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All About Hardwood Decking

Ipe is the gold standard, but plenty of other species stack up quite nicely on looks and longevity, often at a lower price

Beautiful Investment

Photo by David Albanese

There's a reason they build boardwalks out of tropical hardwood: It's dense and hard enough to shrug off the insults of skateboards, high heels, hail, and just about anything else you or Ma Nature can muster. Ipe (pronounced EE-pay), the most durable and best known of the Brazilian hardwoods, is three and a half times as hard as teak. Its natural oils deter pests, rot, and decay so well that you could pound a stake of it into the dirt, come back 25 years later, and expect to find it intact. Above ground, ipe can last up to a century—longer than it takes to grow in the first place—making it one of the greenest choices available (assuming it's sustainably harvested). Incredibly, this wood has the same fire rating as steel and concrete.

Add in its rich brown luster, and ipe is the ideal material for decking. Such performance comes at a price, of course, but anyone who decides to make the investment in hardwood decking has other choices, too. Lesser-known tropical species such as cumaru, garapa, cambara, massaranduba, and tigerwood are nearly as amazing. A relatively new candidate for a deck that's as durable as it is attractive comes from Thermory, which takes domestically harvested white ash—the stuff of baseball bats—and heat-treats it in such a way that it's rendered rot resistant and extremely stable.

Whichever grain you go with, here's everything you need to know to make sure you don't go wrong.

Shown: Deck boards made of ipe, sometimes called Brazilian walnut for its handsome hue, provide a stunning backdrop for this outdoor furniture.

Hardwood Decking Vitals

Photo by Peter Topp Enge Jonasen/iStockPhoto

What's it cost?
Ipe decking starts at $2.29 per linear foot for 14s from online retailers. Alternatives range from $1.55 to $4.30. Add about 25 percent for ½ decking, which is thicker.

What's the warranty?
Some companies offer warranties of three to 25 years on certain woods, excluding insect damage and minor issues, such as stains, scratches, or checks (the shallow cracks on the wood surface). Your best guarantee? Buy from a reputable supplier.

Hardwood Decking Vitals: Continued

Photo by Courtesy of Thermory

Kiln- or Air-dried?
All hardwood decking except ipe must be kiln-dried to minimize shrinkage and warping after installation.

Where to buy it?
Many full-service lumberyards stock ipe as 1x4s, 1x6s, ½x4s and/or ½x6s and also as posts and rails. Finding other species in stock is hit or miss, but they can be special-ordered. Online suppliers can also ship right to your door in one to two weeks.

Is Hardwood Right For You? Pros

Photo by Harvey Smith Photography/e2 Homes & Evergreen Consulting

Luxury look: Put it this way: Premium composite decking is out to mimic the rich appearance of these beautiful boards.

Tough: All these decking boards are hard enough to stand up to hail, claws, and heels.

Durable: They're immune to insects and rot, even if they come in contact with the ground.

Stable: These hardwoods don't shrink as much as pressure-treated softwoods or expand and contract with temperature fluctuations like plastics and composites do.

Fire resistant: If a hardwood deck does catch fire, it won't billow toxic smoke like one made of composite boards or pressure-treated lumber will.

Is Hardwood Right For You? Cons

Photo by Chuck Schmidt/Getty

Pricey: The least-expensive hardwood decking is at least twice the price of pressure-treated pine.

No grading standards: It's up to you to suss out the quality of your supplier's inventory. Look for boards that are clear (free of defects) on one face and two edges.

Stubborn: Ipe and its rock-hard ilk resist drill bits and saw blades, which slows down installation.

Hot: The denser and darker the wood, the hotter it gets in the sun—a liability for bare feet.

Regular maintenance: Unless you want your deck to turn gray, you need to oil it to preserve the color.

Pick a Species: Ipe

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $2.55 per lin. ft.*

Density: 69 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: A dense wood with a brown or olive cast.

Workability: Difficult. Slows down even carbide-tipped blades.

* All prices are approximate for non-grooved, non-FSC-certified 14 decking boards. Shipping not included.

Pick a Species: Cumaru

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $1.92 per lin. ft.

Density: 68 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: More red than brown, with a grain like teak.

Workability: See ipe.

Pick a Species: Massaranduba

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $2.21 per lin. ft.

Weight: 67 lbs. per cu. ft.

Highlight: Reddish brown, with a straight, subtle grain. Prone to checking.

Workability: More difficult to cut than ipe.

Pick a Species: TigerWood

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $1.75 per lin. ft.

Density: 58 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: Orangey with intermittent dark streaks.

Workability: Moderate. Carbide-tipped bits and blades not mandatory.

Pick a Species: Garapa

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $1.77 per lin. ft.

Density: 51 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: Honey color goes gray very quickly.

Workability: Easy. Saw blades cut in one pass.

Pick a Species: Cambara

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $1.73 per lin. ft.

Density: 37 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: Mahogany-like, with a contrasting grain.

Workability: Like butta!

Pick a Species: Heat-Treated White Ash

Photo by Michael Chini/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Price: $3.59 per lin. ft.

Density: 37 lbs. per cu. ft.

Character: Coffee-brown, with a pronounced grain.

Workability: Easy as pine.

Keep the Forest Green

Photo by Universal Images Group/Getty

The only way to be sure that your hardwood decking is not contributing to deforestation is to look for the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which certifies that the wood comes from a sustainably managed forest. Though FSC certification can add 25 to 50 percent to the cost of decking, the standards limit the size of clear-cuts, protect waterways by retaining trees along their shores, protect water quality, prohibit the use of highly hazardous chemicals, and protect rare species.

Design Your Deck: Pattern

Photo by Courtesy of AdvantageLumber.com

Angling the boards in a chevron pattern, as on this tigerwood deck, moves the eye toward the view. Hardwoods are suited to making diagonal patterns because of their stiffness; joists can be spaced 16 inches on-center, instead of 12 inches, as they must be when using pressure-treated wood.

Shown: ½x6 grooved tigerwood decking, about $2.99 per linear foot; AdvantageLumber.com

Design Your Deck: Multiple Levels

Photo by Courtesy of Thermory

Steps set on a diagonal play off the pattern in the upper deck while offering casual seating. This decking is thermally modified white ash, a walnut-colored wood with a pronounced grain. It's used here in combination with light-colored western red cedar, providing a striking dark accent on the privacy screen, pergola, and stair risers.

Shown: 1x6 grooved, thermally modified white ash, about $6.48 per linear foot; ThermoryUSA.com for dealers.

Design Your Deck: Contrasting Border

Photo by Courtesy of AdvantageLumber.com

The builder of this deck used light-colored garapa to define the edge of a dark field of ipe. Maintaining that color difference requires regular applications of a UV-absorbing finish, though this border treatment will still be evident if all the wood goes gray.

Shown: 1x6 grooved ipe, about $3.83 per linear foot, and 1x6 grooved garapa, about $2.09 per linear foot; AdvantageLumber.com

Design Your Deck: Mixed-Width Boards

Photo by Courtesy of AdvantageLumber.com

Using different widths is an easy way to create a refined architectural look. In this case, a pair of narrow boards is alternated with a wider one in a repeating pattern.

Shown: 1x4 grooved ipe, about $2.29 per linear foot, and 1x6 grooved ipe, about $3.43 per linear foot; AdvantageLumber.com

Choosing Posts and Rails: Composite

Photo by Eric Roth

If you like a clean look, this option offers its own imperviousness and contrasts crisply with dark tropical decking. It also cleans up just as easily, with a blast from the garden hose. Azek

Choosing Posts and Rails: Cable Rail

Photo by Feeney Inc.

Install posts and handrails milled from hardwood or fabricated from steel, and thread horizontal cables through them in place of vertical balusters (check local building codes for spacing). Feeney, Inc

Choosing Posts and Rails: Metal Balusters

Photo by Decks by Kiefer

For an appropriately enduring material to go with hardwood, powder-coated aluminum and galvanized steel are strong and attractive and need only an occasional washing. The Home Depot

Choosing Posts and Rails: Metal Balusters

Photo by Andrew Buchanan/SLP

Many decking suppliers also furnish posts, rails (top and bottom), and balusters milled from the same species as the decking. Keep it a rich wood tone or paint it for contrast, like the Chippendale railing here. Iron Woods

Custom-Milled Profile: Thermory JEM Joints

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Interlocking ends butt together between joists, saving the time and material you'd waste by cutting each board back to the nearest support. Thermory

Custom-Milled Profile: Iron Woods Vanish Decking

Illustration by Arthur Mount

A shiplap profile truly hides clips and grooves while leaving space for the boards to breathe. Iron Woods

Custom-Milled Profile: Grooved Edges

Illustration by Arthur Mount

A shiplap profile truly hides clips and grooves while leaving space for the boards to breathe. Iron Woods

Installation Strategies

Photo by Courtesy of Deckwise, The Ipe clip Fastener Company LLC.

Wood is wood, naturally, but there are things to consider when buildinga deck with the hard stuff

Framing: It's fine to build the structure from pressure-treated lumber, given that it'll be protected from UV rays by the decking. Just be sure to flash properly where it meets the house—don't let aluminum come into contact with treated wood—and use PT-rated fasteners. And if the decking outlives the structure, well, your grandchildren will need to pull up the boards and reframe it.

Ventilation: Invincibility aside, any deck needs adequate space underneath it for air to circulate. Otherwise, moisture from the ground builds up and causes the boards to cup and swell. If the joists can't be at least a foot off the ground, use ½x4 boards for their stability over thinner, wider stock.

Installation Strategies: Continued

Photo by Dorling Kindersley/Getty

Spacing: Though far more stable than pressure-treated woods or composites, kiln-dried hardwoods do expand and contract slightly across their width. Follow supplier recommendations to set the gaps.

Drilling and cutting: The sawdust may not contain the heavy metals found in pressure-treated boards, but with some of these species it will irritate skin and respiratory passages. Best to wear an N100 respirator and protect your skin when the dust flies.

Sealing: After cutting a board to length, seal the end grain with a water-based wax sealant, such as Anchorseal, to prevent checking and splits near the ends.

Critical Connections

Photo by Michael Chini/time Inc. Digital Studio

However you choose to attach hardwood decking, you'll need plenty of elbow grease and stainless-steel fasteners. Here are our picks for each method.

Face screws

SplitStop Exotic Brown stainless-steel screw

The serrated head countersinks into all but ipe and is painted to hide the shine. Simple to install, low cost, and easy to back out when replacing a board. About $7.67; Split Stop

Critical Connections: Screws and Plugs

Photo by Michael Chini/time Inc. Digital Studio

Starborn Smart-Bit Pro Plug System

The bit bores a stepped hole: one for the screw and one to accept a glued wood plug of the same species. Attractive finish; slow, multistep install. About $9.10; Starborn Industries, Inc.

Critical Connections: Hidden Fasteners

Photo by Michael Chini/time Inc. Digital Studio

DeckWise Ipe Clip

It slips into a grooved edge and guides angled pilot holes and screws through the groove and into the joist on one side only. Doubles as a spacer. About $9.49; Ipe Clip

Critical Connections: Edge Screws

Photo by Michael Chini/time Inc. Digital Studio

Camo trim-head deck screw

The jig directs screws at a consistent angle through both edges of the board and into the joist. Buries the screwheads out of sight. Fast install, clean look. About $4.60; CAMO Fasteners

Critical Connections: Face Nails

Photo by Michael Chini/time Inc. Digital Studio

2½-inch stainless-steel nails plus DAP Smartbond

A finishing nailer set at 100 psi shoots nails through 1 boards set in polyurethane adhesive. "Quick and easy," says TOH general contractor Tom Silva. About $2.52; SENCO

Keep the Gray at Bay

Photo by ClarkandCompany/iStockPhoto

As beautiful as hardwoods are, ultraviolet light soon fades their vibrant color. To preserve it, you'll need to apply a high-quality UV-inhibiting penetrating oil specifically formulated for this dense material. The short list of oils to consider includes those by Penofin, Olympic, Messmer's, Duckback, DeckWise, Cabot, and Thompson's WaterSeal.

Hardwoods don't easily absorb stains or oils, so treat your deck like a giant piece of furniture. Starting with a clean, dry surface, brush on the finish and wipe off the excess with a clean rag. Reapply it once a year or whenever the gray starts to return. And if you neglect your deck and it goes gray, don't fret: Even after many years in the sun, the natural look can be restored by cleaning with oxygen bleach and then oiling.

Damage-Free Cleaning

Photo by Overseas Hardwood Company/www.ohc.net

To clean a deck without damaging the wood, you need only three things: a pump sprayer to apply a wood cleaner that contains oxygen bleach, a soft-bristled brush, and a garden hose. That's the way TOH general contractor Tom Silva prefers to do it. Watch him wash a deck in the video.

If you must use a pressure-washer, here's how to minimize the risk of damage.

  • Set the pressure no higher than 3,000 psi.
  • Use only a fan-tip nozzle (15º or wider).
  • Hold the tip at least 12 to 16 inches from the surface—no closer!—and keep it moving.

Quick Fixes: Debris

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Don't allow leaves, dog hair, and detritus to accumulate between the boards and promote rot. At least once a year, clear off the deck and give it a good sweeping and a light scrubbing with soap and water.

Quick Fixes: Mildew and Algae

Illustration by Arthur Mount

These can grow on any surface but are easily kept in check with regular cleaning, using oxygen bleach and a soft-bristled brush. Rinse with a garden hose and water

Quick Fixes: Scratches

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Erase them with a palm sander and 80-grit paper, then apply a penetrating oil.