Why Use Ipe When You Can Have Black Locust?

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and his fellow speakers got multiple rounds of spontaneous applause at the 2011 ASLA annual meeting for hosting a session on a topic near and dear to many design professionals and wood experts: how to end the unsustainable harvesting of Ipe wood and scale up the use of sustainable alternatives. The real alternative may be Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), which Van Valkenburgh and other progressive landscape architects, architects, engineers, and wood manufacturers have already been using for some time. In addition, domestically-grown Black Locust may offer new opportunities for local sustainable forestry businesses. The trees grow fast and are hardy (in fact, in many areas, they are treated as invasives) and can even take root in urban areas, so they can provide a new source of employment in cities like Cleveland and Detroit, where populations are collapsing and landscapes aren’t as productive as they could be.

Ipe is a tropical hardwood often used in outdoor decks and furniture because it’s so resilient to rain, insects, and weather changes. It’s special properties also mean that it lasts a long time. However, there is a dark side to this wood, which is all too often still used in park and residential projects. Just a few Ipe trees are found per acre in dense, lush tropical forests, which means foresters must wreck havoc on the forest to extract and process those single old trees. Van Valkenburgh and others argue that there must be alternatives.

Why Black Locust?

Stephen Noone, ASLA, senior associate, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, said Black Locust lasts just as long as Ipe. He said it’s a “pioneering, not invasive” plant that “takes root on sites that other plants don’t like.” Unlike Ipe, the tree grows together in densely planted areas. In Europe and Asia, it’s already treated as an acceptable crop. In fact, a number of countries are moving forward with planting large groves for wood production, a business that, oddly, has failed to take root in the U.S. 

A research project by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ interns found a plantation in Hungary producing a range of different quality Black Locust woods, including top quality woods. They found that Black Locust can “only be planted in marginal areas where Oak can’t be established.” In a smart move, a local forestry research organization and local wood producers aforested a massive area. Now, 8,500 hectares of dense Black Locust forests are being harvested in just one area there.

Black Locust has “high natural durability, is heavy and hard, but has a tricky kiln drying process,” said Noone. It’s “not going to rot and is insect resistant.” Noone delved into the details of moisture content, and the process needed to achieve the desired content levels. There is a complex multi-step process that involves lettting the freshly cut wood air-dry to reduce moisture and then using a “dehumidifier kiln.” Noone said “the process is very strict,” and “dilligence is required on the part of the drier.” There’s also a long lead time for landscape architects: 40-50 days until the wood can be used. But it’s worth it: Beyond the sustainability benefits, Black Locust is also cost-effective. In bulk, it’s $5.44 per square foot, while Ipe is more than $7 per square foot.

Building a Bridge in Brooklyn

A new pedestrian bridge made entirely of Black Locust and designed to move people from neighborhoods in Brooklyn into Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park (see earlier post) is now taking shape. Ted Zolli, HNTB, said in this case, “black locust is better than concrete in terms of its compression, strength, and flexibility” and an “incredibly viable structural material.”

Zolli showed how timber bridges aren’t a new thing. Some 20 percent of current bridges are made up of wood and some are more than 100 years old. This 400-foot long bridge is comprised of pre-fabricated pieces created off-site and the delivered and installed in BK. Some parts of the bridge span 120 feet. All together, there’s about 30 tons of wood. He said for this gangway, Black Locust was the right way to go.

HNTB purposefully tested how vulnerable the wood is to fire and found that it doesn’t lose its strength as it burns. “It’s better than steel and will do better in a fire than the cable wires we are using.” For him and his firm, the real challenge was getting a hold of longer planks and finding the right connector systems for the bridge components.

The Properties of Black Locust

Don Lavender, Landscape Forms, a man Van Valkenburgh called a “national treasure,” discussed the opportunities and challenges in scaling up a domestic Black Locust industry. He said there is great potential for the tree in the U.S. but it’s about “obtaining prime examples and taking selections.” Lavender said the best trees are found in the Appalachian region.

Black Locust was originally given to settlers by the government during the early expansion of the U.S. because it’s very fast growing. Within 15-20 years, the material can be cut down and burned. At 30 years old, it can be used for materials in homes. Lavender said the best of these trees “competed for sunlight with other trees.”

The tree can be used for many products, and even lesser-grade woods aren’t wasted. “100 percent of the tree can be purposefully used.” Lavender said lower grades can be used for mulch, biomass fuel, parquet, and greenhouse poles. The higher grades, #1 grade, premium and premium plus (the top 5 percent), are the result of a more challenging “kiln drying process” that requires “patience.” The wood is tough and resistant to drying for the “same reason it’s so resistant to decay.”

Once dried properly, it can easily be “cut, sawed, drilled, sanded, and shaped.” No outdoor finishes are needed and its screw retention is good. Its Janka hardness also compares favorably with other woods. At 1700, it’s better than Red Oak (1290), but a bit less than tropical hardwoods like Jarrah (1910) and Ipe (3684).  It’s also difficult to glue. But biologically, Black Locust is “remarkably decay resistant.”

Scaling up Cultivation and Production in the U.S.

Van Valkenburgh said the U.S. is falling further and further behind globally. “The country is losing its edge.” Currently, there are 5 million acres of Black Locust under cultivation worldwide, but “virtually zero in the U.S.” Korea has 1.2 million acres, China has another 1 million, while Hungary has 270,000 acres. “This is something that has the potential to be an economic engine in many parts of this country.”

Instead of being viewed as an invasive, as it is in many parts of the U.S., Van Valkenburgh said it should be grown in set-aside areas. Lavender added that the Amish, who “don’t waste anything,” has been using Black Locust for ages. The Amish, who have perfected techniques over generations, are in fact a perfect model for Black Locust production: “proper kiln drying is not something you just get into one day. It takes generations to learn this.” He added that a number of firms have “blundered into kiln drying” and ended up with kindling. “It needs to be done methodically” if an industry is going to bloom here.

Van Valkenburgh is currently using Black Locust imported from Hungary. A firm in Massachusetts is importing containers from Hungary and “taking it upon themselves” to expand the domestic market. While using this wood puts him out of the 500 mile range the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) calls for in sourcing sustainable materials, he said “we have to think bigger about sustainability. The lifespan of these woods is several multiples higher than others.” Still, he wants to see the woods grown domestically. 

The Black Locust market in the U.S. is “still in its infancy” despite the advocacy efforts of Van Valkenburgh and others. Hopefully, some smart city officials will see an opportunity. As one audience member said, Detroit and other cities could not only turn their abandoned lots into forests, but Black Locust forests. Van Valkenburgh went even further: “Planting on reclaimed sites is a great idea.”

Van Valkenburgh, Noone, Zolli, and Lavender kindly shared their 84-page presentation (8MB) full of rich content, photos, and data. Download and help spread the word.

Image credit: (1) ASLA 2006 General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella, (2) Walkway into Brooklyn Bridge Park / HNTB

31 thoughts on “Why Use Ipe When You Can Have Black Locust?

  1. Rahel 11/11/2011 / 7:34 am

    Very interesting post, thank you!

  2. Peter 11/13/2011 / 6:26 pm

    Loved this article – thanks for the great info ! Our neighborhood group helps manage a small Jens Jensen park in Madison, WI which has become highly dominated by black locust. Our city forestry & parks officials have approved removal of all black locust over time via an urban forestry plan; now we are working to convince same officials to allow us to sawmill the removed trees into useful wood for community gardens and other park amenities.

    • gust0261 04/30/2015 / 8:47 pm

      How is this going? I live in Madison and will be building my sister’s deck soon. I would love to use black locust on the deck. Any tips on where I can get it?

  3. Cassandra 11/14/2011 / 5:11 pm

    Using black locust as a more sustainable option to ipe wood is highly commendable in order to preserve our fragile rainforests. However, the assertion that black locust is a pioneering species instead of an invasive species is woefully incorrect. Perhaps in the east coast it is a pioneering species, but here in California it is in fact an invasive species. I do extensive riparian restoration work along the American, Sacramento, and San Joaquin Rivers in the Central Valley. Black locust grows right alongside oaks, cottonwoods, and other riparian species, and crowds them out. We have to rip them out whenever we restore an area to make room for our natives. Encouraging groves of black locust for commercial use in an area like ours would add a horrific environmental burden. They don’t live in a vacuum, as birds carry their seeds quite far. Extreme caution should be used in recommending an invasive species such as black locust as the miracle ipe substitute. This won’t be the first time that well-meaning professionals have brought in a destructive non-native species that wreaks havoc in its new home.

    • Tired of the BS 12/01/2011 / 10:56 am

      I couldn’t agree more!

      Black Locust is an invasive tree species and is listed as such by the Massachusetts Invasive Plants Advisory Group an advisor to the Mass Dept. of Agriculture.

    • Geo Teo Teo 06/29/2012 / 8:16 pm

      When you “rip them out” what happens to the trees? In large enough size they make great boat building lumber and as firewood are unsurpassed. Have you thought of recycling the wood to pay for some of your riparian restoration work??

  4. Richard Sutton 11/16/2011 / 10:24 am

    Why use black locust when we have Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera)? Osage is denser, stronger, and more rot resistant than almost any North American or temperate hardwood. I don’t see it on the Janka scale but would guess it is near or above 2000. Thousands of miles of Midwest and Great Plains Osage-orange hedgerows have been bulldozed, but thousand more await selective logging. it is extremely heavy and like black locust it is not easily glued. But its natural chemical composition resists insects and rot. I have seen 100-year-old Osage-orange fence posts still solidly in the ground supporting rusted-through barbed wire. Its heartwood use in benches and even wood retaining walls should last at least 50 years.

    • Mark Kargol 08/21/2013 / 9:58 am

      From what I have seen of Osage-orange the diameter of the logs does not yield a good heartwood plank of sizes suitable for use in large pieces. I recently completed a set of benches for a University and looked in to Osage-Orange for the planks but was unable to find 8′ and 10′ boards. The properties of the wood do make great for use in outdoor environments if you can find sizes large enough to use. We ended up using Black Locust for the benches and are very pleased with the results.

  5. Sherri Osaka 11/17/2011 / 11:15 am

    Black Locust is also a legume which fixes nitrogen and is therefore good for the soil.

  6. Leslie Jakobs 11/17/2011 / 2:13 pm

    I am THRILLED to see that attention is being made to black locust. In Germany, where it is certainly not native, black locust is highly regarded. They use it extensively in playground settings where pressure-treated wood is particularly disdained for the contact children have with chemicals. Whereas, here in its native territory, it is seen as a weed tree. Places where it is considered invasive aren’t places for black locust nurseries, but let’s make use of our strengths. If kudzu only had the same prospects…

  7. Bob Carr 11/30/2011 / 10:33 pm

    Plus its flowers are beautiful and fragrant, and start appearing while it’s still much too young to harvest.

  8. Jim Feath 12/01/2011 / 12:01 pm

    Black Locust and Osage orange (as mentioned in a post above) exemplify the possibilities of looking local and learning from the past. (It must be noted that I am writing this through the eys of someone who lives in the native habitat range of this tree.) As the article on Black Locust mentioned, the Amish have used the tree for years and Amish sawmills generally mill the lumber. Farmers used the tree for a variety of uses and many, century old, locust fence posts can still be seen buried in Pennsylvania hedgerows.

    On another note, not only does a Black Locust produce a beautiful flower, the tree can also take on a stately shape. Much as a White Oak growing in a field will obtain a stately growth pattern, so too will a Black Locust. The Black Locust that grows in an open environment generally has a fluid branching pattern. When in full leaf, the tree takes on a pagoda-like character and has an almost lacy quality about it. In my opinion, it’s long history as a weed tree in the eastern US has given it a bad rap and should be considered for its ornamental qualities as well.

  9. john 12/01/2011 / 12:04 pm

    Try Red Cedar. Good native species for wildlife food, erosion control and grows well in poor soil. We have 200 year old split rail fencing made from this tree in northern N.Y. I’ve had some under water in a boat house for fifty years. Just pulled it out and cut it. Still like it was the day we harvested it- even smelled good. Unbelieveable structural strength. Not a bad firewood for a conifer as well- no pitch. Only problem is it grows slow.

  10. S t e v e K i r n 12/01/2011 / 12:25 pm

    Importing black locust from Germany may be preferable to brining Ipe from S America. But having the option of a domestic hardwood suitable for outdoor products would be ideal. For two years we have been evaluating black locust for use as bench slats. As of right now, having a reliable domestic source of quality black locust is the challenge. We will all need to be a little patient while black locust moves from planting, to forests, to mills, to manufactuers, to the market. It will take awhile, but we’re working very hard on this . . .

    • Mark Kargol 08/21/2013 / 10:09 am

      midwestblacklocust.com out of Wisconsin is where we purchased the boards for the benches I just completed for Iowa State University. The wood he delivered was absolutely perfect, no knots, twists, with very straight grain throughout. I also believe he said they vacuum kiln dried this batch of black locust.

  11. Helen Dimos 12/01/2011 / 3:06 pm

    I appreciate this article and will send it to some people who grow wood! Thanks. It’s great to use natives!

  12. ART MEHAS 12/01/2011 / 4:10 pm


  13. KT 12/02/2011 / 11:18 am

    I love the idea of domestic production and utilization of local resources, especially on sites that are now just a waste of space but the article mentions nothing about the locust borer that is so devastating to black locust. I agree with the above mention about how strong hedge trees are but they are also extremely squirrely, growing with multiple stems and twisting and turning, and the yellow/red color of their wood may not be as desirable for commercial products. Better utilized for biofuel in my opinion. Thank you for the article though, it is interesting.

  14. Stuart 01/10/2012 / 3:48 pm

    Can someone supply info on readily available sources for dimensioned timbers, other than in Europe?

  15. Ryan Temple 01/10/2012 / 6:12 pm

    Another great alternative is Western Juniper; a native to the American west. Decades of fire suppression and overgrazing have resulted in it encroaching on natural grasslands. Its removal can restore these ecosystems and this beautiful wood is more rot resistant that Redwood or Red Cedar

  16. jack ryan 03/14/2012 / 9:21 am

    Black Locust has a waste factor of over 50%

    And essentially is junk and not durable those in the trade advise.

    We should schedule a trip to Brazil to see the Ipe logs acres upon acres. The vast majority of lumber companies are responsible that would rival FSC companies.

    The cattle farmers and other industries are the ones who are clear cutting the Brazilian forrest. These industries are giving Ipe a bad rap.

    • Tim Keating 03/25/2016 / 7:05 pm

      Jack Ryan, wow, this is one of the most ignorant comments I think I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are acres of ipê *logs* all ripped from the old-growth rainforests of the Amazon. Ipê grows in densities of only one or two trees per acre. The roads and skid trails bulldozed through the rainforest, the felling of the trees and the log landing areas destroy about half of the canopy to get at the high-value trees. Ipê is the top target, literally stealing that dubious crown from mahogany in 2002. An estimated 80% of logging in the Brazilian Amazon is done illegally and the number is about the same for Peru, the other source of ipê and cumaru. Contrary to what you wrote, an actual scientific study showed that less than one-eigth of one percent of logging done in the tropics could be considered even sustained-yield, much less *sustainable* (and those are two very different things in case you don’t know).

      The only reason the cattle ranchers have access to the forest is via the roads. Those were bulldozed by the loggers. Ranchers aren’t making roads, only using existing ones. Yes, they fully cut down what remains of the forest after the loggers have gone through it, stolen the ipê and cumaru and massaranduba and tigerwood and jatoba (“Brazilian cherry”) and moved on. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that 70% of tropical deforestation due directly to clearing for agriculture is precipitated by logging roads. No logging means less deforestation, not the other way around, contrary to what one of the largest sellers of tropical wood in the country (Brian Lotz) says above. The truth, according to all the reports and all the environmental groups that have been working there — some for as long as 30 years — is that logging is *the* primary factor leading to deforestation. About 90% of the ipê cut in the Amazon is exported, so it’s not the demand in Brazil that’s driving the logging. The US imports 50% of the export, more than any other single country.

      Oh, and by the way, ipê has the largest waste factor of which I know. A third of the tree is left in the woods and then only about 7% of the timber from the log will meet the standards of much of the imports into the US that are used for things like boardwalks. I have personally seen just how much waste there can be at the mills — literally football-field-size areas stacked with rotting wood that wasn’t long enough or clear enough to make the export grade.
      No proof has *ever* been shown for statements saying that removing value from the trees will lead to deforestation. But there are dozens of scientific studies, including by INPA, a top research organization in Brazil, showing that logging *leads* to deforestation. If one wants to twist reality, one can look at one or two second-growth forests in the middle of ranch land in Mexico and say that that for the forest to remain standing there has to be value in the trees. But in primary forest, being mostly-illegally logged, the opposite is true — the money to be made from the highest-value trees is what drives (and pays for) the first bulldozers to cut the first roads. Once that happens, other extractors use that access to get deeper into the deforestation zone. Once the secondary loggers, using those roads, have taken the less-valuable trees, Brazil’s law modeled on the US Homestead Act allows farmers to take over the land. They will finish cutting the rest of the trees. But only because all the high-value ones have already been stolen.

      That’s really the way it works, my friends. We’ve been studying this for 26 years. You can read more about it at rainforestrelief.org. And we’re happy to send links to original studies and dozens of articles reporting on this, including the one highlighting the longest-running scientific study of logging in old-growth rainforest, the head scientist who showed that commercial-scale logging simply *can’t* be done without permanently damaging the forest structure and biodiversity.

  17. Frank P 03/26/2012 / 8:28 am

    I agree that black locust is a great resource. I am a woodworker and
    harvest logs that landscapers pay to throw in our land fills. I currently have 4 logs ready to be milled and dried in my solar kiln. I would like to see more information about drying this wood.

  18. Brian Lotz 06/14/2012 / 2:29 pm

    Brian L
    Black Locust may work in theory but it is not perfoming well in application. Just check out the Brooklyn Botaincal Gardens. Also is anyone calling out for FSC Certified Black Locust or are we once again not hold our own forest management to the same standards we desire to apply to tropical forest countries? While nothing can compare with Ipe ( It’s as though it was created for exterior constructions) Cumaru is now readily available FSC certified and should be considered as a good substitute for Ipe. Better yet there is new rapidly renewable resource technology available. Iron Woods EcoStrand Thermally Modified Engineered Bamboo developed by Lamboo Technologies. This product has all the technical benefits associated with Ipe. In addition it has increadibly low movement in service and is ideal for commercial boardwalk applications as you can generate virtually any volume in any dimension in any length and quantity with zero production waste. You will soon see the product on 800 Pier One Import stores as sun screens and entry doors. I remain a staunch believer that any wood certified or not is a superior alternative to non wood alternatives and have been involved in the sourcing and distribution of super durable tropical hardwoods for over 30 years. As a rapidly renewable resource Thermally Modified Bamboo may be exactly what the market has been looking for. Just don’t forget that if you take away the value of a forest as a resource base what has histirocally happened is that the resource base gets converted to alternative agricultural use. The goal has to be sound management and sustainable harvest. Limit a species use to its very best applications. Dont use Ipe indoors, the benefits are not necessary in the application. But Ipe should always have a home in exterior construction, there is simply no better suited material. And with the Lacey Act in place there is virtually no concern that the Ipe brought into the US has been sourced illegally. The Lacey Act was enacted to provide the US market with confidence about the legal harvest of the plant based products we import. Ipe should now be specified with confidence. Current Environmental Specification Language for Ipe and other species is readily available to designers from Timber Holdings USA.

  19. Deb 03/01/2013 / 2:48 pm

    Looking for black locust wood post and rails
    Do you know if anyone who sells and ships to California? It’s awesome wood and we need to repair post and rails in our canyon.
    Thanks a bunch

    • Gary 12/28/2013 / 6:51 pm

      Just plant it in fields in CA………..and if you want more, run a chisel plow across the fields to damage the roots….Then apply water. You’ll have so much black locust you won’t know what to do with it. It grew wild on the family farm. Cut down the black locust in fence rows…..and 5 years later, after trimming 2-3 miles of black locust, go to the beginning and start over.

  20. LU 09/05/2013 / 9:58 pm

    Just stumbled across this article. We have black locust groves here on our farm in Illinois, and we use downed trees as firewood in the winter. One log will burn an entire day. My dad recalls carrying 8 foot long black locusts logs out of the woods with his dad to sell as fence posts.

  21. Leroy Poudrier 04/12/2014 / 7:47 am

    I have a few BL trees in the yard here in upstate NY. I used them for garden posts, as well as posts for the fence around the pool. I also left them as long as they came from the ground so they look more like trees and less like a post. That said, I ALWAYS peel my posts. Certain bugs live under the bark and can eat the wood, peeling the log removes their home, I guess. Use instead of cement under the deck? Never thought of it, but I guess it would work just fine. When you want to build it once, BL is the only way to fly. And mine are free.

  22. Ryan 10/17/2015 / 4:05 pm

    so the saying in vermont: “if you want it to last a lifetime, make it out of concrete. if you want it to last twice as long, use black locust.”

  23. Drew 03/25/2016 / 6:35 pm

    Check out blacklocust.us — we’ve got black locust lumber, if you’re looking for it. Info[at]blacklocust.us. We’re the folks who, way back in 2002, first introduced New York City Parks to the idea of using black locust as an alternative to tropical hardwoods ripped from the Amazon. In 2006, we delivered the first black locust they ever tried on a bench — which is still outside their Queens HQ and going strong. Now everyone’s talking about it!

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