If you're old school, you probably like your music on vinyl, your cup of joe black, and your business luncheons at a steak joint with dark wood paneling. You're also likely to want your deck made out of wood. And who could blame you: Wood is attractive, inexpensive, and lasts a good 20 years—provided you choose the right species.

Over the last decade, however, traditional decking material has been increasingly challenged by composite products made from a combination of wood and various types of plastics, such as recycled shopping bags or PVC. These products, manufacturers say, last longer than wood and require little maintenance, which is why the category is growing like gangbusters.

CHANGING TIMES Cleveland-based industrial market research firm The Freedonia Group concluded in a 2005 study that wood accounted for 97 percent of volume in the decking market in 1994, with alternative decking materials showing minimal penetration.

“By 2004, alternative decking materials in the aggregate had acquired 11 percent of the five billion board-foot market, posting double-digit gains in most markets over the [10-year] span. Composite decking will provide the strongest growth opportunities, posting 15 percent annual growth through 2009 to almost 900 million board feet,” the report concluded.

To be sure, wood will continue to have the lion's share of the market since pressure-treated wood is the most affordable decking option. But composite decking is posting impressive numbers because it performs better than wood. Manufacturers say the material is inherently more durable and low maintenance than pressure-treated lumber. Composite is also a darling of green-design enthusiasts because some products are made from recycled wood waste and plastic shopping bags.

According to ToolBase Services, a technical resource site run by the NAHB Research Center with funding from HUD, recycled wood/plastic composites are typically more rigid than 100 percent recycled plastic lumber, because the wood fibers act as reinforcement. The plastic encapsulates and binds the wood together to resist moisture penetration and degradation from fungal rot, ToolBase says.

RIVALING NATURE Of course, when plastic/composite decking first appeared on the scene, it looked like, well, plastic. For those consumers looking for a durable product with an authentic wood look, composites were not the answer.

“Initially, composite was basic; but it has evolved into a lot more colors and styles,” says Patti Pellock, marketing manager for the fence, railing, and decking division of Valley Forge, Pa.–based CertainTeed. “The technology has improved tremendously,” which has resulted in a more natural-looking product, she concludes.

Indeed, manufacturers such as Winchester, Va.–based Trex have ratcheted up the style of their products and are focusing on items that mimic tropical species such as ipe, teak, and mahogany. “We're appealing to consumers who want a more dramatic wood-grain look,” says Scott Fedor, decking product manager at Trex.

While the look may have improved and the performance is now well known, price is still an issue. “In general, recycled wood-plastic composites are cost-competitive with high-end decking materials, such as finger jointed pine and redwood, but are significantly more expensive than standard [pressure-]treated products,” ToolBase says.

The high price is one reason composite does not have much penetration in the production-home market. Builders are very much aware of the products and like them, but the price point remains an issue. Besides, the Freedonia report says that more than 85 percent of decking demand is generated through repair and improvement activity, which is inherently less cyclical than the new-construction market.

“Decking is not where new-home buyers choose to put their money,” Pellock says, “so decks are a strong remodeling product.” Still, Pellock says that there is a wide range of price points for builders depending on geographical location and supplier, so price does not have to be a hang-up. “The price is not as high as people think.”

For more product information, visit ebuild, Hanley Wood's interactive product catalog, at www.ebuild.com.