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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Ipe Wood

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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Ipe Wood

March 12, 2019

If you’re considering ipe wood for a deck (or for siding, or for a fence), you probably already know that the smooth hardwood resembles mahogany and can last more than 50 years without needing replacement. Ipe has natural attributes to defeat many of the plagues that deck owners fear most: insects, rots, fire, and the effects of inclement weather.

However ipe trees, native to South America, are rare in their natural environments (as few as seven trees will grow per acre of forest). Ipe trees have been over-harvested for years, and despite efforts to promote responsible growth practices some eco-conscious designers and architects are looking for alternatives to ipe.

Is ipe the right choice for you? To help you decide, here are 10 things that nobody tells you about ipe wood:

1. Ipe is hard as nails. Literally.

See more of this ipe deck in A Puget Sound Cabin That Rests Lightly on the Landscape. Photograph by Jeremy Bittermann.
Above: See more of this ipe deck in A Puget Sound Cabin That Rests Lightly on the Landscape. Photograph by Jeremy Bittermann.

Ipe is extremely dense less susceptible than other woods to burning, with a fire rating that is the same as steel and concrete. But the density can make it difficult for contractors if they are trying to saw and nail it. The solution is to pre-drill holes and use steel screws. Plus, the hardwood chews up blades. These factors increase labor costs.

2. Ipe is more expensive than many woods.

See more of this -foot ipe and steel bench in our  Considered Design Awards projects. Photograph by Jeff McNeill.
Above: See more of this 20-foot ipe and steel bench in our 2018 Considered Design Awards projects. Photograph by Jeff McNeill.

Ipe is notably more expensive then redwood and cedar. On average, ipe costs $3.50 to $5 per square foot “and the cost of labor will increase the total price to around $20 per square foot,” according to Improvenet.

3. Ipe is more durable than other woods.

 Lengths of smooth ipe were laid as pavers for clients who enjoy walking barefoot. See more in Designer Visit: A ‘Magical Green Pocket Garden’ in San Francisco by Talc Studio. Photographby Airyka Rockefeller.
Above: Lengths of smooth ipe were laid as pavers for clients who enjoy walking barefoot. See more in Designer Visit: A ‘Magical Green Pocket Garden’ in San Francisco by Talc Studio. Photographby Airyka Rockefeller.

Within ipe wood are natural oils that preserve it; combined with the wood’s exceptional density, you can expect an ipe deck or fence to last up to 50 years without replacement.

4. For longevity, ipe requires maintenance.

Left unfinished, a water-resistant ipe deck has turned a silvery gray color. See more in In Seattle, An Urban Landscape Designed for Privacy and Indoor/Outdoor Flow. Photograph by Rafael Soldi.
Above: Left unfinished, a water-resistant ipe deck has turned a silvery gray color. See more in In Seattle, An Urban Landscape Designed for Privacy and Indoor/Outdoor Flow. Photograph by Rafael Soldi.

To extend its life, ipe wood requires some TLC. With oil treatment, its lifespan can be up to 75 years. Tip: Remember to seal the ends of the wood after cutting. When the grain is exposed, the moisture level can change and spread throughout the wood. Applying sealer to fresh cuts slows the process and helps prevent splitting.

5.  There’s a black market for ipe wood.

Stamped FSC-certified, responsibly harvested wood is for sale at Coastal Plywood.
Above: Stamped FSC-certified, responsibly harvested wood is for sale at Coastal Plywood.

Given Ipe’s popularity, it’s not surprising to learn that the wood is often illegally harvested (as is other rainforest timber.)  And because ipe can command high prices, Brazilian loggers and local officials often  harvest more Ipe than is legal.

The Rainforest Alliance reports that this wood is already over harvested due to its widespread construction use. With continued sourcing, this exotic wood may eventually become extinct. This is one of the biggest factors causing environmentally minded people to say no to ipe.

6. You should buy only FSC-certified ipe wood.

See more of this ipe fence in Landscape Architect Visit: A Leafy Garden in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Photograph by Dan Wonderly, courtesy of Kim Hoyt Architects.
Above: See more of this ipe fence in Landscape Architect Visit: A Leafy Garden in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Photograph by Dan Wonderly, courtesy of Kim Hoyt Architects.

When ipe trees are responsibly grown in managed forests, the harvested wood gets a stamp of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council (which is what it means when you see the label “FSC-certified wood”).

7. Some people are allergic to ipe wood.

See more of this beautifully designed ipe deck in Architect Visit: A Puget Sound Cabin That Rests Lightly on the Land. Photograph by Jeremy Bittermann.
Above: See more of this beautifully designed ipe deck in Architect Visit: A Puget Sound Cabin That Rests Lightly on the Land. Photograph by Jeremy Bittermann.

Ipe dust is ridiculously fine and during construction it can get everywhere,  including into eyes, ears and noses. Although severe reactions are uncommon, Ipe can cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, as well as headaches, or asthma-like symptoms.  If you work with this wood, please wearing protective clothing, gloves, and a proper mask.

8. You may be happier with an ipe alternative.

See more of this redwood deck and dining platform in Before & After: From Desert to Redwood Forest, the Essence of California in One LA Garden. Photograph courtesy of Terremoto.
Above: See more of this redwood deck and dining platform in Before & After: From Desert to Redwood Forest, the Essence of California in One LA Garden. Photograph courtesy of Terremoto.

There are plenty of alternatives to ipe wood. Using reclaimed wood is a smart start. Several wood types are good alternatives. One excellent and sustainable option is reclaimed cumaru, also known as Brazilian teak; it looks similar to Ipe with a rich, warm color and costs less. Reclaimed teak is another choice, also offering similar durability and rot-resistant benefits. Tip: Teak is less dense, making installation easier and more affordable.

9. There are other harder woods than ipe.

A custom Brazilian teak deck. For more information and pricing, see Creative Fences & Decks.
Above: A custom Brazilian teak deck. For more information and pricing, see Creative Fences & Decks.

Have you heard of Quebracho (“the axe breaker”) or Lignum vitae? For a list of the world’s Top Ten Hardest Woods, see the Wood Database.

10. Ipe wood stays cool even in hot sun.

See more of this ipe wood shed in Pool of the Week: An Empty Nesters&#8
Above: See more of this ipe wood shed in Pool of the Week: An Empty Nesters’ Oasis Near Seattle. Photograph by Tim Bies.

“While Ipe does have some warmth when the sun is out, it does not retain the heat. So, it never gets too hot to walk on,” notes Floor Critics.

Get more design ideas and inspiration in our Decks & Patios 101 design guide in our curated guides to Hardscape 101. Read on:

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