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Historical Context of Decking Tiles

The widespread use of DIY modular wood decking tiles probably started in Japan more than 12 years ago. Japan is a high population density nation with a large proportion of small two storey houses jammed side by side on small allotments. In recent decades the shortage of flat land for housing has led to the relentless construction of featureless high rise apartment buildings, most of which have a small attached concrete balcony.

 In order to relieve some of drabness of such dwellings and recognizing that the Japanese are most definitely not a nation of DIY’ers, the modular wood deck tile which could be laid by the average housewife, became an instant success.

Today in Japan every major Home Center has an aisle devoted to decking tile products and probably carries at least 3 or 4 different makes of interlocking wood tiles, ceramic tiles, plastic tiles and composite wood tiles. As well as being imported from neighbouring countries, tiles are manufactured by the leading home building company, the two major ceramic tile producers and all the major outdoor product suppliers include at least one type of deck tile in their product line up.

Tiles are sold extensively via mail order catalogues and it has been reported that even door to door sales are made in high rise apartment complexes.

In other parts of the world, the concept of modular tiles has been slower to take root. In Europe where softwood has traditionally been the main lumber used by the construction industry, the majority of tiles sold appear to be the larger 20” x 20” (approx.) solid wood pressure treated softwood tiles. Some solid wood hardwood tiles are now also beginning to gain ground.

In other parts of the world where an active DIY market is virtually non-existent, such as the Middle East and Hong Kong, modular deck tiles have been principally used by construction and development companies for specific projects.

 

Development history

The first modular tile as developed in Japan, was probably the solid wood tile module approx 18” x 18” with a wood frame on all sides and decorative edges. This first came into prominence from about 1994.The major disadvantage of this design was the comparatively high cost and the inability to cut the tiles to specific sizes.

This was followed by solid wood tiles with wood slats attached to wood bearers. The first designs did not have any means to interlock the tiles but were simply placed side by side. The top wood slats were either screwed or nailed to the bearers and in an effort to reduce the cost of the product even more, some manufacturers used metal staples to attach the slats to softwood bearers or slats. Tiles with nailed or stapled slats had the obvious disadvantage that the fixings were likely to corrode and/or the slats can work loose from the bearers.

Fortunately the modular tile industry survived this period where product innovation appeared to be driven by cost pressures alone and subsequent designs all used screws for fixings and manufacturers began to experiment with means of connecting the tiles together. The first such designs (which still exist today) utilized offset bearers to provide a limited interconnectivity. However this innovation effectively only prevented partial movement of the tiles and they still relied on the tiles being butted against an outside retaining wall to keep them from moving.  

Another design used a system of wood pegs which were placed into holes in the bearers, which is OK if you want the tiles laid with slats in alternating horizontal and vertical pattern, but a problem if you wanted to lay two or more tiles in the same direction.

As the market expanded, manufacturers become more innovative in styles and designs, including round tiles for use as stepping stones, triangular shapes, and with more elaborate slat placements on the tiles.

 

Whilst the solid wood tiles have been quite popular where they have been required to cover a large expanse with an existing concrete base, the principal drawback of this type of tile is if the wood bearers are subject to prolonged contact with water.

Although most such tiles are constructed of durable timber, as the wood bearers are in direct contact with the surface, prolonged exposure to water may result in some premature rotting of the bearers, or at the very least, it is possible that the bearers could twist or warp if subject to constant damp conditions. And if

there is no effective means of securely interconnecting the tiles, there is a potential for the outer edges of adjacent tiles to vary in height, leading to the possibility of tripping.

The other problem is that such tiles are generally not designed so that they can be cut to fit around pipes etc or cut shorter or cut at angles to fit irregular shapes.

   

One attempt at solving the problem of keeping the wood bearers from direct contact with wet surfaces has been the use of special plastic “pods” on each corner of the tiles. Although it solves the problem of keeping any wood from direct contact with the surface, this design has obvious problems if tiles need to be cut to fit irregular places and if the surface is somewhat uneven. How to finish or cover the edges of the outer row of tiles also seems to have defeated the designers of this type of tile.

To overcome the drawbacks of the all wood tiles, companies stated attaching the wood slats to a plastic base. This not only lifted the wood clear of the concrete and allowed any water under the tiles to drain away quickly, but potentially provided a convenient means to interconnect the tiles.

Earliest designs failed to capitalize on the interconnectivity advantage and were simply placed together with no connecting tabs or other fixtures.

Manufacturers soon realized the advantages of providing some form of connectivity and provided plastic clips to join the tiles. This idea soon faded away as it was realized that inbuilt plastic tabs provided a much easier product to lay for the average homeowner.
   
With some tile designs, the wood slats have holes drilled in the underside which slot into pins moulded on the plastic base so the slats are a loose fit on the plastic base. In other designs the slats are “press fit” onto the base so the mesh base is laid first and the wood slats are then laid one by one on top. Whilst this may have some advantages in enabling a greater variety of patterns to be laid with the slats, it does appear to make what should be simple DIY project into a more tedious chore. In addition, since all lumber tends to expand and contract to some extent depending on moisture levels etc. care would need to be taken to ensure the press fit slats did work come loose over time.
   

Other designs have included fixing slats to flexible “tubes” which allow the tile to bend or attaching a rubber strip to the slats which permits the tiles to be rolled up when not required.

In recent years, composite wood materials have also been used for the tile slats but so far do not seem to have gained the same acceptance as the natural wood tiles. It soon became recognized that the most secure and flexible design, which was also the simplest to install, was the combination of a plastic mesh base, screwed slats, and inbuilt connecting tabs. Whilst some designs still use separate clips to connect the tiles, the majority of designs use inbuilt connectors which makes installation much faster and easier.

   

The most common type of connecting device has been the use of “pegs” on two sides and corresponding “loops” on the other two sides. The disadvantage of this design however is that a left hand and right hand version are required if the tiles are laid as shown and you wish to avoid an outer edge with alternate edges of loops showing.

Also it means that any edge reducers need to be produced in both a loop and pin version, thus

doubling the stock items a retailer would need to hold. For the consumer, it also means more thought in estimating exactly what components are required and in laying the tiles.

The simplest and quickest tile to lay would appear to be the design which has an identical set of connecting tabs on all four sides which link to corresponding tabs on adjacent tiles, irrespective of the orientation of the tile. This has the added advantage of allowing more options for the tile maker to produce different tile designs and for the installer to be more creative in the overall patterns in which the tiles can be laid. 

 

The Future

 
In Japan, decking tiles are now being produced in a variety of surfaces – plastic, rubber, wood composite, terracotta, stone and ceramics, but by far the most popular are the interlocking ceramic tiles. These tiles totally eliminate the mess and disruption in installing ceramic tiles the conventional manner plus the need for repeated visits by tradespersons to lay the tiles, grout the tiles, and give them a final polish. And they can be combined with wood tiles to give a multitude of design possibilities.