2022 Deck Awards Inlay First Place 3

Inside the Decking Inlay Process

Featuring Dave Settlemyer from LS Underground

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From landing a job and designing a custom inlay, to unique framing and board bending – award winning deck builder Dave Settlemyer discusses his process for building inlaid decks.

2022 Deck Awards Inlay First Place 3

Above & Beyond

The cus­tom deck build­ing indus­try is under­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion. High-end builders are push­ing the bounds of what can be done with a deck board, and the results are stun­ning. Intri­cate pat­terns fea­tur­ing curvi­lin­ear shapes with aston­ish­ing com­plex­i­ty have trans­formed deck build­ing into an art form and giv­en a leg up to those builders who have added this skill to their reper­toire. Home­own­ers may not know the ins and outs of deck build­ing, but the dif­fer­ence between a stan­dard deck and an inlaid deck is self-evi­dent. Many are will­ing to pay top dol­lar for the charm an inlay can pro­vide to their out­door space.

How­ev­er, for many deck builders this may seem like a daunt­ing skill to learn. There isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a play­book on how to get start­ed, and very few builders have mas­tered the art of inlay design, mean­ing it can be dif­fi­cult to find a men­tor to show you the way.

Despite this, a select few like Dave Set­tle­my­er of LS Under­ground have per­se­vered and can serve as a tremen­dous resource for those just start­ing out.

Dave Set­tle­my­er is a pro­fes­sion­al deck builder and land­scap­er, and the own­er of LS Under­ground in Den­ver, Col­orado, which spe­cial­izes in elab­o­rate inlay designs for both deck­ing and hard­scapes. He was recent­ly rec­og­nized by NADRA as the first place win­ner for Best Prod­uct Dis­play as well as Best Inlay Project in the 2022 Nation­al Deck+ Awards — an annu­al indus­try show­case where Dave’s work has been a sta­ple over the past few years.

Accord­ing to Dave, when com­pet­ing at this lev­el, You can’t achieve with medi­oc­rity. You have to go above and beyond, and the easy stuff is not going to win.”

We spoke with Dave to gain some insight into the process of inlay build­ing and all that it entails – from land­ing a job, to plan­ning and exe­cu­tion, as well as the ben­e­fits that offer­ing these spe­cial­ized ser­vices can pro­vide for your business.

Take the Initiative

The first step is to open the clien­t’s mind to the end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. Home­own­ers are often excit­ed by the idea that they can have a one-of-a-kind inlay that no one else in the world has on their deck. How­ev­er, since few builders offer this ser­vice, most home­own­ers either don’t know that inlays are an option, or they are unaware that the builder they’ve hired can pro­duce them.

If I left [the design] up to the client, I would nev­er get a chance,” said Dave, The aver­age home­own­er isn’t aware of what the pos­si­bil­i­ties are.”

It’s up to the builder to take the ini­tia­tive and walk the home­own­er through their options. Dave finds that most home­own­ers ask for some­what stan­dard designs, like an area rug pat­tern or a rec­tan­gle in the mid­dle of the deck. It’s up to him to push the enve­lope and test his limits.

Complexity is Key

After the deci­sion is made to go with a cus­tom inlay, it’s time to begin work­ing on the design. Accord­ing to Dave, there isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a sci­ence to the design itself.

It’s orig­i­nal to every project and it’s just what I am feel­ing at the time of work­ing on the design,” said Dave, I try to make every­thing as com­pli­cat­ed as possible.”

It’s that com­plex­i­ty that helped Dave to win the Best Inlay Project Award in 2022. I cre­at­ed mul­ti­ple quadri­lat­er­al shapes, the rec­tan­gles of dif­fer­ent sizes and squares, and then tied all of those togeth­er with the rib­bon shape of the curvature.”

For those just start­ing out, more basic shapes like squares, rec­tan­gles and diag­o­nals can act as a step­ping­stone to more com­plex designs with curves and more intri­cate shapes.

Regard­less of the design, it must be set before mov­ing onto framing.

Framing Challenges

When fram­ing for an inlaid deck, unique sit­u­a­tions often arise that require pre­cise plan­ning beyond that of a stan­dard deck. It’s impor­tant to sur­vey the job and pre­pare for these chal­lenges before building.

For exam­ple, Dave’s win­ning project was built atop a water­proof drainage sys­tem, mean­ing he had to be care­ful not to cre­ate water dams and to allow for free drainage. Accord­ing to Dave, this made for the most com­pli­cat­ed build he’s ever done.

We had to do three or four steps of block­ing before the rain blad­der went in, and after the fact too. So, we had to do a lot of prep work on the frame to accom­mo­date the blocking.”

In this sce­nario it meant block­ing both above and below the water­proof blad­der, main­tain­ing a slope to direct water toward one end of the deck with­out cre­at­ing pools under the deck. Dave also had to trace his inlay pat­tern out on both sets of blocking.

We asked Dave what fas­ten­ers he uses to ensure the struc­tur­al integri­ty of his decks giv­en the com­plex fram­ing they often require.

We use all of the LOK prod­ucts, Head­LOKs, Ledger­LOKs, Flat­LOKs. From a struc­tur­al stand­point, it cre­ates a very, very strong struc­ture. And the key block­ing is for the pat­tern. You know, when I do that, and that’s all under­neath the deck, I have to make sure that there is nev­er going to be a problem.”

FastenMaster’s LOK Line of heavy-duty wood screws are the quick­est and eas­i­est way to cre­ate code-com­pli­ant struc­tur­al con­nec­tions. The speed of instal­la­tion is per­fect for sit­u­a­tions where extra rein­force­ment block­ing is nec­es­sary, while pro­vid­ing the struc­tur­al strength need­ed for the project. All Fas­ten­Mas­ter fas­ten­ers are also guar­an­teed to last the life of the project.

Piecing it Together

After the inlay design has been final­ized and the fram­ing has been built with the nec­es­sary pre­vi­sions, it’s time to start piec­ing togeth­er the inlay itself.

Start by lay­ing out the boards and trac­ing the design on top. For curved inlays, the boards must be bent pri­or to instal­la­tion. Dave uses a process involv­ing heat­ing blan­kets to raise the tem­per­a­ture of the boards up to about 235ºF (113ºC). While Dave’s award-win­ning inlay was built using com­pos­ite deck­ing, PVC boards are eas­i­er to manip­u­late and bend.

It’s start­ing slow and work­ing the tem­per­a­tures up grad­u­al­ly of each board and each bend is going to be rough­ly 4 hours from start to fin­ish,” explained Dave, and then after that 4 hours of heat­ing and manip­u­lat­ing the board, we let them cool overnight so they can cool down very grad­u­al­ly at room temperature.”

Curv­ing deck boards is an art in and of itself – it takes patience and per­sis­tence to per­fect, but the fin­ished prod­uct is well worth the time and effort.

Once the boards are laid out and the design is traced, the inlay can be cut out and fas­tened into the fram­ing. When we asked Dave, he said there’s only one fas­ten­ing method he would recommend: 

Only Cor­tex and plugs. You have to use the Cor­tex sys­tem to con­trol the expan­sion and con­trac­tion. We’re very hap­py because of the match that we’re able to get on our Cor­tex plugs too. And espe­cial­ly since you guys col­lat­ed those plugs, it’s so much easier.”

The Col­lat­ed Cor­tex Hid­den Deck Fas­ten­ing Sys­tem allows you to hide all the fas­ten­ers on the sur­face of your deck and is the only way to seam­less­ly fas­ten deck­ing inlays. Cor­tex pro­vides a per­fect match to lead­ing deck boards and leaves a vir­tu­al­ly invis­i­ble finish.

Trial & Error

It takes time and effort to learn the art of inlay build­ing – each deck has its own unique chal­lenges, requir­ing robust prob­lem-solv­ing skills that are devel­oped with expe­ri­ence. It took Dave years to reach the lev­el he is at now.

LS Under­ground began as a land­scap­ing busi­ness before Dave ven­tured into deck build­ing in 2018. After Dave mas­tered stan­dard deck­ing, he moved onto more com­plex patterns.

I just start­ed with basic square and rec­tan­gle, like every­one else, and the inten­tion is to do bet­ter and get bet­ter on every project,” explained Dave, and so every project from that orig­i­nal square we moved up, to 45-degree angles, which was the obvi­ous next step, but then we got into curvature.”

Accord­ing to Dave, there is no set path for learn­ing a skill like this, and fail­ure is inevitable, but that’s all part of the learn­ing process.

I am 100% self-edu­cat­ed with what I’ve done. There’s nobody around to teach, so there’s a lot of tri­al and error.” Dave added that online resources, like YouTube, can be valu­able for learn­ing, with cre­ators like DrDecks shar­ing in-depth videos detail­ing his process for tack­ling com­plex builds as well as valu­able tips and tricks of the trade.

A Highly Creative Thing

Inlays require addi­tion­al time, effort, and may incur excess mate­r­i­al and labor costs beyond that of a stan­dard deck. How­ev­er, the abil­i­ty to deliv­er a fin­ished prod­uct that is unique­ly per­son­al­ized to the client’s desires is a game-chang­er for those who are capa­ble. Deck inlays can pro­vide a strong com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over the com­pe­ti­tion and enable builders who have the nec­es­sary skills to charge a pre­mi­um for their services. 

These intri­cate inlay designs are a big part of what has put LS Under­ground on the map. They’ve result­ed in sev­er­al nation­al awards and have opened new doors for Dave and his busi­ness that nev­er would have been pos­si­ble. How­ev­er, this isn’t why he does it. Accord­ing to Dave, It’s more to express your cre­ativ­i­ty and your lev­el of knowl­edge and skill in build­ing. It’s a high­ly cre­ative thing, and that’s what I try to put into every project.”

Check out more of Dave’s work on his web­site, or check out his award win­ning builds, fea­tured in the NADRA 2022 Nation­al+ Deck Awards.