With supplies of North American Mahogany dwindling, more woodworkers are turning to Sapele as a substitute wood for use in furniture and musical instruments. Sharing the same botanical family as American and African Mahogany, Sapele is an attractive wood with satisfactory working characteristics and an economical price point that should entice most woodworkers.
Sapele pommele figure
Native to the rain forests of West Africa, it is commonly found in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania. It is a large tree achieving heights over 100′ with diameters averaging 6′ at the base. Being a canopy specie constantly striving for light, one can expect a straight trunk with no branching until a height of about 80′. Obviously, this will yield large logs capable of being sawn into lumber of long lengths and considerable widths.
The sapwood is a pale yellow/white with a heart that is pinkish when first cut, mellowing to a typical reddish brown “mahogany” tone. It is a fine textured hardwood, heavier and denser than its American and African relatives. It dries rapidly but can show some degrade if proper drying techniques are not used.
Sapele has a marked tendency to grow with interlocked grain. All trees are made of cells and fibers usually running from the root to the upper branches and leafs. It is not uncommon for these cells and fibers to rotate as they grow upward, especially in the trunk of the tree. In Sapele, these cells and fibers can rotate in one direction and then rotate in an opposite direction. This pattern can repeat itself for the life of the tree producing interlocked grain which has several important implications for the wood worker.
Sapele end grain
Most importantly the interlocked grain produces a dramatic ribbon stripe on quartered sawn lumber and veneer. Caution is required when working this interlocked grain since it is prone to tearout. Resawing may be difficult since considerable tension can be released from the wood during the resawing process. Sapele also produces a large number of dramatic figure types such as pommele, quilted and mottled. These are all produced by deviations from the normal grain pattern of the wood. Sapele’s propensity to exhibit such a diversity of figure types makes it a valuable source of decorative veneer.
Sapele glues, nails, and takes screws well. It accepts all finishes and polishes to a high luster. It can react in contact with iron so staining with some fasteners can be a problem. You’ll find that Sapel is durable in most exterior applications and it is well known for its use in doors and windows. It makes a fine floor due to its hardness and durability. It is also used in all woodworking applications from fine furniture to decorative turning.
Since supplies of genuine Mahogany are dwindling, many manufacturers of musical instruments are switching to Sapele. Whether for acoustic guitar backs and sides or solid electric guitar bodies, Sapele has become a very important tonewood. While supplies used to be plentiful, concerns have been raised about the long term viability of Sapele stocks. Active replanting and conservation efforts along with the availability of FSC certified material from managed forests will hopefully maintain a sustainable supply of this valuable and beautiful hardwood.