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The Ipe Dilemma

May 19, 2021

             

        A lot people ask me is using ipe accelerating the demise of the Brazilian rainforest? It is a very difficult question to answer because of the many factors that need to be considered. The Brazilian government strictly regulates the production and export of this precious wood. But who really wants to rely on data provided by governments nowadays? Lumber companies that deal with exotic species such as ipe are subject to stringent scrutiny by environmental groups forcing them to preach a doctrine of sustainability. But is this possible with a slow growing hardwood in an impenetrable part of the world?

An ipe tree with orange flowers on Floripa.

 

It is easy to print slogans and parrot buzz words to paint ourselves as stewards of the environment, but to actually guarantee we are not doing irreversible harm to the Amazon is much harder. Because of the limited data, the impact of present day logging will remain murky at best. Once the new generation of trees mature, we will have another cycle to analyze and draw conclusions.

Let’s examine the life cycle of the ipe tree itself. This beautiful species flowers seasonally, and each tree produces a specific color when in bloom. For a tree to reach maximum size takes approximately forty to sixty years. Coincidently, that’s the life expectancy of the wood on decking and fencing. This makes for a very congruent argument for the government and logging companies.

When I was visiting Brazil searching for new types and sources for lumber, I asked what do Brazilians use for the same applications that Americans do? There were a few. But the one that stood out was Angelim Pedra, a dark grained, lightly knotted wood. The trees meet full maturity almost twice as fast as ipe.

Sourcing new lumbers in Brazil

 

You will be hearing about this species in the future. It is attractive, hard, and abundant. I was going through the boards at a lumber yard in Florianopolis and the quality was unparalleled at its price point.

 

The ipe story is very reminiscent of another environmental crisis that occurred in the early 1980’s. It involved a Cajun chef named Paul Prudhomme. He was invited to the Reagan White House to prepare a state dinner for the president and a large group of dignitaries. The main course was a dish called “Blackened Redfish”.

After this event, it became an overnight, national sensation. In a period of two short years, the redfish or red drum was overfished to the point of extinction, completely disappearing from some bodies of water entirely.

The red drum or redfish

The government had to step in and protect the species by implementing a ban. Adopting to the shortage, chefs around the country realized that this recipe worked well with practically every other fish and even chicken. The redfish eventually made a comeback and was removed from the endangered species list.

For people in the industry who use ipe in fencing, decks, and other applications, the redfish anecdote should be a cautionary tale on not to dwell on one particular species of wood. As an industry, we need to control what the public consumes.

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