During the last decade, ipê has become well-known as a South and Central American wood used primarily for outdoor applications, particularly decking. Many consider it a decking material second to none. On some occasions, it is also used for indoor flooring.
"It is very hard and dense," says Fabs Cote of Cormark International in Weaverville, N.C. "The big thing about ipê is its durability outdoors. As a decking wood, it has a lifespan of 60-plus years when exposed to salt water so it has a lot of durability."
"We sell lots of it and can get lots of it," says Jan Neilsen of West Wind Hardwoods in Sidney, British Columbia. "We sell it all across Canada. I have good suppliers; it doesn't seem to be a problem. I have about 20 jobs now pending the use of ipê. We mill it as well for benches, hand rails and decking. It is perfect for outdoors. What one might have used for teak, ipê has taken up the slack. We sell almost all of it for decking. It's about one-quarter the price, horrible to work with, but it outlasts anything else by a long margin."
Two species of ipê, Tabebuia ipê and Tabebuia serratifolia, are the most plentiful and grow in Brazil. Other species grow in Colombia, Central America and Mexico in smaller quantities. Ipê trees often grow on hillsides and in swampy areas, and reach heights in excess of 125' with trunk diameters of 3'-4'. The heartwood is an olive-brown color, while the sapwood is yellowish-white.
Some dealers have mentioned that there have been recent supply problems.
"The reason there was a shortage was Brazil was going through an election year last year and there was a lot of speculation as to what the new administration was going to do because the current president had run his term, he couldn't be re-elected, so they knew that he was going out and there would be a new president," Cote says. "In fact, they have elected their first female president into office. Because of that, there wasn't much coming out of Brazil, period. Not only ipê; there was difficulty getting purpleheart and several other species. The whole industry was almost on a freeze."
"Ipê is going to places in the world where the demand is," says Rick Paid of Rare Earth Hardwoods in Traverse City, Mich. "The price is so high, but where it is available there are still people willing to pay for it. We're sending some to Europe. But it is not abundant anymore; the big commodity guys made their fast quick buck and they're all gone. Ipê has been exploited like genuine mahogany."
The working characteristics of ipê are fair at best because of its hardness and wavy grain. It will quickly dull cutting blades and predrilling is strongly recommended. In addition to outside decks, uses include walkways, industrial flooring, stair components, and decorative veneer.
"Working-wise, it is awful," Cote acknowledges. "You'll burn through blades just cutting it up. I have worked it myself where we did a small little deck at home and it was one of the hardest woods I have ever had to deal with. It doesn't cooperate the way a normal wood would. But the end result is also incredible. It is well worth the hardship up front, because on the back end there is no maintenance."
Ipê comes in lengths that usually range between 3' and 6' and in thicknesses up to 8/4. It is usually sold between $4.75 and $5 a lineal foot in a size of 1x6. Prices for 5/4x6 and 8/4x6 are slightly higher.
"At the moment, prices are all over the board," Cote says. "It depends upon what type of width, in terms of decking."
"It's gotten quite expensive," Paid says. "We've started marketing inside Brazil because most of the small mills in the Amazon have dried up. I don't import it. I can buy ipê cheaper from one or two existing commodity guys in the States cheaper than I can even produce it in Brazil.
"Ipê logs are the most expensive logs down there now."
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.