bulkhead material

Guide to Bulkhead Materials: Which Should You Use? 

Bulkheads are a crucial component of marine construction. They protect coastal areas by helping to control erosion, reduce flooding, and limit damage to structures behind them. To accomplish all this, they must be constructed from an appropriately high-quality bulkhead material.  

The Basic Components of a Marine Bulkhead 

The fundamental construction of marine bulkheads is similar regardless of what material is used. The design typically involves supportive marine pilings driven into the ground and sheets that protect inland areas.  

Pilings come in two main configurations: posts and sheets. They are secured by being driven into the seafloor. Pilings are required to support the overall design of a bulkhead.  

Post pilings come in various materials, lengths, and diameters, so you can choose which is best suited for your bulkhead design. 

Sheet piling is also available in several materials, including steel, aluminum, vinyl, and composite. These vertical sheets are usually corrugated designs that interlock to keep seawater out. Some materials are better suited to freshwater, while others can withstand the demands of a saltwater environment.  

In addition to pilings, several other components comprise the rest of a bulkhead. These include: 

  • Backboards to provide stability for the overall structure 
  • Top caps to increase rigidity and enhance the appearance 
  • Deadmen and tie rods for weight support 
  • Hardware to connect individual components 

Factors That Impact the Performance of Bulkhead Materials 

Many factors influence the performance and durability of a bulkhead, including weather patterns, water conditions, and maintenance. Additionally, you must consider a bulkhead’s purpose when choosing materials and construction design. Ultimately, using premium-quality bulkhead materials and proven construction techniques helps ensure your seawall stands up to its environment over time.  

Climate and Weather Conditions 

Weather can have a significant impact on the performance of bulkhead materials. Marine lumber must withstand forces, including tidal flows, pounding waves, and shifting sand. Therefore, an area with frequent severe weather will need robust products designed to withstand those conditions. In contrast, you might get by with less substantial material in a sheltered harbor with infrequent storms. 

On the other hand, less substantial materials or pilings that are driven to a shallow depth may be suitable in a more sheltered environment.  

Coastal Environment 

Coastal environments and conditions vary significantly from area to area, so you must choose a bulkhead material based on the conditions it will face. Some factors to consider include the type and depth of the water and how protected the coastline is.  

Freshwater is gentler on materials and does not cause corrosion as quickly as saltwater. That makes it a more suitable environment for products such as steel marine bulkhead panels. However, the water depth can also affect bulkhead construction and material selection.  

How protected your building site is makes a difference as well. For example, strong tidal forces and waves of open waters require more robust construction than a sheltered cove or harbor.  

Area Being Protected 

Bulkheads protect coastlines, and what they protect can influence which materials you should consider. Ask these questions before choosing a bulkhead material: 

  • What kind of property is the bulkhead protecting? This will affect what type of materials you choose. For example, residential construction may focus more on aesthetics than commercial applications.  
  • Is this an area with significant erosion? That could influence what materials are best suited for the bulkhead.  

Common Bulkhead Materials 

The right bulkhead material depends on factors such as your building location and the demands that will be placed on the finished product. To choose which one is best suited to your application, you should first understand the different qualities of the most commonly used materials. 

Treated Wood 

Wood bulkhead materials take two primary forms: pilings and sheets. The pilings are first driven into the ground tip and then support other materials, such as wood sheeting. The chemicals used to make lumber resistant to rot and decay are effective. However, they may be prohibited in some areas. Several types of marine-grade lumber are further treated to make them viable for up to 30 years.  


Hardwood can be used in place of treated lumber. Many species have excellent natural rot resistance; however, they can be more expensive than specially treated lumber.  

Steel Panels 

Steel marine bulkhead panels are strong, thanks to an interlocking corrugated design. They are driven into the seabed and can be used alone or with additional piling material to build a seawall. However, steel is prone to corrosion, so it may not last as long as other materials under extreme conditions. 


If you are looking for a durable and lightweight option to steel, consider a vinyl bulkhead material. Vinyl sheet pilings are similar to steel counterparts but will not rot or decay in fresh or saltwater. Additionally, the interlocking panels can be capped to enhance their appearance.  


Composite lumber is an excellent option for marine applications. It is resistant to corrosion and requires minimal maintenance. That, coupled with a long lifespan, makes composite bulkhead materials a cost-effective solution in the long term. 

Your Premier Source for Construction Materials  

Choosing the right material for a bulkhead starts with knowing the qualities of available products and how those fit into your design. Your choices should not be limited by what products are available locally in your building location.  

At Harbor Exports, we specialize in sourcing, packaging, and shipping marine construction supplies throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. We can help you locate suitable materials for bulkhead construction and arrange for them to be delivered to your project location. Contact us today to get a quote on sourcing and shipping bulkhead materials. 

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