What Is Sapele Wood?

Chris Deziel

Sapele comes from the species Entandrophragma cylindricum, which grows in western and central Africa as far east as Uganda, and it's a close relative of khaya, or African mahogany. Thanks to its moderate hardness, low density, attractive colors and close, interlocked grain, it's a popular material for cabinetry, interior woodwork, flooring and musical instruments. Once considered a fine exotic species, sapele has come into wider use because of restrictions on many species of mahogany.

Janka Hardness Rating

Sapele is an abundant exotic hardwood that resembles mahogany.

To measure the hardness of a wood species, testers compress a steel ball halfway into a board and measure the amount of force necessary to do so. The Janka hardness scale is based on this test, and with a rating of around 1,400 pounds per square foot, Sapele ranks just above royal mahogany and below sugar maple on the scale. It's harder than most domestic hardwoods, such as oak, ash and walnut, but only a third as hard as the hardest exotic species, such as ipe and ebony. It has a specific gravity between 0.50 and 0.67, making it about half as dense as water.

Working With Sapele

The complex interlocking grain pattern of sapele is one of the reasons for its popularity -- but this can create problems for the woodworker, because it tends to chip and splinter when shaped with a planer or router. It contains a high percentage of tannins that react with iron to produce black stains, so stainless steel or coated fasteners are a must. Despite these problems, sapele cuts and glues well -- although it has a slight blunting effect on blades -- and it accepts finishes evenly. It releases a cedar-like aroma when cut or sanded, which makes working it a pleasant experience; one of its trade names is Gold Coast cedar.

A Quality Material

While not technically a true mahogany, sapele bears a close resemblance, and because its price isn't much different, many cabinetmakers opt for it instead of mahogany. It has an attractive reddish-brown color when finished, and the grain varies from close and textured to a mottled combination of grain patterns reminiscent of curly or quilted maple. Beside cabinetry, interior woodwork and flooring, the lumber is also useful for exterior construction and boat building. Instrument makers use it to make guitars and other stringed instruments, and sapele veneer finds its way into plywood sheets and onto fine furniture and countertops.

Sapele Availability

One of the advantages of sapele, which is also known as sapelli, is its abundance. The tree is large and fast-growing, and logs with diameters of 4 feet or more are common. It is not endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources includes it on its red list as a vulnerable species because of heavy exploitation. You can find sapele lumber in several grades and in flat-sawn and more decorative, stable and costly quarter-sawn boards. Because the trees are so large, extra-wide boards are readily available.