Ipe ≠ workable

The thing with Ipe is that it is NOT a workable wood. The front porch stair railing was a composite of 2″×2″ Ipe pieces joined using butt joints. The problem with Ipe is that you can’t just use any old glue, and complex joints are difficult, to say the least. When I built it years ago I used dowels and polyurethane glue, which lasted for a time, but as half of the railing is exposed to the elements, not forever. Ipe is too dense, and oily to use normal glues on. Now rebuilding the piece, I have endeavoured to make it more robust. How?

One possibility is using large robust fasteners – While stainless steel screws work for holding-down applications and pre-drilled Ipe, they do not have the strength to hold in end-grain (i.e. they may shear off). Using a GRK structural fastener requires precise pre-drilling. In normal wood, the screw body compresses the wood as it winds in, and the threads cut into the wood fibre. Not so in Ipe end-grain. I tried screwing a No.8 GRK screw into end grain, in a pre-drilled hole (the width of the screw shaft), and it burst the end of the 2″×2″ (see photo below). The trick may be to predrill just shy of the thread width of the screw threads. The problem with Ipe is that the wood is just too dense.


Careful using screws (left), and gluing with epoxy (right)

A better way is to use 2-part epoxy glue, and dowels. I’m using JB Weld epoxy, and 3/8″ dowels 2″ in length. It may also help that these pieces of Ipe have been exposed to the elements for 10 years, so some of the oil has dried out. I have joined a number of the butt joints in this manner and is seems to produce a fairly robust joint. If the wood is fairly new, I would advocate cleaning the area with some form of solvent prior to gluing. Don’t both using water-based glues – they don’t work with these types of tropical hardwood.

The most wicked of woods


So simple a word, for so indestructible a wood species. Ipe, or Brazilian Walnut comes from Central and South America, and has a Janka hardness of 3510. So, it’s not the hardest of woods – Lignum vitae has a value of 4500, yet there are few decks made of Lignum vitae. I first encountered Ipe about 10 years ago when I replaced my cedar deck with a deck made of 1″×6″ Ipe, thinking it would be almost maintenance free. At that time, the use of tropical hardwoods for decks was not that common in Toronto. Installation using stainless steel screws, and pre-drilling the wood was easy. I also installed the Ipe on my covered porch, and fashioned porch railings, and balusters from 2″×2″ Ipe.


The porch


Things are of course easier now a decade later – Ipe boards come pre-grooved, and there are a multitude of hidden fasteners. But some things have stayed the same. The upside to Ipe is its longevity. The downside is maintaining its look. Initially I tried Cabot’s Australian Timber Oil, containing both linseed and tung oils. It required oiling twice a year, and really didn’t look good beyond a couple of years. An Ipe deck gets dirty, just like any deck would – especially when covered with pollen in spring, and decomposing leaves in the fall. Ipe decks look *great* in a climate where it’s always sunny. The photos below show pieces of Ipe after weathering for ten years.


Weathering of Ipe (10 year old)

The problem with winter is snow and ice, which act like a rasp, abrading off any finish. Tom Silva summed it up nicely on the This Old House website when asked about finishing an Ipe deck:

I wouldn’t finish it at all. Ipe is a Brazilian hardwood that’s so dense it doesn’t absorb finish as well as the softwoods on most decks. In fact, none of the deck finishes I’ve tried on ipe has lasted to my satisfaction. But that’s okay; the wood is so durable it doesn’t need a finish to protect it. 

So my deck was replaced by an aluminum one (see a previous post), and the Ipe boards became an outdoor wall, and is slowly turning gray. Surprisingly the Ipe on the covered porch has faired much better. I give it a yearly coat of tung oil, and it is still a beautiful warm colour. So why is Ipe wicked? Ipe is wicked because it is terrible to work with. Ipe will eat woodworking tools. Crosscuts are one thing, rip cuts a completely different matter.

The horrors of wood shrinkage

Blocks of wood as side tables seem to be all the rage at the moment. But if you are paying good money for a solid “side-table”, the last thing you want is for the wood to split. Loss of water means that wood shrinks. Shrinkage generally takes a circular direction around the tree, the fibres of the outer rings contract together and clefts (or radial cracks) open up, as is shown quite clearly in the picture below. This is because the circumference of the wood (tangential shrinkage) shrinks more than the radius (radial shrinkage).


Block wood side-table, from a spa in Iceland. This might likely be a native species, and seems to be older growth.

The reality is, in blocks of wood, it is hard to stop this cracking occurring, unless you choose a wood species with a low tangential shrinkage factor, or one which has been properly seasoned, or if you’re lucky comes from old-growth (and reclaimed) lumber. Sure, to some cracks may add a level of character, but at the price they charge for these blocks ($250-400), how much character do you really want? Below are some worse-case scenarios of logs left outside for a 12-16 month period. Radial cracks from tangential shrinkage are always easy to see. Radial shrinkage manifests itself in a manner whereby the radius of the log is reduced, and the space between the wood and the bark increases, allowing the latter to fall off.


Radial cracks in elm and maple logs


A smaller block plane by “The Boston”

I saw this block plane on eBay.co.uk – just too late to grab it! A much smaller version of the other two aluminum block planes made by “The Boston” company in my collection. This one is 6¾” in length, with two unique features. The first is a finger “tab” in the toe of the plane, replacing what would normally be a small circular finger depression. The second is that whilst the blade is held in position by a fitted lever cap and cross-brace, pressure  is provided from under the blade by means of a machine-bolt. As the bolt is screwed in, it forces the blade-assembly up against the cross-brace, holding it rigid.


Buying an old house? Make sure you know something about its life

This is a little off-topic, but still involves working by hand – the task of looking after your abode. In a rampant market where every week houses seem to go up in price, the winner is often the one with the best price, and the fewest strings attached, such as a home inspection. People are often drawn to a house because it has a renovated kitchen with stainless steel appliances, or a “finished” basement. Everything seems very cozy, but the superficial decorations on a house don’t matter as much as its structural integrity – things that are often hidden. Would somebody pay more to know the sewer drains are new? Likely not – the buyer of today is more swayed by the houses staging, than by whether or not the pipes are PVC. If buyers do get a home inspection, they often rely on the inspector doing a good job – that doesn’t always happen. You could end up with a house with “hidden extras”. An example? Buying a house in the middle of winter – when you won’t know whether there are leaks in the basement because the ground is frozen.

Here are some questions to ask before you even offer on a house:

1. How old is the house? The age of the house will help identify that sort of ailing structural problems could be present. For example asbestos siding was used on houses from the 1930’s through to the 1970’s.

2. What sort of plumbing is in the house? Copper or PEX pipes are good. Galvanized not so much. Is the main water line coming in from the street copper?

3. What about the sewer lines? In many older houses, the sewer lines are clay, and join up to a cast iron stack below the ground. These clay pipes don’t last forever, and the joint with the cast iron stack can often rot away. Drain lines which have been replaced will be PVC, and join the stack about 3-4 feet from the ground. A cast iron stack itself may not be as big an issue, and it is way quieter than PVC (hence one of the reasons it is used in high-rise buildings). Are there PVC clean-outs in the front of the house? No implies that clay pipes run out to the city line (there was only one sewer trap, and was often located outside the house).

4. Does the basement experience flooding or sewer backups? Does it have a back-flow valve to stop the sewer backing up? This is more important if you plan to buy a house in a low lying area, or a valley.

5. Does the property have good drainage? This really means does the ground slope away from the house? Have the basement walls been waterproofed?

6. What about the electrical? Does the house have any knob-and-tube, or aluminum wiring?

7. How old is the furnace? If it vents through the chimney then it is a mid-efficiency furnace. As of January 1, 2010 you can’t buy a mid-efficiency furnace in Canada, only high efficiency. So a mid-efficiency if installed is a minimum of 5 years old. How old is the air conditioner? Generally 10-12 years is the maximum life span, and older ones may have older less-than-green refrigerants.

8. What about the roof? Is there a peaked roof or a flat roof, or both. When was it last replaced? Asphalt? 3-tab or architectural? Roofs never last as long as they are suppose to. A 20-year roof may last half that time depending on whether there are tree limbs over the roof, exposure to sun, critter damage.

9. Are there skylights? Are there stains inside – a sign of leakage?

10. Roof ventilation? Look inside the attic if possible. Too many people avoid exploring what’s up in the roof cavity, but it greatly affects the health of the house. Is the attic properly insulated? If not, air leakage in winter may cause condensation and ice built-up.

11. What about insulation? Poor insulation will lead to high heating bills.

12. How old are the appliances? Water heater?

Many of these items don’t relate to the aesthetic value of a house, but without sufficiently vetted infrastructure you will find yourself spending a lot more money when you own the house.

Workshop at Fort Niagara

In 2013 we visited Fort Niagara on the way home from the Finger Lakes. Just across the Niagara River from Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s an extremely well looked after fort. Inside the main building, known now as the “French Castle”, is a workshop, likely used for making replica furniture, and restoration – like the Moravian stools in the photo below. The workshop seems to contain both English and French style workbenches.


English-style workbench



French-style workbench