If you love beautiful decks, then you probably know ipe very well. Over the past decade, I’ve had the blessing (and burden) of getting to know it rather intimately. Whenever clients have a little extra money to spend on new decking, ipe invariably comes up in the conversation—and for good reason.
Ipe is one of the most popular tropical hardwood decking materials due to its gorgeous looks and its high level of moisture resistance. However, like all wooden decks, it requires a good deal of maintenance—even more than most. And for those interested in going green, there are concerns over ipe’s level of environmental sustainability. Luckily, within the last few decades a type of composite decking has been developed that provides many of the benefits of ipe—without any of the drawbacks.
Why People Love Ipe
Just do a quick Google image search, and most of the answer is right there. As a decking material, it’s out-of-this-world beautiful when it’s new and/or really well cared for. Its natural reddish-brown coloring gives it a deep and rich look that is very difficult to duplicate with stains. It’s also an extremely dense and heavy wood that is fantastic at repelling moisture. In a damp or humid climate, it’s one of the best woods available for decking.
The Drawbacks of Ipe
While ipe is an amazing wood for using on a deck, there are a number of drawbacks ranging from environmental considerations to a heavy maintenance load.
- Environmental Problems
Ipe is a slow-growing rainforest tree, sourced mainly from the Brazilian Amazon basin. While there are companies that do sell responsibly harvested ipe, the certification process is somewhat porous and not without its problems. Whether it is called sustainable or not, much of the ipe that is sold is in the 250 to 1000-year-old age range—it takes some time to replace it!
- Lots of Maintenance
Perhaps because of its rainforest pedigree, ipe possesses a high degree of moisture resistance, but it has more difficulty with exposure to the sun. When you have an ipe deck, it’s very important to regularly apply a UV-inhibiting stain. Because it is an expensive and unique hardwood, instead of every year or every other year, I recommend cleaning and resealing up to twice a year, depending on the climate and the deck’s level of sun exposure. Were ipe to go without any protection, and left in full sun, the deck would turn gray in about 6-12 months, experience shrinkage, and begin to crack.
- Color Loss
One of the most striking and attractive characteristics of ipe is its gorgeous color and its tight grains. That Google image search will show you plenty of examples of its deep and rich coloring. What you might not see are the real-world examples of rapidly graying decks. Without adequate and frequent treatment it will appear black when wet and gray when dry, losing the wonderful reddish brown color variations that make it so distinctive.
Even with a consistent maintenance regime, this color will begin to fade.
The Benefits of Composite Decking That Looks Like Ipe
Made of recycled plastic and bamboo flour, high-quality composite decking really cuts back on the maintenance. All that is required to keep a fully capped composite deck in good order is minimal scrubbing and washing every now and then. But its benefits don’t end there.
- Kinder on the Planet
By taking materials—plastic and sawdust or bamboo—that would otherwise end up in a landfill and trapping them for decades in a useful product, a composite decking that looks like ipe actually becomes incredibly beneficial to the environment, particularly in comparison with harvesting old-growth rainforest hardwoods.
- Keeping the Color Without the Effort
The newest generation of fully capped composite decking possesses an enhanced resin capping material that successfully withstands UV radiation and maintains a rich ipe coloring for years on end. Each decking board comes with two different grain patterns—a distressed hardwood pattern on one side, and a tighter tropical hardwood pattern (to mimic wood like ipe) on the other side.
Ipe is an undoubtedly beautiful material, and if you are up for the task of maintaining it or paying another eager soul to do it, then it can be with you for some time, too. If you want the beauty of ipe without the work and expense of the maintenance, then investing in a high-quality fully capped composite deck is a great way to go. My favorite is the bamboo composite known as Infinity Decking, produced by Fortress Deck. It comes in a range of colors and will last for years. Several colors mimic the variety of tropical hardwood colorations that you see in something like Ipe, including Spanish Saffron, Tiger Cover, and Kona Sunset, which all look like newly-treated tropical hardwoods at their best. It’s an innovative product, and if you’re looking for other innovative products, like fencing, railing, and decorative hardware, take a look at the full range of products at Fortress Building Products.