One of the most important decisions when looking at building decking is to zero in on the material to be used. Since, the decking is going to be at the receiving end of a lot of footfall and activity, it is best to choose a material which is not only durable but is also able to withstand the effects of nature.
Although wood decking wins hand down when it comes to a popularity contest – bamboo is certainly growing in popularity, and is the second most popular non wood decking material in the USA.
Is Bamboo decking durable?
Contrary to popular perception, bamboos durability is incredible. It is harder than nearly all wood and is highly stable.
This is the reason why bamboo has been the staple building material of Asia for literally thousands of years (and continues to be widely used in construction there today).
Bamboo that is used in most modern decking is subject to a process that makes it “strand woven”.
While there are certainly non strand woven options on the market – strand woven bamboo is by far the most popular (Now listen up – because this next bit is important!)
Strand woven bamboo makes this super plant even stronger. What it basically means is that the bamboo is moistened and pulled apart into long fibers. This is then treated and an adhesive is applied.
The strands are then woven into planks which (when the adhesive has hardened) will provide incredible levels of durability.
To put this into perspective we need to look at the Janka hardness scale. This scale is universally used by engineers and designers to compare the density, hardness, and durability of different materials – not just wood and bamboo. The higher the Janka rating – the more durable the material.
If you took a bamboo plant out of the ground and subjected it to a Janka hardness test it would comeback with rating of around 1200 to 1400 Janka. This would be dependent upon the growing conditions and the particular species of bamboo. (Older bamboo that has been given time to fully mature will be harder than bamboo that has been cut down early to maximize efficiency and reduce cost). But either way – it would be within that range.
To compare this to a typical well known durable wood – white oak also has a Janka rating of around 1200 to 1400 Janka.
But what happens to the Janka rating when bamboo is strand woven? Amazingly the strand weaving process more than doubles its rating on the. Getting a stunning rating of between 3000 and 5000 Janka. (there is only one wood in the world that rates higher than this on the Janka scale – The Australian Buloke tree which has 5060 Janka).
So it’s quite easy to see that just from the numbers alone, bamboo is certainly a durable material to build with. In reality this means it is far less prone to cracking and splintering than wooden decking and will certainly not disappoint in terms of longevity.
Without proper maintenance (see below) bamboo can give an aged appearance. But with the proper care (which is no more than you would have to care for wood decking) it will stay looking amazing for years on end.
Infact bamboo decking with proper care and maintenance can easily last 20 years with average usage – 30 years of usage would certainly not be impossible.
Not bad for a plant that is technically a grass huh…
The Problems With Bamboo Decking
But how does it stand up to the elements? Surely something that grows in a tropical Asian climate will not withstand western winters?
Well in hot or moist climates – bamboo is going to perform better than wood. As it is grown in the tropics of asia it has developed a natural resistance to the elements and will not swell or contract with moisture in the air (as opposed to wooden decks which most certanily will).
However the main disadvantage with bamboo is when it comes to the cold and rain. It does not hold up very well to prolonged rainy seasons and lots of sitting water – exposure to this may cause it to rot. This is less of a problem with strand woven bamboo – but if you live in a particularly rainy climate it is probably not the material for you.
(It will withstand the cold well, providing it is not consistently wet.)
The Maintenance Of Bamboo Decking
While it is an amazing material, bamboo does require some maintenance to keep it in it’s almost supernatural state of awesomeness. The amount of work that is required is no more than you would need to do for a hardwood deck and the actual maintenance is very similar in terms of what needs to be done.
You have two main options when it comes to protecting and maintaining bamboo decking. Staining and sealing.
With the natural beauty of bamboo it can be very very tempting to simple seal it with a clear sealant and enjoy. This will be great for a few years – but, like any natural material. Bamboo will fade with time, regardless of how much sealant you use. It is just as susceptible to the ultraviolet rays of the sun as wood..
Most owners decide to go for a compromise of a pigmented stain. This contains particles that will reflect much of the UV light to maintain the color of the bamboo. The great thing about the pigmented stains is that they come in a variety of transparency.
So you can get some that will only slightly change the color (but they will not be as effective at reducing the suns bleaching effect). Or you can get some that are almost paint like in the amount they change the color (These will not actually paint over the bamboo – you will still see the strands – but they will keep you bamboo looking exactly the same year after year).
Many people opt to use specialized oil based stains that are really only used for bamboo. They are slightly more expensive than wood stains (by $10 or $20 per treatment) but deliver awesome results. They provide the maximum amount of transparency, with a good amount of UV reflecting pigment. This means you will only slightly change the color of your bamboo but get sunblock quality protection.
Treatments need to be applied once every few years just like wood and should not be skipped.
The alternative is to get composite bamboo decking. This is identical to strand woven bamboo but has additional (usually recycled) materials added to it. This looks slightly different to the standard strand woven bamboo (but not by much). However it does not require any maintenance or staining and will stay looking as good as new for pretty much its entire life.
How much does bamboo decking cost?
There are several different factors that will come into play when costing a new bamboo deck. Things like the age of the bamboo, the type of adhesive used in the weaving, and the pattern of the weaving will all come into play.
Unwoven bamboo (not as resilient) will cost you around $20 per square meter.
For strand woven bamboo you can expect to pay around $35 per square meter.
While it is more expensive – strand woven bamboo will last far longer than unwoven bamboo – and unless you specifically want the natural unwoven look – we always recommend stand woven.
Without doubt you will get the best deal for bamboo online – any local carpenter or builder will work with materials you have purchased yourself. They would obviously prefer you purchased it from them (so they can add a little margin for profit), but it is certainly not essential.
Look around online and find a few types you like the look of – then ring up some local tradesmen and send them the links to get their opinion.
Pros and Cons
- Cheaper than hardwood
- Harder than wood
- Lasts longer than wood
- Environmentally friendly
- Cannot withstand constantly rainy climates
- Maintenance can cost very slightly more due to specialized oils
- Harmful chemicals used in manufacturing process
One particularly attractive usage of this awesome material is the bamboo decking / swimming pool combo. The combination of the bamboos natural color, with the crystal clear blue water in a pool is one awesome combination. The splashes and spills will not harm the decking – it is only constant moisture that does that.
Bamboo decking and the environment
It has a short grow cycle of 4-6 years, thus being the reason why many environmentalists are recommending it over traditional wooden decks. It absorbs more carbon dioxide than a tree in a much shorter amount of time while growing – which makes it a very VERY green building material. Many environmental activists are actually pushing to increase the popularity of bamboo in construction for this very reason.
It should be noted however that the adhesives used in making strand woven bamboo are quite unfriendly to the environment. And while they pose no risk at all to people using the decking – the actual manufacturing process is not all that green.
Whether opting for bamboo or any other material, homeowners can transform even the smallest of gardens and patios into a well maintained outdoor space meant for entertaining and relaxing by adding a deck.
So is bamboo decking any good? Well it depends on where you live. If you are in a cold wet area then it is almost certainly not. However – if your local climate is reasonably dry most of the year then bamboo cannot be beaten on price, durability, and in my opinion – attractiveness.