Redefining the “Custom Ipe Deck”

Written by on September 6, 2015 in Articles with 0 Comments

In the world of exterior home features, it is rare to come across an architectural element that is designed to strike the balance between large in scale and tastefully detailed. That combination could well be the new definition of “custom”, in the exotic wood deck realm – where material selection and final aesthetic are geared for performance with style.

This is a true tale of an ipe deck with exceptional scope and intricacy that proved rewarding for a builder to build and an owner to own.

ipe deck

Deck section wet with stain.

In August of 2015, I was retained by an Ipe Snob member at to provide finish consulting on an impressive ipe deck build as it approached the final finish stage.

In that capacity, I advised on product selection and guided the deck builder on proper surface preparation and application sequences to take the project from “substantial completion” (built) to being a timeless finished work of functional art (finished).

The Balance of Function and Form

Somewhere out in the South Shore suburbs of Boston there is a new 1100 square foot ipe deck that boasts the elusive combination of sheer size and labor intensive details. Ipe decks are always expected to be well engineered, designed and built. That is no longer the standard in exotic deck builds, it is more of a minimum expectation.

ipe deck

Ipe deck with stain applied.

There is more.

Deck builders who excel at their craft are skilled and knowledgeable in the most current, effective and pleasing exotic wood deck design and build concepts.

Life, and outdoor deck living, is not just about functionality. Of course we want our homes and their features to be well built, safe and durable – just as we want the wheels to stay on our cars while we are driving.

In the building material category of exotic wood species, custom decks come with high expectations. It is perfectly acceptable for a deck builder and a deck owner to want to see an outdoor living space that rivals or exceeds indoor living spaces in functionality and aesthetic appeal. Comfort.

Well designed exotic wood decks can do this, with what we call casual elegance.

So, how do you make an ipe deck exceptional?

Geometry and Vision

ipe deckWhen running a deck addition across much of the length of the back of a home, it is easy for design to become monotonous quickly if the project is not well thought out and planned. There has to be a vision, and that is where homeowners should carefully eliminate unqualified builders from consideration during the planning phase.

Usually, the most impressive custom deck builds happen when a skilled and knowledgeable craftsman takes charge of the design and the build. The synergy of passion in that mix can cause even the wood snobs among us to do a double take at the results.

Scott Wehrli and his crew at East Coast Carpentry in Marshfield, MA designed and built this deck with particular interest in making sure the deck didn’t just look like a large rectangle bolted onto the back of a nice home. Most any competent deck builder can do basic work.

Who would want a basic exotic deck?

ipe deck

Custom designs add visual interest on exotic decks.

With a large and carefully laid out octagonal inlaid floor section, radius stairs, tasteful horizontal and vertical parallel stacked lines in the rail system, there is no shortage of visual interest in the design.

Add some integrated accent lighting, built in bench seating and planters, and the deck takes the shape we all desire in any home addition…living space that is as unique as our lives and built to last.

Scott Wehrli and I communicated on a daily basis during the weeks of finalizing construction, through the transition to finish prep and stain application. The answer that kept coming up as I questioned Scott on the construction process and quality result was: “We love what we do.”

To all readers who are considering exotic wood deck additions, that is a fundamental quality (along with skills, knowledge, reputation) to look for in the builder you choose to team with on your project: passion. And to the builders, that is a top quality that customers need to see in your candidacy for the project.

Not a Weekend Project

ipe deck

Radius stairs and deck landing area just after oil application.

During the stress of planning and executing a deck build, it is all too easy for the owner and the builder to ignore upgrade options that feel complicated in the interest of just keeping things moving at a more basic level.

For the record, a deck project like this – at this size (1100 sf) and level of detail – can and should take as much as 2 to 3 months to build and finish.

This type of craftsmanship usually doesn’t happen with a large commercial style crew. When there are fewer hands involved, the level of quality is easier to set and maintain for the duration of the project. It takes time, and it takes budget…like many of the best things in life.

Ultimate Ipe Snobbery

Mixing wood species is not for the uninitiated. It can go dismally wrong. Wehrli struck a pleasing contrast in wood species on this project by using ipe for the horizontal surfaces: decking and stair treads. The risers, skirts and perimeter details – non horizontal elements – are dressed out in spanish cedar.

The contrast actually pops the brownish red tones of the ipe against the more golden brown tones of the spanish cedar. By delineating the vertical against the horizontal, depth perception is better as one approaches the steps to ascend the deck. Some deck designs accomplish this by painting riser and perimeter details the exterior trim color of the house and integrating it. In this case, that would have led to a white perimeter, which would have made this a completely different deck from aesthetic and maintenance standpoints.

The Wehrli deck is better served visually by not integrating into the house trim package. Not only will the clear finish on cedar be easier to maintain, but the subtle contrast between the cedar and ipe allows the design features of the deck to stand out more. With proper maintenance, this mix of woods will only get better as it ages.

About the Finish

As the finish consultant on this project, I held it to one of our long standing rules for ipe finishing, which is that it had to be done in a penetrating oil. Armstrong Clark stain got the nod on this one. I coached the East Coast gang through a full prep sand at 80 grit, walked them through final cleaning and inspection, then prepared Scott to lead his crew through the stain application process. 

The photos don’t quite do the finish quality justice, but I am assured by my client – the deck owner – that it has turned out exceptional and beyond expectation. That is a win/win for all involved. I am in the process of preparing the short and long term maintenance plans for the deck now, which will begin with a pre-winter inspection and oil freshening in early October. 


About the Author

About the Author: Scott Burt is a wood finishing expert. IPE decks are one of the areas of expertise in which he is frequently published in paint and remodeling magazines. He also engages in clinics and speaking appearances on the topic. is where IPE owners and installers can engage with Scott. .


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