Selectwood Perspectives

Decking and Accessories: Wood and Composite

Is Brazilian Ipe a Green Choice for Exterior Decking?

At Selectwood find ourselves constantly evaluating the appropriate use of natural wood products.  This is especially true in exterior applications where long term maintenance and replacement costs are considered. When it comes to decking, pressure treated wood still holds the majority position due to its affordability even though its long term performance is often disappointing. In the realm of high end exterior decking the performance results with many of the latest PVC based composite products have been impressive.

For those who prefer natural wood exterior decks there are several attractive tropical hardwood species available at Selectwood with time tested performance. One species, Ipe, has proved to be a Selectwood favorite for performance, attractive appearance and durability. Ipe, Tabebuia Serratifolia, may also be marketed at other outlets under Ironwood, Pau Lope, Brazilian Walnut or Lapacho.

Ipe boards look somewhat like Teak without Teaks distinctive odor. Ipe is less expensive than Teak and actually superior in deck applications. Ipe heartwood is typically reddish brown often with light or darker striping cunning through its grain. Ipe is typically available in longer lengths with limited twist and warp. Consumers need to purchase Ipe from a reputable source since it sometimes can be clustered with other tropical hardwoods of similar origins such as Cumaru or Jarrah.  It is the wood of choice for residential decks and commercial applications such as boat docks, boardwalks and foot bridges. In addition to its hard surface Ipe is naturally resistant to rot, decay and attack from insects. It is popular not only in North America but also in Europe and Asia.

Ipe has other amazing qualities including the fact that it is 3 times harder than Oak. Ipe in fact is so dense it sinks in water. It has a Class A1 Fire Rating, the same as concrete and steel. A new Ipe deck is resistant to preservation treatment due to its hard surface. Ipe can be easily cleaned with a pressure washer and lightly coated with tropical deck finishes to maintain its natural appearance. If preserving its tropical hardwood natural appearance isn’t required Ipe can be left to naturally weather to a consistent light silver appearance. Due to Ipe’s density and toughness Ipe can have a blunting effect on tools. It is recommended to use high quality carbide tipped tools and have numerous drills available for nails or screws. Ipe can be side grooved to accept hidden fasteners. Selectwood suggests trying the new Pro Plug System which can speed up the process of drilling, screwing and installing Ipe plugs.

Given all its natural properties Ipe is an amazing choice in exterior wood applications. Since it contains no added harmful chemicals it can be used near any body of water without the risk of contamination. As far as it can be determined Ipe decking can provide over one hundred years of performance without treating it with preservatives!

Ipe is typically found growing in tropical South-Central America. It thrives in a variety of sites including marshes and riverbanks to high ridge tops. Ipe can grow to 140 feet in height and up to six feet in diameter. Ipe is one of the tallest trees in the Amazon region. With tropical rain forest origins of Ipe, consequential questions arise about the ecological appropriateness of harvesting Ipe lumber. This furthermore raises some interesting question regarding the use of man made versus natural materials, especially considering Ipe’s 100+ year service life.

There seems to be no debate that the 70’s and 80’s were unregulated times in Brazil’s Rain Forest as large commercial operations to peasant farmers made high environmental impacts. In the late 80’s deforestation rate was at an all time high. Export logging was one of many contributors to rapid deforestation. Brazil came under international pressure to reduce deforestation that was destroying thousand of square miles of the Amazon each year. In 1988, The Brazilian Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources – IBAMA was created with the task of creating environmental policy and integrated protection and conservation of natural resources. IBAMA recognized that Brazil’s resources should be scientifically rationed to create maximum growth coupled with maximum conservation with preservation for future generations.

With IBAMA in control Brazil now requires tree harvest certifications to accompany all lumber from standing trees in Brazil to warehouses in the U.S. Certifications must accompany lumber at all times with the risk of confiscations and penalties for non compliance. Loggers must acquire harvest certifications which allow them to harvest limited trees from specified areas. With high tech tools the Brazilian government now has weapons to resist illegal logging and exporting lumber products. Even though logging takes place in remote areas, trucks with certification documentation can be tracked with GPS’s. Satellite surveillance of logging areas is another tool for regulation. Penalties for non compliance can ultimately lead to a shut down of the mill.

Experiments are underway inserting micro-chips in lumber which could allow a land owner using sustainable forestry practices to distinguish their wood from that acquired through illegal logging. High technology tracking systems allows forest certification groups like the Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, better methods to isolate fraud origination from non sustainable harvest areas. Today the FSC can certify that rain forest harvested lumber like Ipe can be harvested, processed and transported in a documentable, responsible manner. Unlike illegal slash and burn logging new techniques of selectively cutting trees can generate revenues without harming forests. Some experts suggest proper wood harvesting may even increase to amount of carbon dioxide a forest can trap.

Architects, builders and consumers who are concerned with making green choices need to consider that if a lumber product like Ipe is harvested from the Amazon doesn’t automatically make it a poor choice. Today Brazil takes a sophisticated approach to managing its forests.  Because of its ideal climate, Amazon grown trees can reach harvestable size rapidly. We should keep in mind that bans and embargoes on tropical hardwood will diminish their value and ultimately the value of the forest they thrive in. Turning away from tropical wood can diminish incentives to conserve and manage forests in a sustainable manner. When a significant market price is paid for Ipe and other tropical wood being harvested in a responsible, sustainable manner, we are investing in the conservation and management of forests.  The local Amazon people have to make a living and they will resort to clear cut farming if more attractive alternatives are not available. Jobs from sustainable yield logging are not the complete answer but they do provide an alternative. We hope informed understanding of Brazil’s policies, will make the decision to use long lasting Ipe for an exterior project might be easier to make.