Ipe, or Brazilian walnut, is a very dense hardwood with natural red and brown hues that make it an excellent choice for finish work in your home. Like cedar, ipe is so dense that it is naturally moisture resistant and doesn’t need to be treated. It’s so resistant to moisture, in fact, that it can be used outdoors and in wet locations without being sealed. It seems strange, then, that the first step of the project is to polyurethane the wood, but this is an optional step. The polyurethane is only to add luster to the wood, which will help bring out the rich, natural colors of the wood.
If you decide to poly the wood, you’ll want to set the ipe planks across a set of saw horses and wipe them down with a dry cloth to make sure they are free of dust. Then, use a high density foam roller and apply the polyurethane in thin, even coats. Allow the wood to dry for 24 to 48 hours before cutting or installing.
Before installing the wainscoting, it’s important that you check the integrity of the wall where you will be putting the ipe. Because ipe is very dense and heavy, you will want to make sure you have a strong substrate to which you can attach the wood. If your substrate is weak, consider cutting out that portion of the wall and replacing it with a 1/2” thick fiber board (also called strand board). The fiber board is strong enough to handle the heavy weight of the wood, and should be secured to the wall studs using 2” drywall or wood screws.
Wainscoting can be any height, but it is most commonly installed with a height of 30” to 60”. Determine what height is most appropriate for the design of your room, and make a mark at your height at various intervals along the wall. Then use a level to make sure your marks are all perfectly aligned with each other. If they’re not, it means you have an unlevel floor, and you’ll have to account for that when cutting your planks into the wainscoting slats.
Transfer the measurements to the ipe planks and cut them down using a table or miter saw.
To install the slats, run a thick bead of construction adhesive along the back of each board, making a zig-zag pattern along the back for best coverage (Image 1). Press the board firmly to the wall and then remove it again. Allow the construction adhesive to breathe for two to four minutes before sticking it back against the wall (Image 2). This step is essential, because the construction adhesive forms a stronger bond when it has the opportunity to mix with air. The construction adhesive will hold the boards securely to the wall once dry, but to help keep the boards to the wall while they dry, you can add a single finish nail to both the top and bottom of the board (Image 3). These nails are merely to hold the board while the glue dries, so you don’t need to add too many. Try to keep them near the very top and very bottom of the board so they can be covered by the baseboard and cap (Steps 5-6).
Continue installing boards working your way across the wall from one side to another or from the center outward. Working in this manner will keep cuts in the corners and full boards in the center of the wall.
Use a table saw to rip ipe planks down to a 6” width, and install them as base board over the bottom face of the slats. Use the nail gun to attach the baseboard to the wall.
Finishing off the top of the wall requires a two-step capping process. The first step is to cut down a 3” wide strip of ipe using the table saw. This strip, called an apron, then gets nails to the face of the slats in much the same way the baseboard was attached in Step 5 (Image 1). It’s important to keep the top edge of the apron perfectly level with the top edge of the verticle slats installed on Step 4.
The second step is to rip down another 3” strip of ipe and lay this across the top of the slat wall/apron (Image 2). Attach this step with nails and/or wood glue, and your project is complete (Image 3)!