HOW TO BUILD A DECK And how not to

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Not because I ever expect to make one, but motivated by the same
interest that's led to viewing "This Old House" for 20 years, I asked
the Google search engine "how to build a deck." I found lots of
information among the 651,000 sites that came back, but the most
interesting tale among them was labeled, "How NOT to build a deck."

The site was put together by a Jim Whitelaw of Edmonton, Alberta,
who said he hired GTL Landscapes to build him one, but was so
dissatisfied with the work that he fired the company and built the
website in revenge. It consists of 20 pages of photos that show shoddy
work, peppered with red, capital-letter admonitions that "you have been
warned."

The most devilish part of Whitelaw's plot was that he named his site
gtllandscapes.com, so that anyone looking up the company on the Net
would instead find his snide screed. Of course, anyone with a few
dollars can buy a domain name and build a site, but that doesn't make
its content true.

So I looked up GTL Landscapes of Edmonton and talked to someone who
said his name was Gord and that he was the owner. He said his company
doesn't even make decks, and professed to be a "computer illiterate"
who hadn't seen the site. He suggested the site might relate to some
other GTL landscaping company.

In such a case, surfers can judge for themselves who's right, but
the site is certainly truthful in portraying what you don't want:
poorly set posts, split and curved beams, bent nails, etc. As you might
expect among more than half a million pages, many other sites will tell
you how to build a deck well. Here are some of them:

Bestdecksite.com has a fair claim to its name. The free portion is
extensive, with calculators for figuring needs for concrete and other
materials and useful information for all levels of carpenters,
including the armchair class. Under "click and learn" is an annotated
cutaway deck showing 18 elements of construction, each of them
clickable.

Readers wanting more extensive information can pay $10 for a two-
month password, or $15 for a year. With load- and soil-bearing tables
and formulae such as area of a trapezoid, it's hard to imagine even
actual carpenters would want more.

Doityourself.com/deck also offers depth and detail, with 17 pages of
advice, many of them with headings of "margin of error" and "most
common mistakes." Its drawings appear to have been made for some other
medium, though, and range from grainy and hard-to-read to illegible. It
would be helpful if users could zoom in on them.

Diyonline.com has the same problems: good information and lousy
drawings, compounded by an unhelpful layout that forces scrolling
between text and related illustrations. Worse, its latter stages make
several references to "these drawings," but those specific ones aren't
there.

Hgtv.com, the online component of the home-and-garden cable TV
network, might be expected to offer advice on decks, and it has plenty,
not only on building but on repairing them. It's fairly obvious,
though, that its main purpose is to extend the HGTV brand, rather than
give the knowledge to build. Its photo aids are screen grabs from an
episode of "Fix It Up," and though they are zoomable, they get much
grainier without getting much bigger. It offers a materials list, but
with only general entries such as "bolts, nuts, and washers."

Lowes.com has a much better materials list. It tells me I would need
"2.5-inch galvanized screws," instead of just "screws," for example.
The site is better in other respects, too, particularly in several
narrated animations for tougher tasks, such as figuring the rises and
runs for stairs and laying out their stringers, the notched pieces that
support them.

The site has bits of entertaining trivia: Did you know, for example,
that most lumber is usually a half-inch to an inch longer than stated,
so you'll have what you need after you've squared the ends? It's the
sort of thing you would know if you'd ever built anything, but came as
a delightful surprise to one who likes to watch.