Wood of the Month:
Ipe Offers Durability, Strength and Good Looks

 By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Tabebuia avellandedae, Tabebuia ipe and Tabebuia serratifolia of the family Bignoniaceae

Ipe, pau d'arco, ipe tabaco, bethabara, lapacho, ebene vert, amata prieto, ironwood, greenheart, amapa, cortez, guayacan, guayacan polvillo, flor amarillo, madera negra, tahuari, lapacho negro, Brazilian walnut.

Trees routinely grow to 150 feet, and can reach 200 feet, with trunk diameters of 6 feet and boles clear to 60 feet or more. Weight varies between 60 and 75 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 1.08.

Usually air dries rapidly with very slight checking or warping. USDA Forest Service recommends a kiln schedule of T3-C1 for 4/4 stock. Material can be difficult to work and difficult to saw. Hardness of material can cause a blunting effect to cutting edges. Experts recommend a reduced cutting angle when planing. Preboring recommended when nailing. Wood holds screws well. Machining material generates a fine, yellow dust that may cause breathing problems and dermatitis. Ipe is highly resistant to all insect and fungal attacks. It is extremely resistant to preservative treatments and wood bending. Wood finishes well.

Ipe, pronounced ee-pay, is an impressive looking tree that grows in Brazil as well as throughout Central and South America and some of the Lesser Antilles.

Ipe is one of many commercial names used for the imposing Lapacho group of trees from the various species of Tabebuia. The trees generally grow from 140 to 150 feet but some can reach heights of 200 feet. Some other common names for the trees from this group include bethbara and lapacho, and a host of names used in the countries where the trees grow.

According to the book Tropical Timbers of the World, produced by the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, in Mexico the tree is called amapa and in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica it is called cortez. In Ecuador the trees are known as madera negra and in Peru, tahuari. Lapacho negro is the name for the tree in Paraguay and Argentina; in Surinam, it is called greenheart; in Venezuela, flor amarillo; in Colombia, guayacan polvillo. Other commercial names for ipe include Brazilian walnut and ironwood.

Decorative and Durable
Ipe has many uses. Some of the logs yield highly figured material that is sliced into decorative veneers and used for high-end applications, including furniture and paneling. Albert Constantine, Jr., writing in the book Know Your Woods, says ipe has a lustrous brown color, sometimes with a greenish tinge. "Occasionally logs are highly figured with a small mottle and broken roe, and the veneers obtained from these logs are similar to a dark, golden-brown Ceylon satinwood."

Other uses for ipe include railroad crossties, heavy construction, exterior construction, tool handles, turnery, boardwalks, bridges, benches, trellis, fencing and industrial flooring. Ipe is also used as an accent wood and for specialty items such as billiard cues, walking sticks, archery bows and fishing rods.

At Home Outside
Ipe's strong, tough resilient properties make it an excellent material and increasingly popular choice for commercial and residential decking and outdoor furniture. Hani Sarafa, president of the Public Lumber Co. and Hardwood International in Detroit, MI, says his company has been selling ipe deck components and accessories for the past 15 years. "Ipe is the material used in the boardwalk at Atlantic City. The wood makes excellent decking material. It requires little or no maintenance and keeps its shape while being resistant to termites and other parasites."

Sarafa says he buys his material from a dealer in New York but the supplies come from Brazil and he uses only Tabebuia species of the Lapacho group. "The wood is dark, reddish-brown in color and it weathers to a silvery gray, much like teak. Ipe has the durability of teak plus strength and is one-third of the price."

Sarafa says he considers the material a much better choice than cedar for decking because "cedar peels, changes color and sometimes develops black spots."

Sarafa used ipe for his lake house deck and dock. "It stands up well to weather and wetness. It's been in place for eight years and it's frequently washed over by waves, but it looks like it did when it was first built," he says.

Prized for Durability
Ipe is prized for its stability, durability, strength and natural resistance to decay, wet conditions, and infestation by termites and borers. It is available in long lengths and relatively easy to season. Ipe has a Class A fire rating, the same rating given to concrete and steel.

Ipe's heartwood is olive brown to black and usually features striping. The sapwood is much lighter, usually white or yellow. The wood can be oily and is sometimes covered in a yellow powder. Cutting or planing of ipe generates a fine, yellow wood dust that can produce allergic reactions in those who breathe it in and is also responsible for contact dermatitis.

Ipe is prized for its hardness, but that also makes it difficult to cut and plane. Experts recommend a reduced cutting angle and also suggest using extremely sharp tools. Preboring is necessary for nails.

Ipe trees from Brazil and other regions are known for their beauty, as well as their lumber. Constantine writes "growing in the forest of Brazil, the tree presents a beautiful appearance. It is one of the tallest trees of the Amazon region, reaching a height of 170 to 200 feet."


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