Consumer Reports explains the pros and cons of wood, plastic, composite and aluminum decking materials. Plus, a safety checklist for any deck.

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About 80 percent of homeowners who install decks use real wood, according to Consumer Reports. While some stains can trim the work required to maintain wood, CR’s latest tests show that synthetic planks can offer lasting good looks with less upkeep.

CR recently published the results of its one-year exposure tests of wood, composite, plastic and aluminum decking materials. They found that some synthetic decking didn’t make the grade for rigidity, and some tonier wood products looked worse for wear.

Choosing decking material

CR looked at the pros and cons of each common decking material. All prices are per 100 square feet.

• Wood is best for authenticity, but it tends to change color, crack and absorb stains if it isn’t restained. Prices vary depending on the type — pricier options include cedar, redwood and tropical hardwoods. Iron Woods Ipe, $800, and Thompsonized Southern Yellow Pine, $225, stood out in tests because both were slightly better than cedar at keeping their original color.

• Composite, which blends ground-up wood and plastic, has the look of wood without the need to stain. Composite decking is improving with added UV and mildew inhibitors. However, some brands offer far less resistance to slips, stains and mildew. Symmatrix, $525; Verdanda, $425; and Tamko Evergrain, $525, scored highest overall in tests.

• Plastic is best for resisting the elements without staining, but some can look cheap, some are slippery and all sagged more than wood in tests. For toughness with easy upkeep consider Eon, $600, and Azek, $625. These brands resisted color change, staining, mildew and slipperiness.

• Aluminum stood out for its toughness, rigidity, slip resistance and color, which should last indefinitely. The material’s textured finish added traction in tests. LockDry, $700, aced all tests, but the metallic look isn’t for everyone, and the product is pricey.

Stains for wood decking

Wood decks need to be stained every one to three years. Flood Solid Color Deck & Siding, $21, was top-rated in tests. After three years of exposure to the outdoors, its opaque finish looked and protected best.

Other opaque finishes that performed well include McCloskey Storm Coat Deck & Siding 7953, $16, and Thompson’s Water Seal Deck & House, $20.

For a semitransparent finish, consider Sikkens Cetol SRD 1708902, $27, and True Value Woodsman UV 7338872, $20, which performed comparably, although Sikkens requires only one coat. These are especially good choices for pre-2004 decks that typically used toxic chromate copper arsenic (CCA) lumber, since semipermanent stains tend to seal as they penetrate and are less likely to flake as they age.