A deck for a lifetime | Living the Country Life

A deck for a lifetime

Building a deck that will bring a lifetime of good memories begins by selecting quality materials that last a lifetime. Built of ipe (Brazilian walnut), this handcrafted deck will outlast softer woods five to one.
Family fun at the Marlen Kemmet home often begins around sundown, when the clan gathers on the deck for tasty food, a crackling fire, and conversation.
Wide platform steps create an inviting entrance to this satellite deck, built away from the house.

At the home of Marlen and Shamrae Kemmet outside of Des Moines, the family gathers around lamplight and firelight on their new two-level deck. Fireside appeal is nothing new. It goes back about 15,000 years to the Palcolithis period when people first learned that this newly invented fire stuff sure made woolly mammoth burgers a whole lot tastier.

Today, however, there's more to this special outdoor room than a hot fire and the tantalizing aroma of the chef's handiwork. The chef, deck builder, and Dad are one in the same -- Marlen Kemmet, former managing editor at sister publication WOOD magazine. And this deck just happens to be his brainchild, decked out with ideas for the future.

Form follows function

Given Marlen's woodworking reputation, he was under a bit of pressure to create something distinctive. His attention to detail, love of craftsmanship, and devotion to aesthetics not only necessitated an attractive deck but also called for one that would last a lifetime.

"The first step I took was to sit down with my wife and children and see what they wanted," Marlen says. "My wife wants to add a three-seasons room to the back of our house eventually, so a deck not attached to the house was a principal starting point."

They chose a site under the trees near the house, distant enough for privacy, yet close enough to be convenient. "The kids wanted a fire pit, and I wanted a place for the family to gather for outdoor meals," Marlen says. "I also wanted a project built like a piece of furniture -- well designed with lots of detail and built to last. I'd seen too many three- and four-year-old decks already in need of major repair."

Getting inspired

With a site in mind, Marlen searched for a building style. It didn't take long for him to turn to one of his favorites. In the early 1900s, brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene of Pasadena, California, created some of the most finely crafted homes and furniture in Southern California by combining their love of design and woodwork. Marlen used the Greene-brothers style as inspiration for his deck.

"They were doing their work around the same time that Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mission style were becoming popular," Marlen says. "The three styles are somewhat similar, but the Greenes had a little more Oriental influence. They built some incredible furniture to go with the houses they did. One of their chairs today can go for $20,000 to $30,000."

This architecture as art perspective led to Marlen's unusual selection of wood. He built the substructure from standard pressure-treated pine timers, but for the more visible elements, he selected ipe (pronounced EE-pay), the same material used on the boardwalks in Atlantic City and in Canal Park in Duluth, Minnesota. The durable rain forest wood has a mahogany-like appearance, making it perfect for the furniture-and-art philosophy. "It proved to be an excellent choice," Marlen says. "With no cracks, knots, or warping, there was virtually no scrap. Ipe is really on the cutting edge when it comes to wood decking. It's virtually indestructible. Ipe comes from South America, looks and works like mahogany, and is comparable in price to clear-heart redwood. Plus, with a Class A fire rating, it was ideal around the fire pit and grill."

Partly because the wood is so hard and partly because it is so beautiful, Marlen couldn't bring himself to pound nails into it. He kept his hammer holstered and used stainless-steel screws and thin plastic biscuits to bring things together.

"With the advent of several new fastening systems, it is no longer necessary to litter a deck surface with hundreds of screw holes," he says. "I chose EB-TY, a plastic biscuit-like fastener that secures the edges of deck boards directly over a joist. When installed, the biscuits are nearly invisible, and they hold the edges of the boards down flush with each other."

The fire pit first

Although the kids take credit for the idea to integrate a fire pit with the deck, it was Marlen's creativity that made the idea flow. The project came together after he hit on the notion of building the basic bones of the pit from a 4-foot-diameter, 4-foot-deep manhole section purchased for about $180 from a local concrete products facility.

The concrete company delivered the 3,500 pound unwieldy monster, and Marlen with a neighbor's skid steer eased it into place after he had checked and rechecked his measurements to ensure the top rim would rest 22 inches above the future deck floor. Once in place, it would not be easily adjusted.

After it was positioned and leveled, he filled the pit to 22 inches from the top with pea gravel. Next, he lined the inside of the structure with firebrick (the type used in home fireplaces) to prevent the concrete from becoming too hot or cracking. High-temperature flat black paint dresses the concrete enough to hide its original purpose. With the fire pit in place. Marlen could begin the task of building the deck around it.

He planned enough seating so family and friends could all sit around the fire pit. The benches, about 3 feet back, are within marshmallow-roasting distance, but keep the kids safe from the heat. The bench backs are tilted 10 degrees for extra comfort.

Food and function

Though the fireside deck features seclusion and restfulness, the attached larger upper deck strikes a different mood. This hardworking area, accessible from two sides, includes the dining and cooking areas. But functional doesn't mean plain.

Marlen crafted an ipe cabinet for a cooking center, housing a stainless-steel grill, and plenty of storage for dinnerware and supplies. A work surface beside the grill has a Corian insert, which is easy to clean and holds up well under adverse weather. The cabinet also has an electrical outlet on one end for a slow cooker, CD player, or other electronic devices.

As with every other part of this project, Marlen sweated the details.

"I chose a stainless-steel grill that until recently was available only to restaurants and professionals," he says. "This four-burner unit with convection-style cooking is good enough not only to roast turkeys, chickens, and roasts without a rotisserie, but also gentle enough to bake bread and pies." When not in use, the cabinet is protected with a canvas cover.

Mission-style light

A deck of this magnitude deserves more than daytime flings. Marlen planned plenty of stained-glass lighting to create an amber after-hours glow. Custom-designed iron lamps stand at each of the deck corners, rising another 2 feet above the deck railing.

True to the style that first inspired his deck, Marlen's lamp designs incorporate the gently sloped roofs common to the Craftsman era and details frequently used by the Greenes. The lamp posts are made of 1-inch square steel tubing; the lamp tops are fashioned from flat steel stock. Custom-cut stained-glass panels diffuse the light and add to the ambience.

The lamps on the deck have a steel plate base, while concrete secures three more lamps off the deck.

To protect the lamps, Marlen painted them with Hammerite, a tough, durable finish commonly used by machinery manufacturers. Applied with a roller, the paint curdles on the surface, leaving an orange-peel textured appearance.

A quality finish

When it came time to protect the wood, Marlen began his homework with a trip to the federally funded Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

"Although almost any finish will look good for a few months, I wanted a finish to keep the deck looking good for years," he says. A thorough review of the track record of numerous finishes led him to select a quality penetrating oil.

"Most of the less expensive sealers just stay on the surface and break down fairly quickly. A penetrating oil is actually absorbed in the wood and does not build up on the surface in layers that can break down easily," he says.

"To keep the rich color, I apply a fresh coat of finish every other year. Left unfinished, ipe will weather to a Cape Cod gray or similar to an unfinished teak garden bench," says Marlen.

In the end, he not only created a great deck, but also crafted a piece of art that will provide the family with a gathering spot for decades.

Sure, it cost more than a basic model, but how can you place a monetary value on the memories that will be created on a solid-as-rock, pretty-as-a-picture ipe deck?

About ipe

It is so dense, it doesn't float. It can't be penetrated with a nail. (Use a carbide-tip drill bit and screws.) And although it looks like beautiful furniture, it is so dense it doesn't burn. It's ipe.

Among Latin-speaking horticulturists, ipe is known as Tabebuia spp. It is a member of the Lapacho family.

In the flooring industry, ipe is known as Brazilian walnut. Ipe first gained popularity in the U.S. in 1971, when Atlantic City began using it to construct their famous boardwalks.

In their ideal natural habitat, ipe trees can grow to 150 feet in height, with trunk diameters of 6 feet. Legally harvested trees average 1 meter in diameter.

Weighing in at a hefty 69 pounds per cubic foot, ipe weighs twice as much as Southern pine (35 pounds).

The current retail price for ipe ranges from $3.45 per square foot to $3.68 per square foot.

Ipe outlasts soft decking woods five to one, which translates to about 60 years. Even without preservatives it is naturally resistant to termites, marine borers, and water.

It has the same fire rating as steel and concrete.

The primary source of ipe in the United States is Timber Holdings Ltd. of Milwaukee, which says its trees are harvested from sustainably managed tropical forests in Brazil. All trees harvested by Timer Holdings are independently certified to be produced by legally harvested methods. This means each felled tree receives a certificate from the Brazilian Department of Natural Resources, which does multiple checks on the trees before they are exported and enforces reseeding or replanting programs.

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