Trying to find the perfect decking material can leave you with your head spinning. Understandably, cedar wood is a popular choice for many homeowners. It is beautiful, and it resists damage from wood-destroying insects as well as changes in the weather. As great as it is, however, it won’t last forever. If your outdoor plans include years of family barbecues, hosting block parties, and enjoying lazy evenings around the fire pit, Ipe decking might meet your needs perfectly. Used in both residential and commercial decking, it is truly top of the line.
What is Ipe?
Contrary to what the name may make you think, it is not a manufactured wood product. Pronounced “ee-pay,” it is a tropical hardwood harvested from forests in South America. It is also known as Brazilian Walnut. Ipe trees can grow up to150 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. However, most trees only reach around 100 feet before being harvested. These tall, straight trees yield long boards with a tight grain and few knots. The color of the wood naturally ranges from light brown to olive and almost black. The wood is the second hardest and one of the world’s densest wood species, making it ideal for high traffic decks.
Ipe decking has already been used in many high traffic public spaces. You can see it on the Atlantic Boardwalk as well as at the Las Vegas Treasure Island Resort. Most notably, the Coney Island Boardwalk in New York was constructed of Ipe. Despite all of the foot traffic and harsh weather conditions on the boardwalk every year, the wood lasted an astonishingly long time. Seventy years after it was built, the boardwalk’s planks were pulled up and sold for use in other projects. These boards went on to have a second life as tables, benches, and such.
What makes Ipe so well-suited for decking?
When building with wood outdoors, we all accept a certain level of weakness inherent in the building material. The wood will weather and rot over time, and wood-destroying insects may try to invade. Regular maintenance such as sealing, staining, and pest control can mitigate these risks. However, it cannot remove them. Ipe decking, however, overcomes or eliminates many of these potential problems. It provides all of the beauty and enjoyment with minimal risk or maintenance.
Heat and Insect Resistance
Ipe wood challenges the idea that wood burns. It has earned a Class A fire rating for its ability to resist fire and heat of any kind. This rating puts it in the same class as concrete and steel. Not only does it resist burning, but it does not absorb heat from outside sources. This property makes Ipe a good choice if you plan to have a firepit on or near your deck. Ipe will also stay cool in the hot summer sun, allowing your kids and pets to enjoy time on the deck without getting burned.
Wood is more likely to fall prey to insects, mold, and rot when it is wet. It is well-known that termites favor moist, soft wood. Ipe is neither of these things. It is extremely hard and repels water. Thus, even though it lacks the natural oils that protect cedar wood from damaging insect predators, it is rarely on their menu. The United States Research Lab (NRL) came to this conclusion after burying Ipe wood in the ground. After 15 years, the wood had no evidence of damage from insects, which is unheard of for natural wood.
Ipe is three times harder than cedar wood and five times harder than pressure-treated lumber. It is also twice as dense as pressure-treated pine, making it virtually impossible to scratch with your patio furniture or your high heeled shoes. It resists wear even in high traffic conditions. The wood density makes it a good choice in wet areas as well, as water cannot penetrate the wood. Thus, Ipe is often the wood of choice for marinas and beach walkways.
The hardwood of the Ipe tree grows long and straight. When harvested, the wood is air-dried to 15-18% moisture, making the wood remain stable in the outdoors. Installed correctly, you can expect to find minimal warping or twisting of the boards over time. The extreme hardness of the wood makes it great at supporting weight.
Are there any drawbacks?
As great as Ipe sounds, it may not be the best choice for everyone. While a deck made of Brazilian Walnut will likely last as long as you own your home, it may come with a price tag that is too high for your current budget. It is typically one of the most expensive decking materials available.
You may never have to repair or replace the deck, but Ipe does require minor yearly maintenance to keep it looking its best. Cleaning and resealing the wood will keep the boards looking like new. If left untreated, Ipe will turn gray over time.
The hardest part of owning an Ipe wood deck is getting it installed. Some of the very things that make it so resistant to weathering and rot, its hardness and density, make it resistant to cutting and drilling as well. Because the wood is so hard, you will need special tools to cut and drill the boards. Alternatively, you can buy pre-cut tongue-and-groove boards that eliminate the need for all the special tools and save you a lot of time and hassle. Perhaps the best option is to call a professional who owns the tools and has the knowledge to get the job done right.
At first glance, Ipe decking sounds like a modern solution to the problems associated with using wood in outdoor projects. However, it comes with a cost, and you’ll need to weigh that against the benefits. If you plan to live in your house for many years to come and want a deck that will last, Ipe may be the answer.