Sapele - Characteristics and Uses
After centuries of non-stop exploitation, the worldwide market only
recently came to terms that legendary Mahogany cannot constantly be harvested like in
the old days, which opened a place for a new contender to enter into
widespread use. Countless years of irresponsible forestry management have
brought into question the sustainability of not only Mahogany, but several
other North and South American species who have all landed under government
protection and complete oversight of the commercial exploitation. After a
quick period of adaptation, both large industrial and small-scale
wood-processing artisans came to the realization that a viable alternative
to Genuine Mahogany can be found in the much cheaper and readily available wood species Sapele.
This African species had many similarities with more costly Genuine Mahogany,
making it perfect substitution for its numerous exterior
and interior applications.
(also known as Entandrophragma cylindricum) shares thesame botanical family as the famed American and African Mahogany, making it a
very close match in both visual appeal, wood processing, and working
While sapele is not directly a cousin of Mahogany, like Swietenia and Khaya trees are, it is still a part of the Entandrophragma genus of Meliaceae family that all these trees are
part of. Because of this, the claims that Sapele is a close cousin of
Mahogany are somewhat valid.
Sapele originates from West Africa, and it can be most easily found in
countries such as Tanzania, Nigeria, and Ghana where the individual trees
can grow up to impressive height of 45 meters in the air
(with some rare examples going up to 60 meters), with the trunk diameter
that can almost reach 2 meters (6 feet). It is a deciduous
tree only during a dry season in the West Africa, with leaves that can grow up to 10 centimeters in size. Since a
lot of Sapele trees prefer to grow quite close to each other, they usually
become very starved for sunlight. This has pushed this
species of trees to grow quite large, with extensive canopy being formed only in the top one-fifth of
their height. The tree is perfect for the creation of long plans since its
main trunk section between the roots and canopy is impressively long,
straight and without any side-branches that would compromise the integrity
of the heartwood.
The tree also grows small flowers that are 5mm in diameter
with five yellowish petals surrounding it. However, these
flowers grow only when the tree is leafless. Fruit that develops in these
flowers takes the form of a
pendulous capsule that is 4 centimeters wide and 10 centimeters long
When mature, this pod splits into five sections, each
with 15-20 seeds inside of them.
Because of the increased levels of commercial exploitation, the
conservation status of Sapele has changed over the last several decades.
Today, it is ranked as IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species, due to the loss of
more than 20% of total tree population over the past three generations of
Today, Sapele is still readily available for purchase at a much cheaper
level than Mahogany, in both lumber and veneer form. Because of its
increased popularity and regular use as a substitute for Mahogany, this
wood type is sometimes referred today as “ Sapele Mahogany.”
What is Sapele Wood
Sapele Wood has many characteristics that resemble Mahogany, most notably
in the color of its heartwood ( golden to dark reddish brown, darkens with age if not
treated with finishing oils that will prevent oxidation),grain patterns, and internal characteristics that make it very durable.
One of the defining characteristics of Sapele is the interlocking grain patterns. These patterns are created
from the fiber cells that stretch all the way from the lowest points in the
roots all the way to the top of the canopy. During growth, these cells
rotate in one way, and can often suddenly switch the direction of rotation
once or several times. This interlocked grain patterns can not only cause
various issues during woodworking, but it also has an impact on the visual
appearance with the presence of ribbon stripes and many other dramatic
figures on quartered sawn lumber and veneer. All theseanomalies in the texture of the wood create a dramatic and exotic look that is one of the
primary reasons why Sapele and its more famous cousin Mahogany are so
praised all around the world. The three
most common textures of Sapele are Plain, Figured and Pommele Figure
In woodworking and cutting, these same interlocked grain patterns can cause severe tearouts. Thankfully, after hard work of
cutting and molding, sapele readily accepts finishes and polishes. Itcan be polished to a very high luster. Sapele also takes nails, screws, and glues well, making it versatile
and usable in construction many types of indoor and outdoor objects,
including high-end wooden objects such as musical instruments, decorative furniture, turned objects
and specialty items. One of the most common use case scenarios for sapele
is indoors, windows, floor, and paneling.
Supplies of Sapele were plentiful, but in recent years after increased
exploitation that was caused by the lockdown on Mahogany trading, even
Sapele is starting to get vulnerable. While the large-scale operations of
replanting large quantities of Sapele trees are underway, the global stock
of this type of lumber is starting to get limited. It is still very much
readily available for purchase, but its price has already started to climb
at a regular pace.
Sapele (also known also as aboudikro, saplewood, sapelli and Sapele
Mahogany) is one of the largest trees that are native to the regions of
tropical Africa. As a part of the genus Entandrophragma and the family of
Meliaceae, it can be commonly found in rainforests of Ivory Coast, Ghana,
Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, and others. In addition to
rainforests, it can also be found in different forest types, such as
evergreen, deciduous and transitional zones.
Its full latin name is Entandrophragma cylindricum.
Tree size - 100-150 ft (30-45 m) tall
Trunk diameter - 3-5 ft (1-1.5 m)
Janka Hardness - 1,410 lbf (6,280 N)
Average Dried Weight - 42 lbs/ft3 (670 kg/m3)
Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC) - .50, .67
Crushing Strength - 8,750 lbf/in2 (60.4 MPa)
Modulus of Rupture - 15,930 lbf/in2 (109.9 MPa)
Elastic Modulus - 1,746,000 lbf/in2 (12.04 GPa)
Shrinkage: Radial - 4.8%, Tangential: 7.2%, Volumetric: 12.8%, T/R Ratio:
Odor - Odorless while finished. Cedar-like scent during woodworking.
Workability - Problematic during machine operations, with a high chance of
interlocked grain tearouts during cutting. The surface of the wood reacts
strongly when in contact with iron, causing the appearance of stains and
discoloration. Tools are moderately blunted during cutting, but the wood
takes nails, screws, glue and finishes quite well.
Texture - Uniform and very fine texture, which can take great natural
Grain - Wavy and interlocked grain.
Sustainability - Placed on IUCN Red List and marked as Vulnerable for loss
of 20% of the population in past three generations. The tree is
experiencing large exploitation and decline in natural growing range.
Required growth density - No specific requirements for growth density
Drying - Medium. The stability and durability of sapele are very dependent
on its being dried properly. Part of drying is done in harvest zones in
Africa, while the final air drying procedure is done in large commerce
zones of Europe, US and Asia until the moisture content reach 6 to 8
Durability - Medium. Can survive long with proper finishing, average
immunity against rot and insects.
Maintenance - Low
Cost - Affordable, but with raising cost due to new limits on commercial
After a reduction in the availability of South American Mahogany, Sapele became a wood of choice for various woodworking projects that demand the use of high-quality and visually appealing wood. Here is where Sapele can be most commonly found today:
Doors and windows
Various outdoor construction
Indoor construction elements (beams)
Various specialty items