Woodworking with Brazilian Ipê

Yellow Ipê Tree

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Ipê (pronounced "ee-pay") is a hardwood grown primarily in Brazil. This type of wood is sometimes referred to as "ironwood" because of its strength and density. If you pick up a piece of ipê, you'll immediately notice how heavy the wood is.

Ipê is tightly grained, with a color reminiscent of mahogany. Most ipê has very few knots, making it quite straight and stable. This trait, along with its natural resistance to water, makes ipê an ideal choice for decks and outdoor woodworking projects.

What is Ipê?

The ipê typically sold by fine wood suppliers is often one of about 10 different, but very similar, species of wood. All come from Brazil and have many characteristics in common, but they tend to be lumped together and sold as ipê.

If you're planning a deck or a large project, keep in mind that each of these species will likely have slight color variations and probably look a little different after finishing. If you order all of your ipê from one trusted supplier and get enough to complete the entire project, you should achieve a more uniform look.

Using Ipê

Ipê's strength and density make it a difficult type of wood to cut cleanly. You'll likely find that your blades and bits will dull quickly while cutting ipê, so plan accordingly. As you might expect, sanding wood with these qualities can be very time-consuming. Additionally, it produces a very fine, yellowish sawdust that is known to be quite irritating to the eyes and respiratory system.

With this in mind, consider working with ipê outdoors as much as possible, ideally on a windy day. Try using a carbide saw blade with fewer teeth at a sharp hook angle to keep from making fine sawdust. If you must cut indoors, make sure to use proper ventilation.

Fastening with Ipê

Ipê is not only very dense and strong, it can also be more brittle than other woods. Driving nails into ipê with a pneumatic nailer tends to create splitting, and screws get their heads broken off easily. The combination of stainless steel screws and pre-drilled holes works best to fasten ipê boards together.

Gluing ipê can also be a challenge. Weather-resistant yellow glues are a good option, as are epoxy formulas. Wipe down the wood with acetone or denatured alcohol before gluing to ensure that the surfaces are completely clean.

Filling Screw Holes

Ipê tends to be incompatible with common wood fillers; over time, even they eventually dislodge from the holes in this wood. One method that does seem to work well with ipê is to sink the screws at least 1/8 inch into the wood, then cut plugs from ipê scrap to fill the screw holes. Another common choice is to mix sawdust with waterproof yellow glue to fill the holes.

Finishing Ipê

When left untreated and exposed to weather, ipê will develop a grayish tint similar to faded teak. If you choose to prevent this, you can help preserve the rich color of the wood by applying a protective finish. However, because of ipê's density, finishes may not adhere well. Oil-based protectants sometimes can take weeks to dry, while varnishes will look great initially, but may be troublesome down the line. Polyurethane simply does not adhere to ipê.

Tung oil may help maintain the color of the wood over time. Protective finishes meant for wooden boats that consist of a combination of tung oil, resins, and mineral spirits might be a good choice as well. Since every person's preference will be a little different, experiment until you find a finish that meets your tastes. Be sure that the ipê has had plenty of time to dry properly and acclimatize before applying the finish.