7 Differences Between Plastic Lumber and Wood

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If you work with wood regularly, then you will undoubtedly encounter different types of wood that you can use for various aspects of a project. From pine to oak, cherry, and more, the list of wood you may use is pretty lengthy.

But I’m going to throw something else into the mix here. I’m going to mention the idea of plastic lumber. Yes, you read that right: plastic lumber.

Now, I know some of you may be left there thinking that the words plastic and lumber do not go together. After all, surely any lumber has to refer to wood, and, well, wood is not made of plastic.

Of course, you are correct in your thoughts, but it’s just a term and how the term is used. 

But at the same time, it does throw up an interesting thought or two, and I think the main thought people will have will focus on the differences between plastic lumber and natural wood. So, that’s what I’m going to focus on.

By the end, you will have a greater grasp of what I mean regarding plastic lumber and how different it is from the wood you are more used to encountering.

What Exactly is Plastic Lumber?

But first, what do I even mean by plastic lumber? I feel it’s important to address this point, to begin with, as it makes it easier to go ahead and identify the differences between the two materials.

Plastic lumber is manufactured from plastic, and there are no surprises there. It can be made from either completely new plastic or recycled waste plastic, which is a great idea.

You can find slight differences in the plastic itself, depending on the approach the manufacturer wishes to take. That’s why some versions will be referred to as PVC (polyvinyl chloride, which is the most popular), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and sometimes also ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), so you do have several options.

Must-Read: Difference Between PVC Board and Real Wood

plastic deck

Also, this plastic lumber still comes in varying sizes, from resembling your usual 2×4 to bigger boards and even decking boards with the same grooves as you see on the natural wood alternative.

Also, it comes in different colors, so it’s easier to blend effectively with the rest of your project, or even if you have a specific color scheme in mind. 

I’m very much aware that plastic lumber is also becoming easier to find. It used to be more of a specialty product, but that’s no longer the case. It’s also viewed by some as being a better alternative for the planet. It’s kind of helping you to “go green” as it can be manufactured from recycled plastic. Also, no trees are cut down in the making of it.

But as you will see, there are a number of differences between the two options for me to take you through.

Difference 1: Plastic is Resistant to Rot

The first difference is one of the more obvious: plastic lumber is resistant to rot. Clearly, that’s a huge difference when you are laying decking that will be open to all weather conditions for years to come.

plastic wood fence

Now, I know you can do all sorts of things to treat wood, but even the most highly treated wood will eventually rot over time. It just happens, and there’s little you can do about it. 

The problem here is that mother nature is pretty good at getting into natural materials. You can add protective coat after protective coat, and she’s still going to work her magic and destroy wood. It’s the kind of thing that drives you insane.

But mother nature comes up against a significant stumbling block when she tries to attach plastic lumber. The weather conditions just cannot penetrate plastic the same. Sure, something can go wrong, especially if the plastic lumber was manufactured with a fault, but that’s highly unlikely.  

So, is this a key difference to consider? It depends on where your project is situated. Perhaps the weather conditions will not play a role, or you don’t mind changing things in the future. 

rotting wood fence

However, plastic lumber would be the best option if you want to use a material that will almost always stand up to the weather and the concept of rot. It would take something out of the ordinary for plastic lumber to just be destroyed because of the weather. 

Difference 2: Less Upkeep is Required for Plastic Lumber

Plastic lumber requires less in the way of regular upkeep when compared to wood, and again it’s because of the material. You just do not have to include as much maintenance, or even checking of the material, with plastic lumber as you do with wood. 

I also want to mention something when it comes to decking. Plastic lumber boards for decking will not become as slippery as wood. Once again, that’s because of how wood reacts to the conditions. When used for decking, plastic lumber will often come with a type of built-in grip. 

But plastic doesn’t fade the same as wood. You don’t have to varnish or stain it. Brushing it down and keeping it clean requires less work as well. Honestly, this sounds like a difference that would appeal to so many people.

park benches made of plastic lumber

I do see plastic lumber as being the easy way forward. It’s perfect if you are the type of individual who is constantly busy and just does not have the spare time to care for things like this. 

But then, there can also be something quite appealing about keeping an eye on things and carrying out repairs when required. Plastic lumber removes that from you, which may be an issue for some people.

Difference 3: Plastic is More Durable

Even though wood is pretty durable, plastic can withstand more impact over time. Again, this links to the fact it doesn’t rot, but frost will also find it hard to work its way into the material.

Any individual who has had some type of outdoor project will already know how you do need to periodically check the status of the wood to ensure no problems are developing. It’s also not unheard of for you to have to change some part that has just not survived to the same extent as other parts.

You just do not have that issue with plastic lumber. You can put it in place and know it will not drastically change because of the conditions. Sure, it may be possible for certain parts to degenerate over time, but we are talking about absolutely exceptional circumstances and also something that is exceptionally rare.

cottages made of plastic lumber

So, when it comes to durability, then there is most certainly a difference between the two. I also feel that plastic can put up with far more punishment than wood. This is especially the case when you consider decking. Wood becomes worn down the more you walk on it, leading to that upkeep point I mentioned previously, but plastic lumber just continues to look the same.

The only real problem with plastic lumber is that direct sunlight can bleach the color over an extended period. As a result, it may look dull and washed out; at least with wood, you can simply revarnish or stain it. You can stain wood darker for a whole new look. 

That is a perfect example of how durability can work in some ways but also be counter-productive in others. It makes you sit and think about how you view durability and what’s the most important aspect to you.

Difference 4: Wood Obviously Looks More Real

But if it’s the more natural look you want, there’s no comparison. Sure plastic lumber can look very clean, but a manufacturer just cannot get it to look like natural wood no matter how hard they try. 

That’s where wood really comes into its own. 

teak wood

No matter how hard they try, a manufacturer of plastic lumber will always produce something that comes with that plastic effect. It does stand out, and it is immediately apparent that it’s not real wood. 

Now, I know some people just will not mind that at all. However, I personally prefer the real deal rather than something that is clearly artificial, trying to look like something natural. I feel it just makes it stand out even more, and for all the wrong reasons.

Difference 5: Plastic is Stronger

Plastic is stronger than wood, and that’s something else you may want to take into consideration. This strength difference is primarily thanks to plastic lumber being utterly resistant to water, as it’s the water working its way into the core of the wood that will weaken it over time.

You remove that issue when you use plastic lumber. Instead, it just sits on the surface and doesn’t penetrate the plastic, which is fantastic. You can see how preventing water from seeping through the surface will mean the core of the plastic lumber is never compromised. 

Wood is clearly still a strong material, but we are talking about longevity here rather than anything else. It only remains strong if you care for it correctly, and that’s where a difference comes in, as I mentioned earlier.

plastic wood deck

But you should never think about this type of plastic as being fragile. Sure some plastic is not as strong as you believe, but this is a composite form of plastic, so it’s exceptionally rare for there to be any weak points contained within it. 

Of course, you can have some concerns about potential weaknesses within the wood. Issues such as splits you cannot see until you cut it and everything goes wrong, to the wood being too warped for your liking.

With plastic, you don’t have to worry about those types of things.

Difference 6: Cost-Efficiency

I want to spend a few minutes highlighting the cost of both materials, as that can often be a deciding factor. When you do that, you need to be prepared to look at not only the initial cost but the upkeep costs in the future.

At first, plastic lumber can often be more expensive to purchase. That means your initial outlay for your project will generally be higher. I’m not saying it will skyrocket the cost to you, but there will be a difference.

outdoor playground furniture

However, you need to look beyond that cost and consider some of the other differences mentioned above and how they change the money side.

Over a period of time, plastic lumber works out to be more cost-efficient if you are dealing with a project that is outdoors, such as decking. That’s because you do not have to think about repairing rotten pieces of wood or continually work at adding a layer of protection to the wood to stop it from rotting quicker than it should.

Those costs add up, and yet they are removed from the equation when you use plastic lumber instead of wood.

But look, I know that a project’s cost is not always an issue. However, being aware that plastic lumber can cost substantially more than the wood equivalent is undoubtedly something you may want to think about carefully before you go ahead and perhaps order some for your next project.

(You may want to check out the best places to buy lumber or wood for your project)

Difference 7: Weight

The final difference I want to mention is the weight difference. Plastic lumber is exceptionally lightweight when compared to normal wood, which could change things for people. 

I do see why using a lighter material would be beneficial. The fact it remains as strong as wood even though it weighs a fraction is kind of amazing.

picnic table

However, I know some people prefer the feeling of solidity that comes with real wood. There is just something sturdy about wood in a project that gives you some added confidence. Perhaps it’s because we are so used to using it that we struggle to think about any other material.

It comes across as more real and authentic when you use wood. The added weight of the materials used manages to add to that feeling. Consider spending a moment thinking about how you feel when you consider decking made of wood or decking made of plastic. Chances are one of your first thoughts will be along the line of….well, the wood is sturdier!

But I accept there’s a place for lighter materials, and the difference between the two options will be quite considerable.

Looking for more decking tips? Check out this guide on how to waterproof wood for outdoor use!

So, Which is Best?

I know that when you look at the differences, you may feel as if plastic lumber is streets ahead of wood, and in certain ways, it is. Ultimately, the thing you need to think about is how you want your project to look. 

I say that because you just cannot get away from how it looks. The difference in the visual sense is obvious, and it all depends on what you feel is important to you from that perspective.

fence made of plastic lumber

But I do admit that the reduction in general upkeep and maintenance of the plastic lumber option is attractive to some. Also, the fact you can cut this plastic lumber in the same way as you would do with normal wood is another real bonus.

At the end of the day, I feel it’s the looks and upkeep aspects that will be the deciding factor. 

As for me, I just prefer wood. I’m that traditional kind of guy who loves the look and feel of it. However, I’m not saying plastic lumber does not have a place. Instead, I really do get the appeal of it all. After all, the main differences between the two options tend to lean toward plastic lumber being the better product.

Overall Conclusion

So that’s not only an introduction to plastic lumber but also the main differences that exist between plastic lumber and wood. As you can see, there are several huge differences for you to take into account, and they may very well change how you see the material or where it could be used.

At the end of the day, I feel you need to weigh up which option you should use according to several criteria and also take those differences into account. 

I also feel there’s an issue of trust here. Perhaps people are unaware of how to handle plastic lumber and feel far more confident using real wood. I completely understand that, and it becomes even more confusing when you discover you can cut and drill plastic lumber in the same way as normal wood. 

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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