Pressure-treated wood is lumber infused with chemical preservatives to help protect it from rot, insects, and fungal decay. Its durability has long been popular for outdoor projects like decks, fences, and landscape structures. However, there are some downsides to using pressure treated wood. The chemicals used to treat the wood, like chromated copper arsenate (CCA), can leach out over time and contaminate soil and waterways. Many people are looking for alternatives that are more environmentally friendly and also avoid exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. Luckily, there are many great options available today.
Natural Wood Alternatives
Several types of wood have natural rot and insect resistance due to their high levels of lignin, the binding agent that gives wood its structure. Using these woods for outdoor projects often eliminates the need for pressure-treated lumber.
Western red cedar is among the most popular natural and renewable decking choices. The heartwood contains water-repellent oils that act as natural preservatives. Cedar has excellent workability and takes stain well. It is a moderately priced option and offers good durability. The wood is resistant to cupping and twisting and is less likely to splinter than other woods. Sources are plentiful since cedar is fast-growing. There are few disadvantages, only that the softness of the wood can sometimes lead to scratching. Regular sealing is recommended for best results.
Redwood is another premium wood that has natural weather resistance. It has a very high lignin content which repels moisture and insect attacks. Redwood is perfect for decking, outdoor furniture, and landscaping. It can last over 50 years with proper maintenance. Redwood has a relatively high price point but the beauty and durability make it worthwhile for many homeowners. Supply can be limited since many old growth redwood forests are now protected.
Cypress is in the same family as redwood and shares many protective oils that act as natural preservatives. The wood has good dimensional stability and moisture resistance. Cypress tends to have fewer knots than cedar and a more consistent grain pattern. It’s a great choice for porches, decks, outdoor projects, and other places that get wet. While cypress is naturally decay-resistant, sealing will help maintain the warm honey-gold color.
Western juniper is a sturdy choice for decking, siding, and outdoor furniture. The heartwood is rich in protective oils and resists decay and insects naturally. The wood has an attractive reddish-brown color and nice grain patterns. Juniper is harder than cedar which makes it more scratch resistant. The downside is that juniper can be tough on cutting blades and tools because of its hardness. But this hardness also lends to its durability and longevity. Sealing is still recommended for optimal performance.
Composite decking offers the look of natural wood but with added durability and low maintenance. These products use wood fibers mixed with resins and polymers to create a strong, weather-resistant material. Composite decking will not rot, warp, or splinter. It resists insects, moisture, stains, and other damage. Composite is more expensive initially but can pay off in the long run when you factor in upkeep and replacement costs. Here are some top options:
Trex is one of the most well-known brands of composite decking. They were one of the first to make composites for outdoor living projects. Trex uses recycled plastic film and reclaimed wood to create high-performance deck boards. The shell encapsulates the wood fibers to protect against moisture. Trex has good slip resistance and can handle both cold and hot climates. Recent changes reduced the mold and mildew risks of earlier formulations. Trex is highly durable but the upfront cost is higher than wood.
Azek makes PVC and composite decking designed to be durable, stain resistant, and low maintenance. Their PVC products are made from cellular PVC, giving a wood-like look but with plastic’s mold, stain, and scratch resistance. The composites blend plastic and wood flour for durability. Azek decking is more flexible and easier to work with than other composites. Prices are moderate and good warranties are available.
BamDeck uses bamboo fibers and plastic resins to create durable, sustainable products for outdoor living areas. Bamboo makes BamDeck more eco-friendly and natural than wood pulp composites. BamDeck won’t split, crack, or warp. It resists stains, fading, molds, and pests. BamDeck has a Class A fire rating for safety. It cuts and installs similar to wood. BamDeck comes in a wide variety of colors and grain patterns.
Plastic lumber is another wood alternative made from recycled plastic resins and waste. It is often made from recycled HDPE plastic bottles, milk jugs, detergent containers, and other post-consumer sources. Plastic lumber is used for outdoor decking, railing, landscape borders, and similar applications. The material won’t rot, split, or crack over time like wood.
- Rot and insect proof – won’t warp or splinter
- Does not require painting or staining
- Resists moisture damage
- Made from recycled plastics so it is eco-friendly
- Minimal maintenance required
- Withstands saltwater and other harsh conditions
- Lasts much longer than wood
Some leading manufacturers of plastic lumber include:
- Silca System – offers decking support from recycled plastic. Custom colors and UV protection available.
- Veranda – recycled plastic decking and railing with realistic wood grain patterns. 25 year performance warranty.
- Green Bay Decking – custom recycled plastic lumber for docks, decks, marinas, and piers. Withstands saltwater.
- TIMBERTECH – marine-grade recycled plastic decking. Resists mold, mildew, and fading. Looks like exotic hardwoods.
- Rhino Plastic Lumber – good for outdoor furniture, landscaping, and structural uses. Custom formulations available.
While plastic lumber can be more expensive than wood up front, it pays off thanks to great durability and low maintenance needs. Plastic lumber is ideal for docks, decks, outdoor furniture, landscaping, and other projects.
Thermally Modified Wood
Thermally modified wood is lumber produced using a specialized heating process that improves its dimensional stability, durability, and decay resistance. The wood is placed in a kiln and heated to temperatures between 392-500°F. This changes the wood’s chemical structure and removes moisture, making it more resistant to rot and insects. Brands like Thermory pine, Thermory spruce, and Thermory ash undergo proprietary thermal modification processes to create durable, stable lumber products.
- Enhanced resistance to fungal decay and termites
- Improved dimensional stability – less shrinkage and swelling
- Attractive color – turns a rich brown hue
- No chemical preservatives used
- Sourced from sustainable forests
- Can last over 50 years with proper installation
- Naturally insulated and lower thermal conductivity
Thermally modified woods are great alternatives to tropical hardwoods and pressure treated lumber. While more expensive than traditional SPF lumber, thermally modified wood pays off in terms of longevity and ecological benefits. It’s suitable for siding, decking, outdoor furniture, landscaping, and fencing.
Light Gauge Steel Framing
Light gauge steel framing is an excellent alternative to wood for structural applications like wall studs, roof trusses, and floor joists. It offers many benefits:
- High strength to weight ratio – as strong or stronger than wood
- Won’t warp, split, or crack over time
- Consistent quality – always straight and true
- Non-combustible and won’t rot
- Termite proof and impervious to insects
- Sourced from recycled steel (up to 98% recycled content)
- Quick and easy installation compared to wood
- Long lasting – over 100 year design life
Steel studs are readily available and come in standard dimensions similar to lumber. They are thin, lightweight, and easy to handle – no special tools needed. Steel framing is ideal for homes, low rise commercial buildings, garages, sheds, and other structures. It eliminates many problems associated with wood like twisting, dry rot, and pest damage. Though steel has a higher upfront cost, it pays off in the long run with superior performance and durability.
Patio and Landscape Paving Alternatives
For patios, walkways, and other outdoor living spaces, there are many attractive alternatives to avoid the maintenance required with wood decks. These materials offer great durability while providing aesthetic appeal.
Concrete makes a classic, durable patio surface. It comes in a variety of colors, textures, and patterns. New stamping techniques create realistic wood grain and stone looks. Concrete is up well to heavy use and requires minimal maintenance besides occasional cleaning. The timeless style can enhance the value of outdoor living areas. Pre-cast pavers are also popular and come in interlocking patterns for easy DIY installation.
Natural stone like granite, bluestone, and travertine create a high-end elegant patio. Stone has a timeless beauty and limitless style options from rustic flagstone to precision-cut patterns. Some maintenance is required to keep sediment from accumulating between joints but proper installation helps minimize this. Stone transfers heat easily, so shaded areas are ideal. The heavy materials and professional installation add cost.
Recycled Plastic and Rubber
For homeowners wanting a wood-free deck surface, recycled plastic and rubber patio pavers are an eco-friendly option. Materials like recycled tires and post-consumer plastics are processed into interlocking patio tiles. These let you create custom patterns and come in wood, stone, and abstract looks. Benefits include:
- Resist weathering and won’t rot, splinter or peel
- Require no sealing or staining
- Easy DIY installation – lightweight tiles
- Can be disassembled and reused
- Provide cushioning and comfort underfoot
- Limit joint pain compared to harder surfaces
- Safe for pets and kids – no splinters
- Relatively affordable compared to stone and concrete
Popular brands like Krate Outdoor Living, EcoTerrazzo, and Snap Together Patio sell durable, easy-install patio tiles that avoid wood’s downsides. Make sure to check thickness and compression ratings when comparing quality.
Aluminum is an ultra-durable, low-maintenance option for decking, stair treads, and guardrails. It will never warp, rot, or split over time like wood. Aluminum is naturally corrosion-resistant and handles harsh weather conditions with ease. The metals sleek, modern look works for residential, commercial, and marine applications.
- Won’t rust, peel, crack or splinter
- Resists saltwater, UV rays, mildew, and stains
- Low maintenance – no refinishing needed
- Long lifespan – over 40 years
- Many colors and finishes available
- Easy to clean – just rinse off dirt
- Recyclable at end of life
- Lightweight for easy handling
Aluminum decking has high material costs, making the upfront price significantly higher than wood. But superior performance and longevity make it worthwhile for environments like marinas and boardwalks. Correct structural support is needed to prevent flexing. Brite Aluminum and Wolf Serenity Deck offer sleek, sustainable aluminum decking solutions.
Interlocking Deck Tiles
Interlocking deck tiles provide a modular, easy-to-install alternative to standard deck boards. The plastic or composite tiles snap together over a subframe or hard surface. Benefits include:
- Super easy DIY installation – no special tools needed
- Tiles can be removed for easy access to roof and pipes
- Allows for custom patterns and designs
- Variety of color options available
- Can be disassembled and moved/reused
- Provides cushioning and comfort when walking
- Typically cheaper than composite or plastic deck boards
Leading brands like Camo, DekSmart, and NewTechWood offer durable interlocking tiles that resist weathering, stains, and fading. Most attach to the substrate with galvanized screws. Proper spacing between tiles is crucial for drainage. Interlocking deck tiles work well for elevated decks, porches, patios, walkways, and roof decks.
Responsibly Sourced Untreated Wood
With proper care and maintenance, some responsibly sourced untreated softwoods can also be suitable alternatives for decking, siding, and outdoor furniture. While these woods lack natural rot-resistance, using best practices helps maximize their performance.
Untreated poplar, fir, and pine woods are renewable options available through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Choosing locally sourced lumber reduces environmental impacts from transport. Responsible wood selection helps support sustainable forestry practices.
For best results:
- Use heartwood rather than sapwood – it’s more rot resistant
- Apply water-repellent wood sealants regularly
- Allow wood to fully dry and acclimate before installation
- Allow for proper drainage and airflow
- Use stainless steel hardware and fasteners
- Elevate wood off ground for air circulation
- Check for damage and reapply finishes every 1-2 years
With extra diligence, untreated softwoods can be feasible alternatives to chemically treated lumber for certain outdoor, above-ground applications. An environmentally mindful option.
There are many great alternatives today that avoid the drawbacks of pressure treated lumber. Whether you choose naturally durable exotic woods, wood composites, recycled plastic, thermally-modified timber, or other options, you can find an attractive, eco-friendly material for your next outdoor project. Always check the warranty and lifespan when comparing products. With proper installation and care, non-wood decking solutions can last decades with minimal upkeep required. Doing your research will help narrow down the ideal long-lasting wood alternative for your specific needs and budget.