What Is Ipe Wood?

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Close-up of ipe wood
Close-up of ipe wood (Image: Dominique Le bot/Hemera/Getty Images)

Today's consumers demand building materials that are beautiful, long-lasting and environmentally sustainable. Ipe -- pronounced ee-pay -- wood, also known as Brazilian walnut, fits that bill. An extremely dense hardwood, it's resistant to decay, rot and infestation, and has the same resistance to heat and fire as concrete and steel. Ipe wood can be a little difficult to work with, however, and can routinely damage and wear out many tools.

Strength and Sustainability

Ipe wood is frequently used outdoors. It's made into furniture, decking, shingles and siding. For interiors, it's used for flooring or cabinetry. It's also found as tool handles, railroad crossties and industrial flooring. The wood's rich and warm color holds a timeless appeal. Consumers can find ipe wood that is reddish brown, a yellowish olive-brown or a blackish brown, at times with contrasting darker stripes or powdery yellow deposits. An environmentally sound choice of material, ipe is not listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Appendices or on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species.

Janka Hardness Test

A means of determining, expressing and comparing a wood's toughness is the Janka hardness test, which measures the force needed to embed a steel ball with a diameter of.444 inches into a wood's depth to half the ball’s diameter. Ipe wood's value is 3,600. much higher than such common woods as hard maple at 1,450, ash at 1,320, cherry at 950 and poplar at 540. While hardness in wood is a desirable trait, ipe's hardness makes it more challenging to work with.

Working With Ipe Wood

Ipe wood is so hard and dense that it can blunt cutting edges on saws. The BannerElk Trading Company, a hardwood fastener and ipe wood procurement agency, recommends on its Ipe Decking Source website using carbide-tipped saw blades with fewer teeth, such as 16 teeth on 7¼-inch blades, which stay cooler and sharper longer, and miter box saws, such as 10- or 12-inch saws, with approximately 24 teeth on 10-inch blades and 32 teeth on 12-inch blades. Cobalt alloy drill bits are the most effective and longest lasting for working with ipe; high-speed steel drill bits are not a good choice. Removing shavings while drilling helps bits last longer. Screw holes require pre-drilling. Hand-nailing ipe wood is generally not feasible, and shooting nails with pneumatic nail guns is not a good idea. Ipe's hardness means it can't be used for projects with intricate details. Ipe wood cannot be painted well due to its high oil and tannin content.

Pricing and Certification

Ipe wood typically comes from trees in South America and some parts of Central America. Cost is similar to premium domestic hardwoods such as cherry and Walnut. "The Wall Street Journal" reported that consumers can expect to pay about 30 percent more for ipe than for a knotty cedar or pine. When shopping for ipe wood, sustainability is assured if the product received certification from organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council, which tracks sustainable and properly managed forests.

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