Ipe (pronounced E-pay) is a South American wood as exotic as its name.
When you hold a piece, you know it's something special. Ipe sinks in
water like cast iron, is hard as nails and polishes like brass. Of
course, you don't really have to weld it, but working with ipe may make
you question your sanity. Is it wood or metal? For an exotic wood, it's
not terribly expensive. A 1-in.-thick board typ-ically costs about $6
per board foot. You can buy ipe almost anywhere in the United States,
but most woodworkers have never heard of it. Ipe is used for decks and
outdoor structures because it's extremely rot-resistant, dries without
warping, is free of knots and won't wear out. It's available in
standard dimensions, such as 1x6 and 2x4. Deck offcuts are a blast to
experiment with. Ipe is marketed under a number of names. Dealers call
it Ironwood, Diamond Deck, Pau Lope and Tiger Deck. It's sold as
Brazilian walnut in the interior flooring business. To mail-order ipe,
or to find a dealer nearest you, contact Cecco Trading, (414) 445-8989,
Use It Inside or Out
Ipe can be used for indoor or outdoor furniture. It's so heavy that
this deck chair will never blow over in the wind! Ipe is useful around
the shop, too, because it's so hard and strong. An ipe carver's mallet
lasts a lifetime. Ipe drawer runners never wear out. Best of all, an
ipe workbench is downright awesome. Talk about sturdy!
New Hemisphere, (866) 210-0567, www.ipe-furniture.com
Wait 'Til It's Dry
Ipe isn't dried for interior use. The moisture content (MC) of ipe decking boards is fairly high, about
17 percent. This MC is appropriate for outdoor furniture, but higher
than the 12 percent MC of air-dried hardwoods destined for indoor use.
It's easy to air-dry ipe yourself by stacking it indoors. Monitor its
MC with a moisture meter. (To get a correct reading, adjust for ipe's
high specific gravity: 0.92.)
Dig for Beautiful Boards
Some ipe boards are absolutely stunning. You'll find a wide variety of
color and figure in a random pile of ipe, so good boards are worth
digging for. Ipe's color ranges from olive green to chocolate brown.
Check out the unusual internal structure called interlocked grain in
the board above. Here, the slope of the grain alternates direction
every few growing seasons. This is a spectacular example of grain
that's both curly and interlocked. Pencil-stripe interlocked grain is
more common in ipe.
This is Strong Wood!
Every which way you look at it, ipe is an extreme wood. It's about 70
percent stiffer than hard maple. Outdoor furniture made from cedar,
redwood and treated pine must have thick parts for strength, but ipe
furniture can have the thin lines of metalwork. So be daring! The
slender legs on this patio table are only 7/8 in. square.
It's One Tough Cookie
Go ahead:?Bang on it. Ipe is two to three times as hard as white oak. A
good portion of the Atlantic City boardwalk has been replaced with ipe.
Twenty years later, it hardly shows any signs of wear.
Ipe Sinks in Water
Ipe is incredibly dense. When you pick up a piece, you'd swear it was a
hunk of metal. Ipe weighs 69 to 80 lbs./ft.3 (compare that to red oak
at 43 lbs./ft.3) That's right up there near ultradense exotics, such as
ebony and lignum vitae. The darkest ipe boards are the heaviest ones.
Seal the Ends
Seal the end grain of freshly cut ipe to prevent the ends from
checking. (Checks are small cracks that run from 1/32 in. to 1/4 in.
deep.) Deck builders brush on a special wax emulsion ($20 a quart,
available from ipe dealers). It turns clear a few minutes after it
dries. The surface of ipe boards may have a lot of small checks, but
the checks actually close up as the wood continues to dry—weird.
Use Carbide Tooling
Ipe is murder on ordinary carbon-steel blades. Use a carbide blade in a
tablesaw and carbide bits in a router. Carbide blades are available for
bandsaws, but they cost about $120 for a standard 93-1/2-in. blade.
Carbide isn't an option on most jointers or planers. Take light cuts if
you absolutely must. Edges are best smoothed with a file, like brass.
The surfacing machine that works best with ipe is a drum sander. Ipe
dust may make your skin itch and eyes water. Use dust collection on
your tools and wear a dust mask.
Joints & Glue
Screws and plugs are a fast, easy way to join ipe. Ipe's end grain
holds screws well, unlike softer outdoor woods, but you must predrill
pilot holes. Use stainless-steel screws with long, deep threads. Make
your own plugs for an invisible joint that looks like welded metal.
Yellow glue works well with most ipe, but leave the clamps on overnight
if the wood's MC is high. Some ipe boards are slightly oily. They
should be wiped with acetone, then glued with epoxy. Experiment with
your boards before deciding which glue to use.
Unfinished ipe turns silvery-gray outdoors. Apply an outdoor oil every
year to keep ipe's natural color or to protect it from stains. For
indoor work, sand ipe up to 220 grit. Or go crazy: Push it to 400!
Along the way, you'll be amazed at how burnished the surface
becomes—just like metal. Almost any finish will work. Floor wax
preserves the color of the bizarre yellow-green streaks present in many
ipe boards. These streaks are created by lapachol, a peculiar solid
deposit in ipe's pores.