How not to build curved decks

A Gorgeous Curved Disaster Deck: “Death by 1000 Cuts”

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How NOT to build a curved deck. (revised 4.22.2017)

Curved decks have been a trend of late–however, there is little information about building well on the curve. The advice available at the book store may not get you there!

I had the chance to see this Richmond Hill deck up close and I am sure it is long gone by now. There was plenty of problems with this deck ranging from footings to the way it was built. Lets stay positive, the railing guy didn’t do a bad job. The patios were collapsing, the stairs were scary, oh, wait, the railing guy did the stairs! Ok, the railing guy sucks!
This brings up a point. When you want to break new ground, and do something really different you may experience a burn. I am not talking bruised ego due to something failing, that’s different. I am talking about a cash burn. In order to do anything well it means research and development–that is not free. It means fixing…adapting…creating something that works no matter what it costs.  In this case, the deck was deemed good enough and the contractor either folded or walked away.  These days, clients expect better, so lets learn from somebody elses mistakes.
curved-decks-the-wrong-wayDid you notice where the eavestrough from the house is routed? The bottom tread buried in the ground? The 3″ Step in the patio? The patio crumbling at the post bases? These are all hints as to what went wrong.  The closer you look at this oddly attractive thing, the more you find. This was filmed a few years ago, if it happened today I’d have shot video too.
Judging by the reaction of the homeowner, he likely had a hand in the design if not building as well. He didn’t appreciate me criticizing and I would describe him as hostile. The consultation might have lasted 15 mins, and yes, I may have spent too much time laughing, and not enough time listening. I heard him say sunroom on top and just lost all control!That is one of my flaws, aside from being a hack writer. When I see something poorly crafted I can be a tad critical. Now, if only people were to find blog posts I do without a stitch of editing done and let me know. Maybe then I could evolve as a writer? Sometimes I wonder if anyone reads this stuff at all!

Sorry, I don’t know who built this death trap, but I did let my builder friends that are guilty of using kerf cuts know about it.

This is a perfect example of how NOT to build a curved deck. I know this is how they do it on TV, however, I visited this one when it was 5 years old, and it wiggled like a cobbled together scaffold. It had nice strong looking support posts and the deck was flimsy. Unfortunately, by the time you fix everything that is wrong with this deck there is nothing to save on the existing structure.

My God, what a beautiful deck it was! Brilliant design, just badly, badly, terribly orchestrated. I love the concept, I love the look, but when you see the mistakes you will shake your head in disbelief.

 A Curved Deck with Structural Concerns Everywhere!

Where’s the Meat?

failed-curved-decksAs you can see kerf cuts only leave 1/4″ or so of solid wood to nail through. Not quite enough to keep the deck straight, and the kerf cuts expose end grain and cause what is left to rot prematurely.

how-not-to-do-curved-decksSo Graceful and flowing, this deck is gorgeous, but walking up these stairs is like scaling the kid’s obstacle course at the carnival with the steps moving under foot! Kind of fun, sure, but will it impress your guests? What will your Architect friends think?

Kerf Cuts, Don’t do it Outdoors!

kerf-cutting-curved-decks

Kerf Cuts, so clever, so fun, piles of sawdust, and when you are doing them there is so much noise, and dust, but for outside applications, please don’t.
kerf-cutting-for-curved-rim-joists

Tragic Flaws on this deck:

  • No lateral bracing
  • The steel stairs project the weight outward causing them to spring.
  • The deck has no rim joist to speak of which means the joists all move independently. The joists are held in place by the fasteners in the decking like a pallet.
  • Some of the footings moved, which means they were poured on disturbed soil or were too small for the deck.
  • There was evidence of water infiltration into the stucco finish of the home as well.
  • Patios are a disaster
  • No flashing/counterflashing to stucco wall of house

The owner of the home asked me if he could add a 3 season room with pergola on top of the deck. He didn’t like what I had to say and might have been upset when I laughed. I let him know that I wouldn’t erect a big box umbrella on the existing structure and that it should be removed and rebuilt properly. Yeah… I need to work on my “Tact”.

A Kerf Cuts Rant

As you can see, the rim joist has released and failed completely. Even if you clad it in composite decking it will fail in a short time using this method.

Kerf Cuts are often used in construction, however, these should NEVER be exposed to the elements. When they are used in interior work they are usually filled with glue and then bonded to something. Anything you build outdoors needs to have the end grains sealed to prevent rot and should be built twice as strong. Building heavier for the outdoors just makes sense for safety after the structure starts to rot. Code is a MINIMUM!

Here is a note for all you building inspectors out there– “Kerfed Rims do not meet CODE!”. These should be an instant fail!

When nails are driven through this kerfed rim into joists, only about 3/8″ of solid materials is secured–which doesn’t take long to rot. The nails will pull through and if stressed all the fasteners will release.

The load is also supported by a nail that has 1″ of space to flex, which means it will carry even less load. Can you imagine what would happen to this deck during an earthquake?

Who started this Kerf Cuts Outside thing?

Though hard to say for sure, kerf cuts were originally used in pattern making. Form work for making forms for casting steel parts. If it worked well enough for that, maybe for framing it should work?

I did find these details for building curved decks published in a book by Black and Decker, “The Complete Guide to Decks. The information inside is deeply flawed. The book is so bad that a carpenter likely wasn’t even consulted during production.

I just glossed through it on the shelf, but among the numerous bad details, they instruct you to countersink all lag bolts into beams and framing. That has the effect of making the beams break away under load.

It weakens the connection by half. Your 2×8 becomes a 1×8. Rot sets in quickly to weaken the lag or carriage bolt connection. Please do not build any deck from this book! 400,000 copies have been sold, so if 1 in 4 actually built decks there are at least 100,000 dangerous decks out there if they followed instructions by Black and Decker!

Alternate bad ideas– My Pinto to your Vega!

I jumped online to see what information was available on curved decks. There is actually some guy making rim joists out of exterior plywood–another temporary method.

Exterior plywood / pressure treated plywood is not made to be exposed to the elements. It is made of thin layers or spruce, pine and fir, and a water resistant adhesive. The voids in the adhesive allow moisture to infiltrate. I wouldn’t expect those to last longer than a few years.

Try Cre-zone or Marine Ply. Crezone is fiberglass clad plywood, (you have to seal the edges), but this is the material that highway signs are made of. It can be laminated together in layers to make a good srong and durable curve.

The best material for curved structural parts is marine ply. Exterior suitable wood in many layers using waterproof epoxy. It may outlast the entire deck.

Steel framing may be a better answer, though I haven’t tried it yet– I will let you know how that goes!

 

This article was originally published in 2011, but the information is relevant so it has been revised and re-edited.

What kinds of disaster decks have you run across? Send me photos or a story by email at  [email protected]

 

By Lawrence Winterburn

 

If you want to see how curved decks should be built… check out the following links:

http://gardenstructure.com/product/a-circular-deck-in-mississauga-ontario/

http://gardenstructure.com/product/deck-with-curved-step-in-niagara-ontario/

http://gardenstructure.com/product/curved-decks-in-muskoka/

http://gardenstructure.com/product/curved-decks-near-peterborough-ontario/