humble opinion).
Thus, in the timber vs composite debate I believe that natural timbers are by far the superior material.
Whichever side of the timber vs composite fence you may sit I hope you enjoy your deck whatever it’s made from and that you have enjoyed my article. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
For and on Behalf of The Manchester Deck Company