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7 Deck Building Tips from the Pros

Updated: Feb. 15, 2023

Techniques for deck building, framing a deck, building stairs and railings and adding deck trim.

deck buildingFamily Handyman
Make your deck building go faster with these seven clever tips from the pros. It's tricks like these that allow professional to build a deck quickly and accurately.

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Deck Building Step 1: Simplify joist hanging

Construct a simple jig

Construct a simple jig with a 5 x 12-in. piece of plywood and a scrap 2×4 cut to the width of your joists. Align the 2×4 to your layout line. Tack the plywood to the top of the ledger, making sure it’s tight. Place the joist hanger around the 2×4 and nail 16d galvanized nails through all the holes into the ledger board.

The easiest method for running deck joists, especially when you’re working alone, is to attach joist hangers to the ledger board before installing your joists. The trick is to set them at the right height. Take a few minutes to tack together the jig shown here.

Cut the 2×4 to the average width of the joists (sometimes the joists will vary in width as much as 1/4 in.). Nail both sides of the hanger flanges to the ledger, leaving one side with about a 1/16-in. gap so a wet joist can slide into place. As you set your joists, chisel out a notch on the bottom if the joist sits too high or shim it if it’s too low.

Joist Hanger Jig

Build this jig to make joist hanging simpler.

Deck Building Step 2: Accurate notching

Measure and mark the boards

Hold the deck board tight against the post. Transfer the post location to the board with a combination square. Measure and mark the depth of the notch.

Cut out the notch

Cut out the notch with a jigsaw, holding the base at a slight angle to back-bevel the cut for a tight fit.

The most accurate way to cut a deck board around a post is to lay it in position against the post and transfer the post location directly onto it. When measuring for the depth of the notch, check both sides of the post. Oftentimes there’s a twist in the post and the measurements aren’t equal. Cut out the notch with a jigsaw.

Video: How to Build Deck Stairs

Deck Building Step 3: Space balusters with a jig

Spacing the balusters

Start at the center of the rail and work toward the ends, spacing each baluster with the jig. Support the other end of the balusters with a 1-in. thick board. Screw the balusters through the stringer with 3-in. deck screws.

Carpenters love to use jigs because they make work easier and faster. Here’s a simple jig that comes in handy for building rail sections It centers the baluster on 3-1/2 in. wide rails and sets the space between them typically 4 in. or less. When you attach the balusters, always start in the center so the leftover space on each end is equal. Measure the total length in advance and either start with a baluster in the exact center or with an opening centered —whichever makes the space between the last baluster and the post come closest to your 4-in. maximum baluster opening.

Baluster Jig

Build this jig to ensure correct baluster spacing.

Deck Building Step 4: Hanging stronger stair stringers

Cut a stair stringer

Cut a stair stringer as you normally would, leaving it extra long on top. Cut an additional 1-1/2 in. off the top riser to allow for the rim joist. Then cut the stringer where it butts into the second joist.

Mark the stringer

Mark the stringer positions and nail 2×8 blocking between the joists beside those positions. Secure the stringers to the blocking with four 3-in. deck screws driven along the lower edge of the stringer

Of the half-dozen deck stair hanging methods I’ve tried for 2×8 framing, this method works the best. Cut the 2×12 stringers extra long and secure them to blocking between the joists or to the joists themselves if they run parallel to the stringers. If possible, set your stair rise to 7-1/4 in. and tread to 11 in. (two 2x6s). Always leave a minimum of 3-1/2 in. of wood perpendicular to the back of the stringer and the deepest cutout.

Deck Building Step 5: Straighten a bowed deck board

Set and nail the boards

Set the board, bow in, and nail one end. Work toward the other end, nailing as you go.

Lever the board tight to the spacer

Drive a chisel into the joist and lever the board toward you. When the board is tight to your spacer, nail the board to the joist.

No matter how good your lumber supplier, a good share of your decking is sure to be bowed. Straightening bowed boards is a routine part of deck construction.

Deck Building Step 6: Trim deck boards dead straight

Attach a guide

Screw a straight board to the decking as a guide for your circular saw. Measure the distance from the edge of the saw blade to the base plate and position the board to allow about a 1-in. overhang for the decking. Run your saw along the edge, keeping the saw plate parallel to the decking and tight to the guide.

Beauty is in the details. Using a board to guide your saw as you trim your decking leaves an edge crisper than the steadiest hand can make. Set your guide board up as shown. If you use a 2×2 like we did, sight down it from one end to make sure you get it perfectly straight. You’ll have to cut the last two boards off freehand. Mark the entire cut with a chalk line and keep your saw going in a straight, steady motion.

Deck Building Step 7: Craft a beveled post cap

Deck trim: Cutting the cap

Set the jig fence by clamping a scrap 2×10 (1-1/2 in. x 9-1/4 in. x 9-1/4 in.) to the outer support of the jig. Set your circular saw to a 15-degree angle. Run your saw through the jig. Adjust the fence so your saw blade just cuts through the top of the cap. Set the square 2×10 cap material in the jig and cut the bevel on all four sides. Sand the caps to remove any saw marks for flawless deck trim.

Post caps

You can make perfect post caps for your deck trim just like this.

Placing a cap over your rail posts not only looks good as a deck trim element, but it also protects the vulnerable end grain of the post from the weather. Caps for 6x6s usually must be special-ordered, but you can make your own from 2×10 material and save the wait and money. This jig is made from 16-in. pieces of 2×8 framing and 1/2-in. plywood (see illustration). Setting the plywood guide on the jig to your circular saw requires some trial and error. Adjust it so the blade leaves a slight reveal on the top of the cap. Secure the cap to the posts with construction adhesive and 3-in. galvanized finish nails.

Beveling Jig

Build this jig to ensure accurate cutting for deck trim post caps.

Required Tools for this Deck Building Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Circular saw
  • Combination square
  • Cordless drill
  • Framing square
  • Jigsaw
  • Safety glasses
  • Sawhorses
  • Stair gauge
  • Straightedge
  • Tape measure
3/4-in. wood chisel

Required Materials for this Deck Building Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • Wood scraps for jigs