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Atlantic City Boardwalk

 A Safe Bet for Decking



Each year thirty million people flock to the 4.2 mile deck that is the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. Visitors come for amusement parks, wicker chair rides, casinos, confections and ritzy hotels. But there is a practical side to all the pleasure, namely maintaining a wooden structure in an environment of sand and salt water. Part of that responsibility falls to John Feairheller the assistant to the engineer for Atlantic City, New Jersey. His job is to keep the boardwalk safe from a structural perspective. And prevention of problems is the most effective approach. “Ipé and cumaru boards are both acceptable for delivery,” says Feairheller, and due to availability cumaru (Dipteryx odorata) is the primary species used for maintaining the 944,000 square-foot deck.

 "Essentially the Boardwalk has to be able to support a small bridge load, and do it without splintering or burning, and the untreated cumaru and ipe meet those performance criteria."
John Feairheller, assistant to the engineer for Atlantic City.

When the original mile-long boardwalk opened in 1870 it was built out of old-growth pine. The 10-foot by 12-foot sections were taken apart at the end of the summer and stored for the winter months. But even with the seasonal preservation efforts, within ten years the boards were splintering and had to be replaced.

Throughout the next hundred years the boardwalk would continue to expand, periodically being destroyed by storms and then rebuilt. Pressure-treated pine was briefly used once old-growth was no longer available, but with a short 5-year life cycle, a tendency to leach chemicals and a reputation for ferocious splinters, the material specification was discontinued. In the late 1970’s the groundbreaking decision was made to bring casino gaming to the fading beach resort, and in 1981 the boardwalk itself got a much-needed upgrade to exotic wood species. In the thirty years since the change in specification there have been no replacements for rot, only for hurricane damage or when work needed to be done on the substructure.

“We examine all aspects of the material,” says Feairheller, “but one of our main concerns is fire because the boardwalk is a place where people assemble. And exotics don’t burn.” The other main concern for the boardwalk is durability. “The problem is we are in a part of the country that experiences freeze and thaw cycles,” explains Feairheller. “The cumaru isn’t porous so you don’t get water into the surface that would freeze and cause it to splinter. For pine, splintering is a real problem, but when it comes to untreated exotics there is no splinter issue. It is virtually free of any checks.” A crew of twelve individuals maintains the Boardwalk, and it is one person’s job to walk the deck all day on patrol for tripping hazards.

This is good news for the Boardwalk’s barefoot pedestrian traffic, but safety is also a consideration when it comes to vehicular traffic. The deck is built from special 4-foot by 14-foot boards to accommodate 15,000 pound vehicles without special consideration (though 24,000 pound trash trucks regularly make their rounds). Boards are held in place by 4 ½- inch stainless steel screws that are countersunk into pre-drilled holes. “Essentially the Boardwalk has to be able to support a small bridge load, and do it without splintering or burning,” says Feairheller. “And the untreated cumaru and ipé meet those performance criteria.”

Where to Buy Cumaru: Search IWPA's Directory for wood suppliers of cumaru or other species, products or service providers.

Wood Species Library: Technical data sheets on domestic, imported, and lesser-known wood species from the U.S. Forest Products Lab.

Copyright© 2011 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North America.


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