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SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING HOME & GARDEN GUIDE : THE HANDYMAN : Sometimes a Deck Is Better Than a Patio

Times Staff Writer

A deck, in Southern California home improvement parlance, most often is a redwood structure hanging off the second floor of a home or cantilevered out over a hillside.

A patio, on the other hand, usually is a flat concrete slab at ground level.

But it doesn’t have to be so.

A deck can be built just about anywhere a patio can be poured, and the warmth and texture of wood, combined with its relatively easy maintenance, makes a wonderful replacement for concrete.

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And for the do-it-yourselfer, a ground-level deck isn’t all that difficult or expensive to build.

When Michael and Lois Mirkovich moved from a tiny Balboa Island apartment to a 1,200-square-foot condominium in Irvine’s University Town Center, creating an outdoor area was a priority. They wanted to extend their space for entertaining, exercising and relaxing, and provide a clean, safe place for their son, Adam, to play.

The two-bedroom condo had only a small rear yard--no hillsides and no upstairs family room to give access to a second-floor deck.

Still, the Mirkovichs, neither of whom was enamored with concrete, decided to install a wooden deck. They just put it where most people put a patio.

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The result, after six weekends of work: a beautiful herringbone-patterned redwood deck-cum-patio, fitted neatly into a pocket of yard framed on three sides--by the window wall of the living room, the sliding glass doors of the dining room and the stucco fence that separates the Mirkovichs’ back yard from the neighbor’s. The deck extends out an additional 6 feet into the main portion of the rear yard, giving it an overall dimension of 12-by-16 feet.

Michael Mirkovich, an attorney, decided to tackle the project himself because he enjoys working with his hands.

He had learned construction skills when, after graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a master’s degree in social ecology, he was recruited to play water polo in Australia for the University of Queensland club team in 1976-77. “I played water polo for free,” he recalls. “They got me a construction job to pay the bills.”

But almost anyone who can swing a hammer and handle a power saw can follow the Mirkovichs’ example and build a lasting and good-looking ground-level deck.

The 12-by-16-foot deck described below will cost between $1,000 and $1,200 to build yourself, which is competitive with the cost of hiring a contractor to put in a standard concrete patio. “And aesthetically, it is so much nicer,” Mirkovich says.

Not only do the wide, “V"-shaped herringbone pattern and the warm reddish color of the wood give the deck a level of character that few concrete patios can match, it also wears well.

Wood doesn’t crack or chip at the edges like concrete. And Mirkovich avoided a common deck maintenance problem by refraining from painting or staining the deck. Instead, he applied clear water seal to each board before fitting the pieces together. All he does to keep the decking looking its best is to swab on a new coat of water seal every 6 months--a process that takes less than 2 hours.

To keep the deck level with the floor of the house and still avoid the rotting and warping that will occur if wood is placed directly in contact with the earth, Mirkovich built it on a series of prefab concrete piers with mounting brackets for 4-by-4s. After installing the piers, he laid a layer of plastic sheeting on the ground to keep weeds from growing and to serve as a moisture barrier.

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To avoid attaching the deck to the house so there would be no building code problems and no chance of water running indoors, Mirkovich built it as a free-standing structure.

Here’s how you can do it:

(Because building codes differ from city to city and the characteristics of each project can vary widely, use these instructions only as a guide, making sure your project complies with your local building codes.)

The Foundation

1. Instead of fastening a portion of the framing to the walls or foundation of your house, install prefab piers so that the mounting brackets are about 4 inches from the wall. Set them so only an inch remains above ground. If your lot slopes, adjust the depth at which the piers are buried so the exposed tops are level. The distance between piers should be 5 to 6 feet. A line level, attached to a length of heavy string that is fixed to the house at floor level, is the best device for leveling the piers. A slight slope away from the house will keep rain water from running inside.

2. Cut treated fir 4-by-4s to the appropriate length. Measure the distance between the ground and the level of your home’s floor, subtract the 1 1/2-inch thickness of the decking boards and the distance the piers extend above ground level.

3. Fit the 4-by-4 posts into the mounting brackets on the piers, mark the bolt holes and drill through with a 3/8-inch wood bit. Bolt posts to brackets with 3/8-by-3 1/2-inch lag bolts, making sure they are straight and level. (If you taper the top of each post about 30 degrees, it will shed water. Coating the bottoms with roofing tar will further protect against water damage.)

The Framing

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1. Cut treated fir 2-by-6s to length for main joists. For a 12-by-16-foot deck, Mirkovich used 16-foot joists. Cut a single joist for each outside row of piers and two joists for each interior row.

2. Mount joists, tops level with the tops of the 4-by-4 posts. Tack in place with 16-penny galvanized nails. Exterior joists go on the outside of the piers (if you have a row of piers against the house or fence, the 4-inch space you left will give you plenty of room to slip the joist between the wall and the 4-by-4 post). Interior joists are fastened to each side of the mounting posts, parallel to the exterior joists.

3. Drill two slightly staggered 3/8-inch holes through each joist and support post. Fasten single joists to the posts with 3/8-by-5 1/2-inch lag bolts. Use 3/8-by-7 1/2-inch lag bolts for the paired joists.

4. Measure and cut treated 2-by-6 cross pieces to fit between the joists.

5. For maximum strength, fasten them on 10- to 12-inch centers using galvanized joist hangers and 16-penny galvanized nails. Make sure the tops are flush with the tops of the joists. If the cross pieces are lower than the joist tops, the decking will sag; if higher, the ends of the decking won’t nail down solidly and will tend to split.

The Decking

Use select grade redwood for best results.

For a simple “V"-shaped herringbone pattern, cutting the ends of the boards at a 60-degree angle looks best. Decking can be run out to the edges of the deck, so the ends of each board are visible. Or, as Mirkovich did, decking can be framed, like a picture, to hide the board ends and give the deck a more formal look. Framing the deck, however, makes the cutting more involved and requires extra joists and cross pieces, and won’t be dealt with in these instructions.

Use a hollow-ground planing blade in your saw to minimize splintering and keep edges smooth.

Coat each board with water seal and allow to dry before cutting.

Then follow these steps:

1. For the first side of the “V,” lay a piece of untrimmed decking across the joists, adjust it to the proper angle with the ends overhanging the side and center joists, and nail it down with 10-penny galvanized finishing nails. Then nail each successive board in place, leaving a 1/8-inch gap between each for drainage and circulation (make a spacer from scrap 1/8-inch plywood or hardboard).

2. Using a long straightedge or chalk line, mark the ends of the boards parallel with the outside edges of the joists. You can trim the decking flush with the exterior joist or allow it to overhang a bit, but you must add 2 inches to the inside edge to allow for the space between the paired interior joists.

3. Trim edges along the lines you’ve made.

4. Coat the cut ends with water seal.

5. To cut boards for the opposite leg of the “V” design, use a cutting jig to trim one end of each board. (To make the jig, use a 2-by-4 about 2 feet long and glue and bolt a 1-foot section to it at the proper angle--60 degrees is suggested, but it can vary according to individual tastes. Then you can lay the straightedge of the jig along the edge of each piece of decking and use the angled piece to guide your power saw. A rigid, moveable jig ensures that the angles you cut don’t vary--which is of critical importance in setting a herringbone pattern.)

6. Coat the trimmed ends with water seal, then butt them against the inside edges of the first course of decking to form the point of each “V.” Let the untrimmed edge of each board hang over the side. Nail boards into place, with 1/8-inch spacing.

7. Trim outside edge as described in No. 2 above and coat remaining exposed ends with water seal.

8. Nail a 2-by-6 across the exposed joist ends to serve as a facing board for the edge of the deck that juts out into the yard.

It takes time, and you’ll likely end up with a mashed finger or two and more than a few splinters, but the end result is well worth it.

The Mirkovichs have found that their deck enables them to entertain friends without feeling crowded. In other words, building it enabled Michael Mirkovich to add about 176 square feet of living space to his condo at far less expense than adding a room.

MATERIALS NEEDED TO BUILD THE DECK

These are the materials you will need to build a 12-by-16-foot redwood deck at ground level:

Tools

Claw hammer

Power drill

3/8-inch wood bit, at least 8 inches long

Portable circular power saw

Hollow-ground planing blade for saw (optional)

Box end wrenches or sockets and socket wrench

16-foot tape measure

Nail set

Paint brush or roller

A sturdy shovel

A line level

Hardware

12 10-inch concrete piers with 4-by-4 mounting brackets

80 2-by-6 joist hangars

24 3/8-by-3 1/2-inch lag bolts, washers and nuts

24 3/8-by-7 1/2-inch lag bolts, washers and nuts

5 lbs. 16d hot-dipped galvanized box nails

10 lbs. 10d hot-dipped galvanized finishing nails

5 gal. water seal

10-by-50-foot roll 6-mil. polyethylene plastic sheeting

Treated fir

3 4-by-4-by-8 feet

4 2-by-6-by-16 feet

20 2-by-6-by-12 feet

Decking

500 feet 2-by-6-by-8 feet, select redwood


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