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Is it a deck or a piano?

The first builder I worked for had a little quip he’d toss my way whenever he thought I was being a little too meticulous (i.e. working too slow.) The quip was “What are you building—a _______ or a piano?” It didn’t matter if he filled in the blank with the word “garage” or “wall” or “deck,” the meaning was clear: He didn’t want me wasting major time on minor things.

For the past week or so I’ve been laying the decking for our new deck. And a few times I’ve wound up asking myself, “What are you building here, Spike—a deck or a piano?”  You see, these are no ordinary deck boards. After a fair amount of research and soul searching (and credit card searching), Kat and I decided to go with Ipe.


Ipe is amazing stuff. It isn’t so much a single tree species, as a group of closely-related trees with similar characteristics. The trees, common to Central and South America, grow to 160 ft. in height and 6 ft. in diameter. The wood is FSC certified.

With a hardness rating three times that of oak, so heavy it sinks and carrying a Class A fire rating (the same rating as concrete and steel) it’s earned its nickname “ironwood.” It’s so durable it’s used on the well-trod boardwalks of Coney Island, Atlantic City and other iconic walkways. Since it has a projected lifespan of 25+ years, I’ll be 85+ before I have to replace it again! All this beauty and function comes with a price tag—it runs about $10 per board foot.


It’s so beautiful—the wood is literally furniture quality stuff, with bloodlines similar to that teak—one really doesn’t want to muss it up with pairs of screws through the face of it every 16 inches. So I’ve been using hidden fasteners that slip into grooves along the edges of the boards and then secured to the joists. So not only does the wood cost 3 or 4 times as much as the alternatives, it takes 3 or 4 times as much time to install the stuff. So this deck is part-deck/part-piano. Which is fine—as long I puts myself in a piano-building mode.


In the end, this deck (and my attachment to it) will take the course of most of my other woodworking projects: I’ll beat my chest with pride and joy as each tight fitting joint is created. I’ll stand back and soak in the beauty of the finished piece. Then I start taking it for granted. But those early moments of joy and working with my hands make it all worth it. Woodworking is the best of two worlds—it’s both a journey and a destination.


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