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How to Build Outdoor Wooden Decks

How Zoning Laws, Building Codes Affect Deck Design

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Picture of beach boardwalk decking.

Trying to create that "beach boardwalk" look in your backyard? Do it with a deck!

David Beaulieu

On Page 1 I've listed tools helpful for the project, but to build an outdoor wooden deck, obviously the primary supply needed will be the wood. It would be nice if I could provide the dimensions for your lumber, but there are really too many variables involved to give precise dimensions. Lumber dimensions would depend, for example, on the type of wood that you choose: pressure-treated, cedar, etc. The size of the deck is another variable.

Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that, when all is said and done, the choice about lumber dimensions is probably not yours to make, anyhow. Zoning laws and residential building codes will have a lot to say about what you can and cannot do in your deck project.

Before you even begin with your deck design (let alone deck construction), check into local zoning ordinances. Depending on where you live, you may be surprised to learn just how restrictive zoning can be.

You should talk with your local building inspector, too, so as to comply with building codes in your area. Usually you’ll need to file for a building permit. Don’t look at your chat with the building inspector as all bad, though. For here’s another chance to pose some intelligent questions about deck building and get some free answers from someone with a wealth of information on the subject.

Local building codes may tell you specifically what lumber dimensions you need. Because they are local, there’s no point in speculating about them here. But, for the purposes of this article, I will assume that the posts you’ll be using as underpinnings for the deck are either 4x4s or 6x6s. I’ll assume the rest of the lumber will be 2 x something (at least 2x6, and possibly as high as 2x12). Note, however, that a 2x10, for instance, is not really 2” by 10” (that’s just a naming convention). It’s really 1.5" x 9.5".

Getting Started With the Deck Construction: Preparing the Site

Upon finishing your deck design plans and assembling the necessary tools and supplies, step one of construction will begin: preparing the site. This step is necessary if you’ll be building the deck over an area that is currently grass-covered.

Once you know how large a rectangle you want the finished deck to occupy, measure out this area and make marks on the ground to indicate where the deck will lie. To ensure that your rectangle is true, measure diagonally from corner to corner, both ways (i.e., upper left to lower right, and upper right to lower left). You want these measurements to be equal.

Using a shovel, remove any grass or weeds from this measured area, to form your working space. Later, before closing off this working space with decking, apply mulch over this space to suppress weeds. But for now, your main concern is to furnish yourself with as level a working space as possible. This will be important later in the project, when you dig holes for concrete piers – which need to end up at the same height! You’ll be more likely to achieve this if you start off on level ground.

On Page 3 we’ll take a look at what may be one of the major decisions you’ll need to make in your deck-building project….

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