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How to Replace Deck Boards

After 15 years, my cedar deck boards needed to be replaced. And while we enjoyed the look of cedar, having to pressure wash and stain every few years is just too much maintenance. But knowing how to replace deck boards is different from building a deck.

From understanding if a simple replacement is an option to tricks in demolition learn a few tips and tricks that can save you both time and money. 

And after just replacing my own deck boards, a few tools you’ll want to make sure you have handy.

Signs You Need to Rebuild the Deck

Decks are like onions. 

There are many layers to decks and one layer could make the whole project go sour.

So before ripping up boards and replacing it’s always best to make sure you have a structure for the next decade. Because, as you may already know, the part of the deck you can see is more expensive than the structure.

Starting at the footings, if any of the following apply consider a rebuild:

  1. In northern climates a properly sized concrete footing extending at least 54-inches into the ground is required. If your northern deck is resting on concrete blocks then new footings are a must.
  2. Thoroughly inspect the ledger board(s).  Are they lag bolted or “Simpson tied” to the house? Check your local building codes (usually online for your city) and see what is required. Either add fixing the ledger board to your project, or if the ledger board is rotten then plan to replaced it.
  3. Inspect the deck joists for proper construction. They should have galvanized steel joist hangers, galvanized nails or properly rated exterior screws.  
  4. And of course, make sure the joists will last. Green treat, unfortunately , does rot and require replacement. Because of climate and other considerations, the lifespan of pressure treated lumber, according to lumber.com, is 10-40 years.
  5. If your joists are not green treat then rebuild.
  6. For complex composite decks with or without angled patterns make sure the current joists are properly spaced.
  7. If the stair stringers touch the ground plan to replace them. They are almost guaranteed to have rotted and won’t last though another deck cycle.

Professional Opinion Required

The easiest way to determine structural rigidity? 

Have three professionals give you an estimate on the project. And, as part of the process, ask questions. If two say you can replace the decking only but a third says the structure isn’t suitable then ask why.

Lastly, most homes require a permit for any construction. So, rather than deal with issues later, consult the building inspector before touching any part of the structure. They usually will give you pointers and are not tied to a sale. And, in most areas, will make a (paid) inspection trip to give you an informed decision.

Remember you might be able to live with a shoddy structure.  But when you sell the house expect the home inspector to catch what you didn’t fix.

Tools Needed to Replace Deck Boards

Oscillating Saw

Replacing deck boards is a two-step project of removing and then rebuilding. 

Demolition tools:

  1. Framing hammer
  2. Crow bar
  3. Deck wrecking bar
  4. Oscillating multi-tool
  5. Cordless drill
  6. Circular saw to cut deck boards
  7. Driver bits that match the deck screw heads.

The one tool you won’t want to skip? A specialty deck bar to pull up the deck boards. 

Additional installation tools:

  1. Level
  2. Deck board pry bar
  3. Drill bits.

Removing a Deck Railing

First, before ripping the deck apart, there is a big decision to make: should I keep the rail?

If the rail is wood or composite, and the same material as the decking, it’s best to replace it. Because new material will not have UV fading, it will be almost impossible to match new and old.

However, if you have maintenance free aluminum or metal railing it should be carefully removed. Because these railing have residual value, if you don’t plan to use them they can be sold.  

Rail removal tips:

  1. Take a picture of the railing for later reference on post locations.
  2. Remove all of the screws if possible
  3. Minimize the volume of waste by cutting the railing into small pieces
  4. For stairs, consider leaving the railing (and deck boards) until last for safety

Deck Board Removal Option #1: Rip Up Everything

There are two ways of doing most jobs and that applies to deck removal too. 

And there is no wrong way, just preference.

The first choice is to rip up all existing boards and work down to a bare deck frame. For smaller decks low to the ground, this is a great choice.

But there are a few things to look at:

  • Look at your deck exits for higher platforms. Ending up at the end of a deck 12 feet (3.66 m) over the ground with no stairs or doors isn’t best.
  • Plan for how you’ll move deck boards onto the structure. For example, if we need the deck or stair boards for transporting new material, favor moving part of the material midway through.

Warning: Be careful to NOT overburden your deck. Keep fresh material in the same location as your old. Meaning: don’t overload all the new decking next to the house because it’s convenient. The reason? As you can guess, decks were designed for even weight distribution.

Deck Board Removal Option #2: Rip and Replace

Rather than change the entire structure at once, another choice is to take out a handful of boards and then change them.

For my project, I chose this route as the deck layout made it easy.

But there’s a right and wrong way to initiate this job: which board to take out first?

While your deck may be unique, for a standard deck that has a single ledger, the best choice is to start at the edge of the deck. 

Why begin at the end of the deck? Simple. You want to make any cuts, especially in composite, at the house. This allows hiding cuts in the flashing and prevents a thin strip in a visible place.

Option #3: Replace Just a Few Deck Boards

If your project involves just replacing a board or two then the time required will certainly be less. 

But, matching old and new decking is tricky. Not only will color need to be similar, the dimensions of wood will vary over the years.

When replacing deck boards consider:

  1. Finding and using the same fasteners
  2. Use careful cuts to remove partial boards (an oscillating tool is useful)
  3. Look for the same type of wood
  4. During removal use plywood or other protective material to not damage existing decking

Tricks to Removing and Replacing Deck Boards

Deck Stair Removal

After decisions on keeping your railings and method for taking out boards are done, the removal can begin.

And for old deck boards, a custom deck wrecking bar is a must. 

While you might start out thinking, you’ll remove the original screws, it seldom works that way. Because after screws endure years of service, rust, and deterioration, you’ll succeed with extracting just 50-70% of them. 

Which means Countless screws will be left in the original deck boards. And muscle will be required to remove them.

Steps to remove deck boards:

  1. Take out all the existing deck screws you can
  2. Use a deck wrecking bar to pry up the boards where screws remain.
  3. Use a framing hammer to break the shafts off remaining screws
  4. For corners or tight areas, employ an oscillating tool to make close-in cuts.

Tip: Some screws will start backing out, but then strip. Be sure to snap the heads off as you go to avoid stepping on them later.

Preparing For the New Decking

 The complexity of replacing the boards will depend on the current material. After selecting either all new material, or picking replacement boards to match existing, it’s time to build.

Installing new boards is generally the same approach as building the deck new. But you will want to pay attention to:

  1. Continuing to inspect for repairs.
  2. For new railings, review the railing installation instructions for new structural requirements. Many aluminum railings require a doubled green treat backer to bolt to.
  3. Use joist tape to protect the joists from rot.
  4. Make sure to have all the right screws and hidden fasteners (if applicable) on hand.
  5. Composite decks may have narrower joist spacing requirements.
  6. Install railing structure supports

Use Joist Tape to Protect The Structure

If you plan for just one “extra” then make sure you protect the existing deck joists with protective tape. By simply adhering to the top edge of the joist this tape creates a waterproof barrier. And, by preventing moisture penetration on the flat edge of the joist will help prevent rot and decay. 

Building a new deck?  Then most contractors will use deck joist tape as well.

Plan Ahead For Deck Railings

The best time to prepare for new deck railings is before you out the decking down.

Why is pre-planning the railing important? Ease of installation later. With my project the aluminum railings required double 1-1/2” backers below the decking. Since backing boards are easiest installed without decking  installed I saved hours of time with the twenty two posts my project required.

What To Do If a Board Won’t Fit

There may be a difference in deck board thickness from today versus fifteen years ago. 

If your boards are too thin, simply shimming the joist is a quick fix. Just be sure to use a treated strip of wood.

However, for replacement deck boards that are too thick there a few options:

  • For non-treated wood a trip through either a planer or belt sander can do the trick.
  • With green treated wood, notching and chiseling the high spots is an option.
  • Lastly, for composite wood, a belt sander is best as it can remove composite without chipping. 

Deck Board Replacement Cost

As most DIY’ers know, the cost to have a professional tackle a project is 3-4x the cost of material. 

Since an average deck of 150sqf with railings plus stairs just the material can be $5,000 for composite material. And, with lumber prices high, wood deck replacement boards are similar.

Key cost considerations:

  • Plan $5 per lineal foot of existing deck planking (including screws/fasteners).  Meaning, if you have thirty deck boards and all are ten feet long you have 30*10=300 lineal feet.
  • For deck skirting total the lineal feet and use the same calculation.
  • Deck railings are best estimated with a trip to a big box store.  But expect a standard deck to have railings equal the cost of the decking.

How to Save a Rotting Deck

Decks are used because they support traffic from the door to a ground and supply entertainment areas in between.

With that in mind, if you suspect your deck has already rotted then the best step is replacement. 

However, if your deck is only a few years old, is structurally sound, and your goal is preservation then there are inexpensive ways to protect the wood:

  1. Stain the deck if it isn’t already.
  2. Use a water sealer annually to prevent 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you just replace deck boards?

For newer decks with a green treat structure replacing the deck boards versus re-building the entire deck is sometimes an option. By removing boards or consulting a professional, your building inspector or both is always best

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