How to Lay Out a Deck Properly

The first step in building a deck is to lay it out. We'll show you how to do so accurately.

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 days
  • Total Time: 2 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate

Accuracy is crucial when laying out a new deck. You wouldn't want all of your hard work to be thrown off by a few wrong measurements. That's why it's important to lay out the deck before you start building. You'll have the chance to check—and double-check—all of your measurements before you begin. To make the process even simpler, we've designed a deck with several fail-safe features. The beams, for instance, may be off by an inch or so without weakening the structure.

Before you begin, produce an accurate scale drawing and get it approved by your building department. Keep in mind that the decking will overhang the joists by 1½ inches or so on all sides. You'll also need to plan out the footings and beams. Because they extend 3 feet beyond the footings, massive beams made of three 2x10s are required. Large beams call for larger-than-average supports—4x6 posts and 12-inch-diameter footings.

Expect to spend four to five hours building batterboards, figuring out the layout, stretching lines, and determining footing locations. To lay out the deck, you need to be able to measure and check for square, fasten screws, and pound stakes. It's also a good idea to double-check your drawings for accuracy once they've been approved and to study the way the deck will be assembled.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Drill
  • Sledgehammer
  • Tape measure
  • Mason's line
  • Carpenter's square
  • Shovel


  • 1x4 or 1x2 boards for stakes
  • 1-5/8 inch screws
  • Masking tape


  1. SCD_108_02.jpg

    Construct Batterboards

    Construct batterboards using 1x2s or 2x4s and a 1x4 crosspiece. Stakes can be 16 to 36 inches long. If the ground is hard, make them shorter; if soft, make them longer. Cut the crosspieces about 30 inches long. Assemble the pieces with a single screw at each joint.

  2. Mark the House

    Mark the house wall for the positions of the posts. First, mark the outside of the framing (the decking will overhang it by 1½ inches). Then measure over and mark where the post will be located. Make sure you identify the center of the post.

    Then drive a batterboard into the ground near the house, more or less centered over the post location. Pound the stakes until the crosspiece is 6 inches or so above the ground and stable. For soft, wet soil, use long stakes; shorter stakes are fine for hard ground.

  3. SCD_108_04.jpg

    Install Batterboards

    Then drive a batterboard into the ground near the house, more or less centered over the post location. Pound the stakes until the crosspiece is 6 inches or so above the ground and stable. For soft, wet soil, use long stakes; shorter stakes are fine for hard ground.

  4. SCD_108_05.jpg

    Position Batterboards

    Measure out from the house for the position of a post and drive in another batterboard. Position all batterboards about 2 feet beyond the post locations. To keep your estimated post locations roughly perpendicular to the house, hold a carpenter's square against the house and run a tape measure along its side, as shown.

  5. SCD_108_06.jpg

    Plan Post Locations

    Estimate the location of the other posts. Place additional batterboards 2 to 3 feet beyond the post locations. You can approximate the footing locations by driving temporary stakes into the ground.

    Project tip: To mark the center of a posthole, hold a plumb bob (a chalk line will work in a pinch) with its string barely touching each layout line. Drive a stake or landscape spike into the ground to mark the spot.

    If the design calls for three or more posts supporting the same beam, the middle posts do not require intersecting string lines. Just measure along the line or use a spacing jig to mark the center of the footing.

  6. Form grid with mason’s line, Decks, A Quick Guide to Deck Building,

    Form a Grid

    Drive a screw partway into the middle of each batterboard's crosspiece. Stretch mason's line to form a grid. Use the screws to anchor the string. The mason's lines should intersect at roughly the same height. Drive one of the batterboards deeper into the ground, if necessary, to align the lines.

  7. SCD_108_08.jpg

    Adjust and Anchor Line

    Adjust the line that runs parallel to the house until it is equally distant from the house along its entire length and lined up with the center of the footings. Anchor this line firmly to its batterboards so you won't bump it out of position.

  8. SCD_108_09.jpg

    Check for Square

    Check the mason's lines for square. Measure 6 feet along one line and mark the spot with a piece of tape. Measure 8 feet along the perpendicular string line and mark it the same way. (Make sure you know which side of the tape indicates the exact spot.) Measure the distance between the two marks; if it is exactly 10 feet then the lines are square to each other. If not, adjust one line. With this method you can substitute 6, 8, and 10 with any multiples of 3, 4, and 5; for example 9, 12, and 15; or 12, 16, and 20. The larger the numbers, the greater the accuracy.

  9. Mark Position

    Once you have found the correct position for the line, mark its position on a batterboard with a pencil. You can remove the screw and drive it under the line or leave the screw in place. Just make sure you wrap the line tightly on the mark and tie it to the screw.

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