Thoughts On Hardwood Decking
Experienced deck builder Andy Engel shares his insights into why you might consider tropical hardwoods and what you should know before working with them.
Before I became an editor two decades ago, I built something like 50 decks, every one of them with pressure-treated southern-pine decking. That was pretty much the only choice then. The decking world has changed a bit since. Treated pine still has the largest market share, but both hardwood decking and plastic decking have steadily eroded it.
Hardwood and plastics have advantages and disadvantages, not the least of which is sorting out the players. Today’s blog isn’t about plastics, a moving target composed of proprietary products that can change at the whim of a manufacturer. Hardwoods are different, though. Although they’re a little boutiquey, hardwoods are still a commodity: Ipé’s formulation never changes. Still, what’s the difference between ipé and, say, garapa gold? It can be hard to tell by looking, but the website of East Teak, a hardwood supplier, offers up a concise description of the common tropical hardwoods.
From my own recent experiences with two common hardwoods, ipé and cumaru, I can tell you that calling them hardwoods understates the truth. This hardness calls for some special handling. Pay attention to the supplier’s instructions regarding on-site storage to minimize warping. Unlike pine, cedar, or plastic decking, once this stuff warps, you can’t easily force it straight. Predrill every screw hole, and prepare to go through a bunch of drill bits because the heat from drilling burns them up in short order. Wear gloves. While a tiny pine splinter can be turned away by a calloused hand, tiny hardwood splinters penetrate, and the naturally occurring chemicals that make them resistant to rot and insects irritate the skin. As splinters irritate the skin, the dust can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Wear a good dust mask. I’ve breathed in more dust from more species of wood than is remotely wise, but ipé sawdust once literally drove me out of a woodshop to keep from drowning in snot. And that shop was equipped with excellent dust collection. I think it was just the wood’s resins floating around in the air that did it.
Finally, there’s the question of whether tropical hardwoods are harvested sustainably. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides a certification program that might ease any concerns you have. On the other hand, the FSC has been roundly criticized by organizations such as Greenpeace. Where you come down on this issue is a personal choice.