With coloring similar to that of mahogany, hardness that surpasses that of hard maple, and strength comparable to oak, the lesser-known sapele wood deserves consideration. Although less commonly recognized in North America, this large tree hails from Africa, and its wood has become a staple for woodworkers in Germany and the rest of Europe.
The attractiveness of sapele wood hinges largely on its coloring and grain. Reminiscent of mahogany, its deep reddish-brown hues are perhaps slightly deeper and sometimes closer to a purple than a red. This rich coloring, coupled with the wood’s fine graining, give it an elegant appearance. Quarter-sawn sapele showcases sapele’s interlocking grain, which changes direction frequently, causing a uniformly striped effect. An additional attractive feature of this wood is the cedar-like aroma it emits when cut.
Sapele wood is actually more durable than mahoganies, with a strength similar to oaks. With a 1500 rating on the Janka hardness scale, it is slightly harder than sugar maple but over 20% harder than mahogany. Despite the wood’s strength and hardness and subsequent durability, it does dry quickly and have a tendency to warp if not properly stacked. It does work well with both hand and machine tooling, but its interlocking grain can be torn by planing. It does respond well to nailing, gluing, and finishing. The wood’s rapid seasoning makes it desirable, as well.
The popularity of sapele dates back to before World War 2, when Germans used it for decorative cabinetry. During the war, it was used for propeller blades of Zeppelins, and it has since become a standard choice for high-end doors, window frames, and flooring. It can also be used as surface veneer for book cases and cabinets. In North America, sapele is perhaps best known for its use by luxury car manufacturer Cadillac for interior “sapele wood accents” in its Cadillac CTS.
An additional use of sapele is in stringed and percussion instruments. Such instrument manufacturers as Taylor in the USA, Larrivee in Canada, and Esteve in Spain have used sapele in guitar-making. The Seattle-based Dusty Strings has used it for folk harps, and Hawaiian Kamaka and Koaloha have utilized it for high-end ukuleles. Those uses are largely due to aesthetic considerations, but in recent decades, the strength and resulting lively sound of the wood has given it a place in percussion instruments, as well.
Today, you can find sapele wood used in the same ways mahogany is used: in flooring, paneling, furniture, doors, windows, cabinetry, and decorative moldings.
The strength, hardness, appearance, and versatility of sapele wood make it an increasingly popular choice for many woodworkers. The lumber experts at J. Gibson McIlvain, a lumber importer and wholesale lumber company, are fully equipped to review the pros and cons of sapele wood with you and help you compare and contrast it with woods of similar appearance and quality.
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