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Brazilian Hardwood versus Wood Composites for outdoor builidng
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Arbors and shade structures are popping up in a flurry of back yard construction that is helping Texans to keep cool this year?not just in the hot July sun?but in a hot competitive climate of lumber and new composite choices.

?My arbors, according to my computer, I?m up 44.3 % in sales,? said Butch Reed, owner of Reed Fence and Deck, which has been in Dallas since 1980. Jamie Turrentine, owner of Southwest Fence and Deck, one of the largest hardscape builders in the area, concurs.

?I call them shade structures because people want something for shade that is attractive and doesn?t darken the home,? Reed said. ?Arbors don?t block ventilation because their tops are slanted and they?re not solid?they?re not waterproof. But they do provide a place to get out of the direct sun, and they?re attractive. I?ve built them for a multitude of reasons.?

I?ve built them just to put an accent piece out in the yard,? Reed said. For a home near a busy street, an arbor can hide the lights of a sign, for example. Arbors can also beautify slab patios on new construction homes. But the biggest reason for adding an arbor appears to be shade and atmosphere. ?I think the arbor gives to the yard a warmth?kind of makes a place to set a table and chairs?a nice little entertainment area that extends the coziness of the house out into the backyard.?

Reed likes structures designed with a variety of materials, for instance, pavers and flat stone flooring with overhead lumber, primarily softwood like cedar or construction heart redwood.

?I like cedar,? Turrentine said. ?I like redwood. As far as the stuff goes, redwood is still in everybody?s mind the best because that is what they were brought up with, especially people 35 and older because redwood has always been the dream as far as decking goes?a great quality material. It?s still a good material. But there are (other) materials that I prefer. The cypress, I really like it because it is very dense and I like the texture of the lumber. And when it grays, it grays to a real nice finish that?s very even. And the lumber itself, the texture of it has a nice appearance, once it starts to gray and become natural looking.? By the way, cypress is softwood harvested from trees growing in the swamps of southeastern US.

?Ipe?I love it,? Turrentine said. ?We call it Pau Lope. It?s a dream form because it is so hard and so solid and so durable, where it?s almost indestructible. It?s extremely difficult to put in. (Hardwood requires pre-drilling.) But, once it goes down, it?s just spectacular.? It?s also called Brazilian hardwood or Ironwood; but all of this wood comes from the same species of tree grown in South America. Interestingly, Ipe lumber is harvested in the Brazilian tropics in regions that practice sustainable forest management. So, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Audubon Society both endorsed the purchase of lumber from Brazil and Guyana to promote the tree-growing industry and, thus, reverse the destruction of the Amazon Rain Forests for other farming purposes.

As a lumber, Brazilian hardwood is seemingly ideal. It can be stained (painting is not recommended) to maintain its new look, a knot-free, rich dark brown color between teak and mahogany, or it can weather into a silvery gray. When allowed to gray, the wood is virtually maintenance free. Yet, it does not decay from fungi or termites. And so it comes with a 20-25-year transferable warranty?the only natural wood product that carries such a warranty. By the way, Pau Lope won?t catch a flame, even if a blowtorch is applied to it for ten minutes, according to Jordan.

?The Brazilian hardwood, it?s one of my favorite products,? said Chris Jordan, contractor and wholesales representative for the family owned Lee Roy Jordan Lumber Company (, a primary supplier of redwood since the 1970?s. But in a diminishing redwood economy, Jordan began stocking other lumber materials about four years ago.

?Everybody thinks about redwood?you can?t get any and it?s too expensive,? Jordan said. ?That?s not the case. It is readily available in the decking grade and the cost is down. It is very comparable with other decking products that are out there?cedar and composites.?

?To this day, I still do more cedar because of the economics,? said Tommy Hollis, owner Lone Star Decks. ?The redwood has become a lot less popular in the last 2 or 3 years, and I felt it was price. However, this year, redwood has gone down in price. The way I average it, cedar normally runs $10 a square foot; redwoods are about $14 a square foot; composites are $15 a square foot; hardwood is right there with the composites.?

Basically, composites are combinations of plastic and wood?recyclable materials like sawdust and plastics, and as such, are environmentally friendly. Choice Deck (also called engineered cedar?made from cedar sawdust and plastic) is Turrentine?s favorite followed by TREX, which is made with hardwood sawdust and plastic. Hollis also uses Choice Dek and TREX as well as Epoch and Smart Deck and recommends these four solid, thru-constructed composites. Hollow core composites, such as Nexwood, tend to split, crack, or break, according to Hollis, and he does not recommend them.

?In my opinion, I don?t think that anybody would disagree that composites would have to be the best,? Hollis said. ?It has all the features, no maintenance, and it?s going to outlast everything on the market. However, it?s more expensive. It may not be as popular; in my opinion, it?s the best.?

?The thing is that composites haven?t been out for a very long time because they are new products,? Jordan said. (One of the oldest products, TREX, has been available for 13 years, according to Hollis.) ?So, people can speculate how long they are going to last. But they don?t really know yet.?

?I?ve had people come in here replacing pieces of their decks or their whole deck, they?ve had the deck maybe 20-25 years, the redwood or cedar deck,? Jordan said. ?With the right installation, the right maintenance, these products can last for a very long time.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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