Let’s say you’ve just purchased a home.
Newly renovated kitchen? Check.
Updated windows, frames, and trim? Check.
Tidy, attractive landscaping? Check.
Splintered, rotted-out deck in the back…
Sometimes it seems like there is no more work that can possibly be done on a home. This is usually when it becomes apparent that the deck is in desperate need of renovation (sometimes this happens because of a distressingly large splinter lodged in a tender spot). Inevitably, this leads to the question, “What do I replace the deck surface with?” The material that springs to mind for most people is pressure treated lumber. It’s the most commonly used material in decks, in spite of its often disappointing performance.
If you’ve decided to move on from PT lumber and are looking for an upgrade, two of the longest lasting materials for residential and commercial decks are ipe wood and synthetic composites. They’re both incredibly durable materials, and when it comes to ipe wood vs. composite decking the choice may not be clear. In this post, we’ll try to demystify these two materials by comparing what each has to offer.
Ipe Wood vs. Composite Decking: How They Compare
Ipe wood is so dense that it actually sinks in water, and it comes naturally loaded with oils that help it resist insects as well as moisture. These attributes make it one of the longest-lasting natural materials for decks available. However, it does have some drawbacks. The density of the wood makes staining it impossible, meaning it only comes in one color. And, its legendary hardness means that it needs to be worked carefully with carbide tools—something usually only required for metalworking—causing a significant increase in labor costs. Despite its toughness, ipe does require maintenance—for one thing, it must be washed and oiled regularly to preserve its natural rich tones, otherwise it fades to a silvery color.
Composites are a newer option made from a combination of wood (or another natural fiber like bamboo) and plastics. These decking materials are far denser than pressure treated lumber, which helps them to resist moisture better, and the plastic in them discourages insects. High-quality composites have a full, protective resin ‘capping,’ which stands up to moisture and UV damage to better protect the entire board. Composite boards are also available in a wide variety of colors—and even textures—that will match nearly any style of house. They also have the advantage of being easy to work with normal woodworking tools, and they make use of recycled plastics and wood byproducts (like sawdust), or fast-growing plants like bamboo, rather than slow-growing rainforest trees.
Some key comparisons between the two are:
- Durability: Here ipe wood has the advantage, with properly treated ipe wood lasting 100 years or more. Even untreated ipe wood should retain its dimensions and smooth profile for a very long time. However, untreated ipe wood takes on a silver color when untreated in only two to three years. On the other hand, composites have dramatically increased in longevity, with high-quality brands coming with 25-year warranties.
- Customization: Composite deck boards come in a range of colors, and that gives them the advantage when it comes to building a deck that looks just the way you want. And if you choose composite decking in which the colors are a constituent part of the board, you won’t end up with obvious scratches or fading. Some manufacturers are even making dual-surface boards, which let you choose between composite decking that looks like smooth, elegant ipe and decking with a more rustic, reclaimed look.
- Sustainability: Ipe wood is harvested from a slow-growing tropical tree, and whether or not it is always harvested responsibly is a hotly debated topic. This leaves the availability of ipe wood in the future an open question for several reasons. Generally, composite decking is considered more eco-friendly as it is produced from recycled materials and byproducts.
Ipe wood is an incredible wood, and makes an amazing deck. However, it’s not very versatile in comparison with composite. Composite can be bent to make a woodland deck shaped like a leaf, or a poolside deck whose deck boards curve to suggest the waves kicked up by a rowdy cannonball. Composite boards can have a rough, grayed look that fits perfectly with your industrial chic balcony, or it can form a smooth expanse of rich, luxurious-looking deep brown boards. Ipe wood has its benefits, but composite decks give you more leeway to make something uniquely you.
Comparing the Costs of Ipe and Composite
Ipe wood deck boards are relatively inexpensive and last for an absurdly long time. Still, while ipe wood deck boards compete well in price with composite deck boards, structural ipe lumber like 2×6’s and 4×4’s are incredibly expensive. An ipe wood 4×4 goes for around $80 in an 8-foot length, and a 16-foot length will set you back nearly $200. A 2×6 will set you back around $65 and $125 dollars for the same lengths.
These prices are why you only very rarely find ipe wood substructures. This means that most ipe wood decks will eventually have to be replaced even when properly maintained due to the substructure not lasting as long as the deck’s surface. This often leads to the homeowner demolishing the deck, carefully setting aside the old boards, and building a new deck just to put the old boards back on it. This is a significant labor cost that could crop up every decade or so–this in addition to the required washing and oiling of the boards.
Composite deck boards, especially from a quality manufacturer, have a similar potential to outlast their substructures. However, they can last for decades without the regular surface treatments that ipe requires, resulting in lower maintenance costs over the life of the deck. And, as the sustainability of composite isn’t in dispute, replacing or remodeling a composite deck doesn’t carry the same moral dimension that it does with ipe.
Before choosing a style of decking, I always recommend taking a moment to really reflect on what you want from your home’s outdoor space. A rich, brown-toned ipe might work great for a family home that will be passed down for generations and will be carefully taken care of over the years. For most of us, who will buy and sell homes as we move to pursue careers and who will upsize and downsize our lives as children are born, grow up, and move out, composite decking makes more sense. With its low maintenance, versatility, and sustainability, composites have a definite advantage over ipe for most people.
I’ve looked at a lot of decking options, but the composite brand that I trust most is Infinity by Fortress Deck. They offer a range of colors and options and a complete system of fascia boards, stair treads, post sleeves, and lighting options that make it easy to create a beautiful, matching deck area. They’re also made of a tough, moisture-resistant bamboo-based composite and covered with a unique, rubbery resin capping that feels like real wood and protects the boards from UV and weather damage. This product goes beautifully other Fortress products, such as railing and fencing, to make your outdoor spaces truly your own.