Sapele wood is a commercially imported wood that is somewhat similar to mahogany in coloration. Its hardness is even greater than that of hard maple, and its strength is comparable to that of oak. Although sapele wood is still not as well-known as other hardwoods, it has been steadily gaining popularity. The sapele tree is native to Africa, and its lumber has been a staple among German and other European woodworkers for a number of years.
Sapele’s popularity originates in the years well before World War II, when the Germans often used the wood for decorative cabinetry projects. During the war, the lumber was used by the German military to craft propeller blades for Zeppelins, but, by the end of the war, Sapele wood once again became a primarily civilian material. It is extremely popular in interior applications, including high-end doors, window frames, and flooring projects, and it is also often used as a surface veneer for cabinets and book cases.
Outside of Europe, in North America, Sapele has become famous due to the car manufacturer Cadillac. The luxury car company marketed its Cadillac CTS as containing sapele wood accents, which caused the general public to wonder about what this little-known species of wood had to offer that it was able to meet the high standards of this famous car company.
In addition to sapele’s popularity for use in cabinetry, flooring, paneling, furniture, window, moulding, and door applications, the wood is also often used in the production of stringed and percussion instruments. Companies such as Taylor (USA), Larrivee (Canada), and Esteve (Spain) have used sapele in their guitars, especially in the production of acoustic guitars. The wood has also been used in the crafting of folk harps, high-end ukeleles, and percussion instruments. Sapele’s popularity in the world of instrument crafting is due in part to its attractive appearance and, in part, to its ability to carry sound well.
While sapele wood is often compared to mahogany, there are some differences between the two woods. Sapele’s coloration, for example, is often even deeper than that of mahogany, and the lumber’s deep reds and browns sometimes border on purple hues. The wood’s grain pattern is interlocking, and, when the wood is quarter-sawn, this grain pattern is showcased quite nicely. The grain pattern changes direction frequently, which results in a striping effect throughout the boards. Sapele’s rich coloration, combined with its fine grain pattern, has made it famous among consumers seeking a lumber that is elegant and beautiful in appearance.
Another difference between sapele and mahogany is that sapele is the more durable of the two woods. On the Janka scale, a grading system designed to rank woods according to their hardness, sapele is rated at a 1500, whereas mahoganies tend to rank at or under 1000. Sapele is even harder than sugar maple, which ranks 50 points lower than this strong African species. Despite sapele’s durability and hardness, the wood actually works quite easily. It takes well to both hand and machine tooling, and it takes nailing, gluing, and finishing, such as staining and painting, very well.
The strength, hardness, appearance, and versatility of sapele wood have made it a popular choice among woodworkers. For more information about sapele or other types of wood or for help with your wood-related project, contact the lumber experts at J. Gibson McIlvan Company.
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