Why You Should Consider Alternatives to Ipé

Whether you call it epay, ipe, or I.P.E. (the correct pronunciation is ee-pay, FYI), the Brazilian Hardwood known as Ipé is starting to come under fire; literally and figuratively.

Recent news has brought to light the devastation that fires and deforestation are bringing to the Brazilian Rainforest. There are many opinions on the root causes of the Amazon fires, but most agree that farmers and ranchers are clear-cutting areas then burning the foliage to produce usable topsoil for cattle or soy beans. It’s debatable what the long-lasting effect of recent events will be, but it does beg the question: should we keep building with Ipé and other Brazilian hardwoods?

Brazilian hardwoods like Ipé, Cumaru, Tigerwood, and Garapa are widely used in the USA, Canada and the U.K. for decking, siding, and outdoor furniture. The incredible density of these woods give them an upper hand over domestic hardwoods, and they are unquestionably beautiful. Many architects specify Ipé and other tropical hardwoods in an effort to design projects that utilize natural products like wood for LEED certification while creating an extremely durable project. But, is there a better way to achieve those goals?

Wait, can’t we just grow more Ipé trees?

Seems simple enough, if you clear-cut land in the Rainforest then you should plant more trees somewhere else. In fact, that is how one-third of our lumber products are harvested today: on tree plantations. But, when considering which wood species to plant, Ipé (which takes 80 years to mature) doesn’t make sense. The goal of a tree plantation is to produce lumber at a sustainable and manageable rate, which is why softwoods are primarily used (most softwoods can be harvested within 25 years).

There is also a big difference in a tree plantation and an ecosystem. An ecosystem like the rainforest can’t be replanted somewhere else. Without a systematized approach to clearing land in the Amazon, islands of forests are being created that cut off parts of the ecosystem from each other. There could be a way to sustainably manage the Amazon rainforest, but that is yet to be seen. In fact, Ipé was proposed to be placed on the CITES Appendix II List by Brazil but was withdrawn two weeks later. Being added to this list would have severely restricted the harvesting of Ipé.

What’s the Alternative?

If you’re looking for a wood species that’s stronger than Cedar but more environmentally-friendly than Ipé, it’s time to consider modified wood products. Modified woods vary from brand-to-brand, but in general a proprietary process is used to infuse sustainably managed softwood species with chemicals and heat to produce a stronger, more stable wood product. Wood species used could be pine, ash, maple or other softwoods.

A major benefit of modified woods is that they usually come from FSC Certified® forests. FSC Certified forests must follow strict sustainability guidelines, then document those products and procedures from the mill to the finished product. Brazilian hardwoods haven’t been regulated by the same strict ethical guidelines, so unless you are going to the source – Brazilian sawmills – it’s hard to know if your new Ipé deck is truly eco-friendly.

Are Modified Woods as durable as Brazilian Hardwoods?

Modified woods fall on a spectrum of strength and durability. Some claim to be as dense as Ipé. The modification process definitely makes the product more durable than its softwood counterparts, with the ability to last as long as tropical hardwoods under similar weather conditions. Almost all modified woods come with at least a 30 year warranty against rot and decay. Modified woods also have the added advantage of greater stability than that of Brazilian hardwoods.

Can I get the same look as Ipé?

Let’s be honest, environmental issues aside, sometimes our product choice comes down to the aesthetic. Can modified woods give you the look you want? Yes and no.

If you want a “real wood” look then they all tick that box. Modified woods will gray to a silver patina just like tropical hardwoods, or can be periodically oiled to keep their natural luster. If you want the deep chocolate brown of Ipé, then Kebony Clear is your best bet. Kebony will also have a more uniform color than Ipé, which will have color variations from tree-to-tree.

So, should I be looking at Ipé alternatives?

That is up to you or your client, but yes you should look at as many alternatives as you can. The question to ask yourself is, “What story do I want to tell about my project?” Do you want to tell guests at your next cocktail party that your new deck or cladding is Ipé or a modified wood? In light of the conversations surrounding climate change and the deforestation of the Amazon, we must decide for ourselves how important using a Brazilian hardwood really is.

One thing is certain: modified woods are a clear-cut alternative to tropical hardwoods.