There comes a time in the life of some decks where cleaning and refinishing the deck boards simply isn’t enough. Splintering, cracking, missing fasteners and other structural problems have taken their toll, and nothing is going to solve the problems and refurbish the deck except complete replacement of those worn-out boards.

Replacing deck boards is certainly not an insurmountable problem, but it does require a fair amount of work. However, done correctly the end result will be a deck that is virtually brand-new, and is less expensive and less work than replacing the entire deck structure.

First, remove any deck furniture and other objects on the deck. If railings or other structures will interfere with removal of the boards, it may be necessary to remove them as well. For decks more than 30 inches above the ground, you will need to either leave the railings in place and work around them, or else install some sturdy, temporary railings for fall protection. Next, clean the deck with a thorough sweeping or by blowing it off with a high-speed leaf blower. This is an important step, as it reveals the fasteners and makes it easier to access them for removal.

For removal, you will need some basic tools as well as some safety gear for your protection. Gloves should be worn to protect against splinters and broken fasteners, as well as safety glasses. You will be on your knees for a good portion of this project, so a good set of knee pads will be a welcome accessory for both comfort and to protect against kneeling on a protruding fastener.

If the decking was installed with nails, you can remove any that are protruding up above the surface by prying them out using a flat bar or other type of crow bar — you’ll find a wide variety of bars available at any home center or hardware store. Bars are preferred over a claw hammer for pulling nails, as they provide more leverage and, because the handle can’t break like a hammer’s can, they are much safer. However, avoid the bargain-bin bars! These imported bars are junk, and they can easily snap and send pieces of metal flying!

If you need additional leverage to remove a stubborn nail, slip a block of wood under the head of the bar. Also, keep a bucket nearby to toss the nails into as you pull them. If you have access to the underside of the deck, you can tap up on the underside of the board to lift it above the joist, then tap it back down from above and see if the nail head remains elevated enough to get the head of the bar under it for removal.

For nail heads that remain at or below the surface of the wood, your best bet is an old carpenter’s friend called a cat’s paw. A cat paw is a steel tool about 6 to 8 inches long, with a head that is curved at 90 degrees to the handle. The head is slotted in a V-groove to get under the nail head, and is pointed and sharpened to penetrate easily into the wood. Position the points of the head against the wood on either side of the nail, then drive the tool into the wood so that the slot slips under the head of the nail. Pivot the tool back, and you’ll be able to pull up the nail. …CONTINUED

Screws are best removed using a variable speed corded or cordless screwdriver. You can also use a hand screwdriver, but this is very tedious and tiring for this particular task. Again, you’ll want to wear some protective gear and have your bucket nearby.

The trick to removing old deck screws is to make sure the slots in the head are clean so that the screwdriver tip can fully engage them. Keep a bucket handy that contains a small, stiff wire brush, a small flat-blade screwdriver, and a whisk broom. Using any or all of these tools, brush or pry debris out of the screw head until the slots are cleaned out. Another trick that works well is to use an air compressor with a blow gun to clean out the slots, but be sure and wear eye protection.

Insert the screwdriver tip into the screw head, then position yourself over the screw gun and place pressure straight down to keep the tip fully in contact with the screw head. Use a slow speed on the gun until you are sure that the screw has broken free of the wood, then speed up gradually until the screw comes completely out. This all seems very tedious, but if you get in the habit of using these steps, you’ll have a lot more success getting the screws out — and a lot less frustration dealing with broken ones.

If a fastener simply won’t budge or if the head snaps off, you have a couple of options. You can use a reciprocating saw equipped with a metal cutting blade, then work the blade between the underside of the board and the top of the joist and saw through the old fastener. Another option is to split or cut the deck board off around the fastener, then try to remove the fastener with pliers.

When all the fasteners are out, the deck boards can be removed — cut long boards into more manageable lengths for easier handling. Wet, rotted or treated boards don’t make great firewood, so your best bet for disposal is to check with your local landfill or recycling center and see if they have a composting operation that will take the old boards and reprocess them into something useful.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at


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