A note from the Hobbit: There may be other woods that have as wide a varity of figure as sapele, but I'm not aware of any. As you'll see in the pics I've gather (and taken myself) for this species, there's flat cut and quartersawn, with a fairly normal distinction between them but that's barely the start. Then there's quilted, pomelle, figured, fiddleback, ribbon-striped, blistered, wavy, and on and on, including COMBINATIONS of quilted and pomelle and others. This is particularly true of the veneer of this wood and I have read that some of the variation in veneer figure does not exist or is very weak in lumber, as the veneer shows certain types of figure in a way that lumber does not (and this does not even count rotary cut veneer, which is of course not available at all in lumber), but this caveat does not ring true to me and I have seen many web-pics of stunningly figured sapele lumber.

As it says in one "web quote" (which I normally put at the bottom of the fact sheet pages), "Pronounced "Sa peel e", this species is another of the world's most extraordinary hardwoods. Its rich, lustrous, and variable reddish-brown color give it a mahogany-like appearance."

BOTANICAL NAME: Entandrophragma cylindricum of the Family Meliaceae, the mahogany family. I have also seen the following listed as synonyms: E. rufum and E. tomentosa

COMMON NAMES: aboudikro (ivory coast), aboudikrou, acajou sapelle, assi, assie libuyu (zaire), assie sapelli, atore, bibitu, botsife, bubussu, cedar, dilolo, gold coast cedar, kwabohoro, liboyo, libuyu (zaire)., lifaki, lifari, lifuti, lotue, m'boyo, miovu, muyovu (uganda), odupon, oweru, penkua, penkwa (ghana), sapele, sapele mahogany, sapelewood (nigeria), sapeli, sapelii (cameroon), scented mahogany, sipo, tiama, tshimaye noir, ubilesan, undianuno, west african cedar

Wherever possible retailers will call a tropical red wood "mahogany" but other than a couple of species of the genus Khaya none are really considered mahoganies even when they are in the same family of trees as the mahoganies.

TYPE: hardwood

COLOR: heartwood is brown or light reddish brown to dark reddish brown and sapwood is pale yellow or gray-pink or cream colored and distinct from heartwood. The heartwood is sometimes very similar to mahogany in color and texture but my own experience is that it is generally easy to distinguish between the two, mostly based on grain. One report says the heartwood is pink when freshly cut, but it matures to a red-brown or purple-brown color. My own experience is that the heartwood sometimes had a faint golden tint.

GRAIN / TEXTURE / FILLER / FINISH / LUSTER: grain ranges all over the map from straight to interlocked, wavy, rippled, what have you, producing a wide variety of beautiful figures. Quarter cut Sapele is yields a ribbon, regular stripe or bee's wing. Other cuts feature various desirable patterns, including fiddlebacks, roe or a mottled design, especially in wood containing wavy grain. The texture is medium to moderately fine and even. It has a high luster, takes stains, varnishes, paints and finishes well (particularly if grain is filled), and takes an excellent polish.

Pommele is the French term for dappled and it is especially apt for describing highly figured woods like sapele, makore and bubinga when the so-called quilted or blistered looks are present.

PROPERTIES / WORKABILITY: This hard, strong, dent-resistant, stiff wood is in the mahogany family not just botanically, but in the similarity of characteristics. It's tougher than African mahogany but similar to it in other respects. It has a high crushing strength, medium density, medium shock resistance, sands and saws easily, bores easily, carves easily, has good gluing and nailing properties, and generally works and machines beautifully, all with low blunting effect on cutters. Gum canals are widely reported to be a natural feature in Sapele, but personally, I have very rarely encountered them.

Some reports do note (correctly, in my experience) that planing, mortising and moulding can be difficult where interlocked grain is present (which it often is)

Reports say it veneers very well, with satisfactory peeling and slicing. My own experience is that this MUST be the case, given the huge variety and availability of the various types of sapele veneer on the market.

DURABILITY: Heartwood is moderately durable, resistant to termite attack variable, susceptible to pinhole borer, and marine borer attack. Sapwood liable to powder-post beetle attack. The heartwood is nearly untreatable with preservatives while the sapwood is only moderately resistant to preservatives.

STABILITY: meduim movement in service (less than other mahoganies)

BENDING: bending strength generally reported as medium but some reports have bending properties as rather poor and one report states that it buckles and ruptures severely when steam bent, so it is not suited for steam bending at all.

ODOR / TASTE: strong cedar-like scent that remains detectable even after long exposure; no distinctive taste

SOURCES: West, central, and east Africa, ranging from the Ivory Coast to the Cameroons and eastward through Zaire to Uganda. Specific countries mentioned include: Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central african republic, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory coast, Nigeria, Sierra leone, South africa, Togo, Uganda, and Zaire.

USES: Used for many of the same applications as true mahogany. Specific uses listed include: boat building, boxes and crates, building materials, cabinetry, canoes, carvings, chairs, chests, coffins, concealed parts (furniture), constructional veneer for plywood, countertops, decorative face veneers, decorative plywood, decorative veneer, desks, dining-room furniture, domestic flooring, dowells, drawer sides, excelsior, figured veneer, fine furniture, floor lamps, flooring, furniture, furniture components, furniture squares or stock, hatracks, heavy construction, interior construction, joinery, kitchen cabinets, lifeboats, light construction, living-room suites, marquetry, musical instruments, office furniture, paneling, panelling, parquet flooring, piano casework, plywood, plywood corestock, radio - stereo - tv cabinets, rustic furniture, shipbuilding, shop fitting, solid doors, sports goods, stools, sub-flooring, tables, turnery, utility furniture, vehicle parts, veneer, wainscotting, and wardrobes

TREE: A very large tree with cylindrical bole and small or no buttresses. Grows to a height of 200 feet and a diameter at breast height of up to 6 feet. It's common to have straight, clear boles to 100 feet, so this tree is clearly a logger's dream.

WEIGHT: Various reports have the weight from 35 to 43 pounds per cubic foot with an average weight of 39 pounds per cubic foot. My own experience is that it ranges from 45 to 50 pounds per cubic foot but I've only purchased a total of maybe 6 planks from a total of three vendors so I have a limited range of experience. Still, it does seem odd that all of my planks are outside the normally reported range.

DRYING: seasons fairly rapidly and easily but with a marked tendency to warp and is very variable in drying properties from log to log. Requires careful stacking. Slight checking may occur during drying, but the species is generally free from the cross-breaks which occur in African mahogany. Quarter-sawn material is less liable to degrade in drying.

radial 4.6%
tangential 7.4%
volumetric 14.0%.

AVAILABILITY: very readily available in veneer in a very wide variety of figure; moderately available in plank form.

Sapele is sold widely in the United States and is primarily used for marine-grade plywood and some furniture. Boards without flaws are available 10"-14" wide, in lengths exceeding 15 feet.

COST: low to moderate --- I've seen it as low as $5/BF but good quality ribbon stripe lumber starts at about $7/BF with high figure planks (pomelle and so forth) going for more (sometimes much more)

U.S. dealers sell quartersawn 4/4 and 8/4 sapele at the retail level for $5.50/bf to $6.50/bf, slightly higher than African mahogany. As the figure in the wood increases, so does the price.

TOXICITY: minor reports on respiratory effects and skin effects

web quotes:
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Quarter cut Sapele yields a ribbon, regular stripe or bee's wing. Other cuts feature various desirable patterns, including fiddlebacks, roe or a mottled design, especially in wood containing wavy grain.

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“If I don’t have the boards marked in the store, people think it’s mahogany,” said John Lorette, a retailer and wholesaler at Woods of the World in Westmoreland, N.H.

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Some of the very attractive figures found include: pommele sapele with its dappled and blistered figure, bee's wings and roe figure -- all visible when quarter cut. If the grain is wavy, the wood yields a fiddleback or mottled figure. Its interlocked grain gives it an interesting look, described as a pencil stripe, and all the figures are further enhanced by the wood's natural luster.

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Almost all sapele sold in the United States is quartersawn, which produces the ribbon-figured wood. Pomele sapele has an elongated blister pattern that creates a three-dimensional look, and is highly sought after by exotic-wood dealers. Most logs with this rare figure are immediately earmarked in the forest as veneer logs.

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“There is pomele sapele, but it’s very rare to get that in lumber. It always comes out in veneer — it’s almost a quilting-type effect,” Talcove said. “Once in a while you’ll see a little of it [pomele] on a board, but if they find a log that has a good amount of it in there, then that goes for veneer.”

“I do get in pomele sapele,” Gilmer said. “We’ll buy an occasional veneer log and have it sawn into lumber and that stuff goes to box makers and furniture makers, more like the novelty and furniture-accessory type market. I almost only buy it ribbon stripe or quartersawn. That’s where all the demand is.”

But Gilmer said the buyer has to be aware that beauty may only be skin deep. “You get a lot of logs where the first 4" to 6" is nicely figured, and then it totally dies,” he said. “You can usually tell by looking at recently cut end grain on how far the figure goes.”

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Many experts say that use of the term mahogany should be limited. Some, for example, recommend confining mahogany to the Family Meliaceae while others strictly limit it to the three species of the genus Swietenia. Others widen the use of mahogany in names to include the genera Parashorea and Shorea (Philippine mahoganies).

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Richard Judd, a custom furniture designer, manufacturer and owner of the Zazen Gallery in Paoli, WI, said sapele is one of his favorite woods. "I like the more intense figures of sapele," said Judd. "Pommele sapele, which gives a quilted or blister effect, is a beautiful wood. Figured sapele r eminds me of a dark counterpart to bird’s-eye maple, giving that intense pattern overall — like a fabric of pattern."

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The reddish-brown heartwood has some resemblance to African mahogany (Khaya spp.), and the sapwood is white to pale yellow. “African mahogany tends to be, in my experience, just a tad lighter and just a tad redder, whereas sapele is just a little more brown and darker in color,” said Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods, a retailer and wholesaler in Carlsbad, Calif.

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Albert Constantine Jr. describes the look of sapele pommele as a "plum pudding and blister figure" in his book Know Your Woods.

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Charles Stem, president of The Wood Gallery Inc., Wood Knobs, IN, is often asked by customers to describe the look of sapele pommele. "I liken it to champagne bubbles, rising in a glass," says Stem, who used sapele pommele framed with solid mahogany for his office desktop. "Sapele pommele is one of my favorite woods. It’s just a beautiful look."

Rick Banas of Interwood Forest Products Inc., Shelbyville, KY, a subsidiary of Fritz Kohl Veneer Mill, Germany, compares the look to that of a turtle shell. "You also have material with smaller eyes and swirly grain, but the most popular sapele pommele with our customers is the large turtle shell look or bigger eyes with veining."

However you describe it, sapele pommele is and has long been a popular look for fine furniture and architectural work. Stem thinks sapele pommele "takes off where bird’s-eye maple quits" in the sense that sapele pommele is available in wider widths and longer lengths. "Maple trees usually have the bird’s-eye figure in a log for 3 to 4 feet and then it plays out," Stem says. "With sapele pommele, you typically see good material that is uniform up to 12 feet. I have seen material that is 30 inches wide after it has been cut."

Stem says some material has the "wonderful champagne bubble look for 3 to 5 feet and then displays a big bubble, sort of like a hiccup. This affects the ability to book match the material." While some consider this a defect in grain, he adds, others appreciate and enjoy the wild character.

Banas says that heavier figured material is usually found near the outside of the tree, and notes that the figure may not penetrate through the log. "With some logs, you get yields of 200,000 square feet of pommele figure while others may only produce 2,000 square feet of pommele."

Banas says sapele pommele is one of the more expensive exotic woods but it remains in demand with users. "We get a call for it every month," says Banas.

Stem warns that improper finishing can ruin the pommele pattern. "Sometimes people will lose some of the grain pattern when they finish the material. If they darken the material too much, the distinctive pommele look disappears." Stem explained that sapele bleaches well and users can avoid "losing" the pattern during finishing by bleaching the material and then adding color.