Pictured is a small bowl (the depth is hard to visualize in this photo) turned from a blank of Sapele, scientifically known as Entandrophragma cylindricum. Sapele is a tree of African origin, which grows in a wide swath of tropical Africa ranging from Sierra Leone southward to Angola on the west coast, and also eastward through the Congo Basin to Uganda.
General Character of Sapele
As can be seen, the wood is a medium to dark reddish brown or purplish brown. It is reported that the color tends to darken with age. The wood is known to display a wide variety of figured grain patterns, sadly, not in this piece, which include: ribbon, pomelle, quilted, mottled, wavy, beeswing, and fiddleback. The grain is also known to abruptly change directions. In general, the grain is interlocked and sometimes wavy. The wood features a fine texture and small pores. The sapwood is whitish to pale yellow and there is a clear line of demarcation between the heart and sapwoods. Some users report a cedar-like scent when cut although I did not notice this when working with this piece. Sapele is reported to be durable and resistant to decay, but interestingly, it is reported to be both resistant and susceptible to insect attack, depending on which source you contact. It may be that the confusion comes about because while resistant to termites, the insect most commonly associated with wood damage, sapele is apparently subject to attack by the powder-post beetle. I think it unlikely that turned pieces would have issue with insect attack at any rate, so since I don’t use the wood for structural purposes, this conflict probably belongs in the irrelevant file.
Working Characteristics of Sapele
Sapele works fairly easy with hand and machine tools, and it saws and finishes easily, however it is worth noting that the interlocked grain offers difficulties in planing, routing and molding with tear out being a real problem. In general it is said that Sapele has good nailing and gluing properties, and it finishes well. Apparently, Sapele will also, when put into direct contact with iron, become discolored and stained, although for most purposes I can’t imagine why this would be an issue, aside from avoiding non-galvanized nails when used for flooring purposes. Sapele has a slight blunting effect on cutters, however, tools should be routinely sharpened regardless to ensure the best possible results and for safety reasons.
Health Hazards of Sapele
As is common with many exotic tropical woods, Sapele has been reported as a skin and respiratory irritant. However, severe reactions have not been reported. Personally, I have not experienced any such problems, but individuals with existing respiratory difficulties, or who have experienced other wood allergies in the past should use protective measures such as full body coverings and respirators when dust is likely to be generated. A good source of guidance about possible allergic reactions to wood can be found at The Wood Database, which also offers information about protection from dust hazards.
Pricing of Sapele
Sapele is reported to moderately priced but I have failed to find it offered for sale in anything other than in pieces designed specifically for guitars or as board lumber. If anyone out there knows of a good source for Sapele turning stock I would be interested to know about it. The piece I had came from a hardwood dealer in San Diego, California, but I don’t have the specifics of their contact information or even their name.
Uses of Sapele
Sapele is most commonly used as a substitute for genuine mahogany, which is critically endangered and not generally available for purchase. While it is sometimes referred to as “Sapele Mahogany,” it bears no real relation to either the Swietenia or Khaya genera, to which genuine Mahogany belongs. However, its appearance and performance are quite similar and therefore for most any application Sapele performs as well as genuine mahogany would be expected to.
Some common uses of Sapele include: veneer, plywood, furniture, cabinetry, flooring, boatbuilding, turned objects, and other small wooden specialty items.
Among its more exotic uses is that in musical instruments. It is used for the top, back and sides of acoustic guitar bodies as well as the tops of electric guitar bodies. It is also used in manufacturing the neck piece of ukuleles and 26- and 36-string harps. In the late 1990s, it started to be used as a board for Basque percussion instrument txalaparta.
The American car maker Cadillac also uses sapele wood for interior wood trim on its vehicles.
My Personal Experience Working with Sapele
Overall, I found Sapele to be quite easy to work with. I was pleased the end grain was fairly tight and easy to sand to a fine finish. It cut easily with sharp tools and I have not troubles with tear out or breakage of any kind. The wood demonstrated a high luster when sanded to 800 grit and I was tempted to leave it unfinished with simply a light coating of wax because of its fine natural finish. However, in the end, I applied a light coating of Watco Teak Oil as a protectant and moisturizer, and it seemed that wood appreciated that since it literally drank up the oil readily. Once the oil cured, I finished it with a lightly buffed coat of carnauba wax and I was pleased with the overall result and effect. If I could find additional samples of Sapele, which as I noted I have been unable to do, I would be happy to work with once again.