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.


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