Better Looking Composite Decks, By Not Staggering Decking


Composite decking is a beautiful low maintenance decking option replacing many wood decking options. Which is probably why I install more composite decking then wood. With many homeowners embracing the low maintenance of composite along with its unique look.

Even though both wood and composite deckingOpens in a new tab. are similar in appearance, they have some differences which need to be accommodated during construction.

For example, staggering of decking boards. Traditional wood decking boards are staggered to reducing waste as off-cuts are integrated into the deck. Less waste, savings in the bank. But

Composite decking should not be staggered on a deck. Staggered decking requires butt joints, but composite decking expands and contracts with temperature changes making butt joints unsightly. It is better to design a composite deck with intentional design elements to avoid staggering boards for a wider composite deck.

Before getting into why not to stagger composite decking, let me suggest a few better alternatives. Ways to install composite decking that do not require butt joints.

Install Longer Composite Decking Boards Instead of Staggering

Most quality composite manufacturers sell longer boards. Traditionally, wood decking comes in 16′ length composite decking from Timber Tech or Trex. For example,  you can order 20′ long boards. Allowing you to almost span the width of most suburban homes.

Yes, 20′ long boards are harder to work with, and you will need to pay for delivery. But those are short moments in the life of your deck. The extra work and cost are worth not having to see ugly butt joints for the next 25 years.

Design Wider Composite Decks with Inserts to Avoid Staggering Joints

If your deck is wider, then available composite boards integrate inserts into the design. Removing butt joints from the decking while enhancing the look of the deck.

A single insert border doubles the potential size of the deck while avoiding staggering boards and butt joints.

Using standard 16′ decking boards with an insert allows a composite deck over 32′ wide. Exceeding the width of most houses. User longer boards allow even more width.

Using a different colour deck board for the insert also subtly defines rooms on the deck. The border defining the lounging area from the cooking area with the barbeque. Subtle but often appreciated when you are enjoying the deck. To the point that I would suggest borders just for aesthetic and use regardless of construction advantages.

Picture Frame the Composite Deck to Extend the Deck Without Staggering Joints

Similar to inserts but wrapping the edge of the deck with additional decking. I highly recommend if you do insert that, you also incorporate picture framing as it will improve the look and use of the deck while increasing the deck’s size.

Picture framing is not as effective as a decking insert to eliminate staggering joints while increasing the deck’s size but still adds to its dimension.

A single picture frame can add a little under a foot (300mm) of deck to the decking length. If you are really adventurous, adding a double picture frame will increase the size even more.

A small word of caution lining up your picture frame mitres on a double frame is the next level of carpentry than a single frame. But the look is outstanding, with the added width to your deck.

If your into angle decking running the field boards at on angle can also remove unsightly butt joints and the need to stagger joints.

Angle Field Boards Design to Eliminate Staggered Joints

This solution only works for wide but shallow decks. By angling the boards, they run between the house and the picture frame without joints. As each board only needs to span the forty-five-degree distance between the house and edge of the deckOpens in a new tab.. All without any joints.

Just like insert, this adds to the deck’s look, with the contrasting angled border butting into the picture frame boards.

This option is limited to only shallow decks. Decking running at a forty-five-degree requires decking 1.414 longer than running parrel. So, 16′ decking only covers an 11′ deck. If you order the longer 20′ boards, your deck can be 14′ deep, including the picture frame.

A nice look, but not the most efficient use of material. As the design will create a deal of waste with cutting angles on all the boards.

Along with composite decking run at an angle requires additional support. Most require 12″ (300mm) on centre joist spacing instead of the standard 16″ (400mm). Increasing the cost and labour of the deck constructionOpens in a new tab..

More a solution for deck aesthetic reasons not economics.

Problems with Staggering Composite Decking

It’s not the staggering the boards that really is the problem but the butt joints. Butt joints on composite decks create many issues that you will want to avoid. Here are a few to demonstrate why to avoid staggering boards.

Butt Joints are an Open Ugly Sore on a Composite Deck

Literally! Composite decking expands and contracts regularly. In the heat of the day, you will have boards tightly butting together. In the morning, a ½” (12mm) gap. A real eyesore.

Suppose you try to outsmart it and install the decking tight in the cool of the day. Over time the ends will mushroom from the pressure on the decking pushing itself together. And this is composite. It cannot be sanded out or repaired. You have just made it ugly.

Butt Joints on Composite Decking Collect Dirt

Not only do you have those ugly gaps, but they become pockets for dirt. Which is a real pain to clean and increase rot. As they collect moisture and rot the top of the joist.

Just imagine those little pockets of dirt sprout with weeds growing out of your decking. You will never butt composite again.

Staggering composite Decking Requires Additional Framing  

Yes, additional framing is required for staggering decking. Composite decking needs the full 1 ½” (38mm) of framing to support the ends. If you stagger the joints, an additional block will need to be added to the joist to support the decking.

Ideally, a second joist is better than a block. With additional joist, you will need to be very intentional about the joints’ location to land on the double joist. Which then forces a staggered pattern, which increases off-cut waste.

Hidden Fasteners are Not Designed for Butt Joints

Yet another reason for an additional framing member. Most hidden fasteners, which are ideal for composite deckingOpens in a new tab., can only hold one decking board. Good Life decking is one of the exceptions with clips designed for butt joints.

But most composite clips will need to be doubled up at the decking ends to hold the decking in place.  Twice the fasteners, twice the framing to install them in.

Really not worth it.

Alternative Uses for Off Cuts Instead of Staggering Joints

If these four decking solutions don’t eliminate the need for staggered decking, and its killing you to throw away those off-cut boards, here are a few ideas you can incorporate those short off-cuts while improving your yard and deck.

  • Vertical skirting
  • Planter Boxes
  • Composite benches
  • Shelves
  • Birdhouses
  • BookEnds
  • Paper Weight
  • Propping up the barbeque
  • Yard size Domino Tiles (set up knock them down)

Its excellent material to use and work with. That is why you are building your deck out of it. Just a word of caution. Composite decking is not structural material. If it needs to support weight, it needs to be supported itself. But have fun, but just don’t design your composite deck with staggered joints.

Ryan Nickel

A Red Seal carpenter, passionate about building decks to be enjoyed.

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