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Figuratively speaking: Sapele's ribbon striping and other popular figures make it a perfect substitute for South American mahoganies.

Demand continues for sapele, the popular African "red" wood. Sapele, especially the material with the distinctive ribbon stripe, is often called Sapele mahogany. Although it is not one of the true mahoganies, it is considered similar to the South American mahoganies.

"Furniture designers and architects love sapele, especially the ribbon stripe material, because it is a cost-effective alternative to mahogany, yet gives users a fancy-face veneer. It is sometimes teamed with two or three other fancy face veneers and the effect can be stunning," said Jeff Vaida, owner of JFV Designs, Orlando, FL.

Sapele is a large tree that can grow to heights of 150 to 200 feet with straight, cylindrical boles clear to 100 feet--a definite plus--and with diameters up to 6 feet. If the trees are buttressed the buttresses are low.

It is used for high-end furniture and cabinetry, interior and exterior joinery, window frames, countertops, domestic and residential flooring, sporting goods, and piano cases, guitars and other musical instruments. Logs are rotary cut for plywood. The veneer is prized for a variety of uses, including furniture, cabinet work, parquet floors, paneling and doors. Sapele is also used for boat building, and boat and vehicle interiors.

A Lustrous Wood

Sapele's sapwood is very pate but the heartwood is a light, salmon pink when first cut that darkens to a deep red-brown. The wood's interlocked grain is said to account for the distinctive ribbon or pencil stripe that Sapele yields when quarter cut. Sapele also yields roe and fiddleback figures, as well as a mottled figure when the wood has a wavy grain.

Sapele has a wide growing range, from Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, the Cameroons and Gabon, to Angola, Zaire and Uganda. Authors of the book, Veneers, a Fritz Kohl Handbook, write, "Aboudikro Sapele, which generally grows along the Ivory Coast, normally is darker than the wood from other growing areas."

Sapele has no discernible taste, but the wood has a cedar-like scent when freshly cut, probably accounting for the tree's commercial name, Gold Coast Cedar.

"The so-called African redwoods like Khaya, sapele and makore are just full of figures," said Jim Carroll of Certainty Wood, East Aurora, NY. "They have pommele, curl, mottle and more."

"When customers are looking for the 'ribbons', or ribbon stripe, and it is a very popular look today, sapele is one of the woods that quickly comes to mind," said Vaida. Chen chen is known as the brand sapele because the wood gives the pencil ribbon stripe but is a much lighter wood.

Former mahogany users who have switched to sapele include guitar makers, who have barked at the price and availability of mahogany. In addition to resembling mahogany, sapele gives the much-needed tonal qualities and sound projection of true mahogany.

In addition to the interesting figures, sapele often has an innate luster, making it a popular choice for face veneers. The wood finishes very well with stains, varnish or other materials, but has a resin that some experts recommend washing out for the best results.

Sapele dries fairly quickly but care must be used to avoid distortion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) recommends a kiln schedule of T2-D4 for 4/4 stock; and T2-D3 for 8/4 stock. The wood "seasons fairly rapidly but with a marked tendency to warp, (is) very variable in drying properties and requires careful stacking," according to the FPL.

The heartwood is moderately durable and its resistance to termite attack is rated variable. The sapwood is vulnerable to attack from powder post beetles and moderately resistant to termites in Africa. The wood has a high crushing strength, medium bending strength and resistance to shock loads. Sapele is not recommended for steam bending, as it sometimes buckles.

White sapele is attracting fans who are trying to find substitutes for mahogany, it also has its own worldwide fan base that values the wood for its beauty, luster, working properties and wide range of dramatic figures. When Wood & Wood Products ran a story in December listing hot veneers, sapele was on almost every expert's list.

"It is an ideal choice for someone looking for a wood that offers interesting color and grain, teamed with fine working properties," said Carroll.

Editor's note: 114 Wood of the Month articles are now online, with more coming soon. Visit the Wood of the Month archive at

Family Name

Entandrophragma cylindricum of the Family Meliaceae

Common Names

Sapele, sapelewood, sapele mahogan, sipo, tiama, kosipo, aboudikrou, sapelli, Gold Coast cedar, penkwa, muyova, libuyu, aboudikro


Trees reach heights of 150 to 200 feet with straight and cylindrical boles, clear to 100 feet. Average weight is 39 pounds per cubic foot.


Wood works well with hand and machine tools, but interlocked grain may cause tearing when planing.

Wood saws well.

Has good gluing and nailing properties.

Finishes very well when care is taken to deal with resins.

Slow, careful drying recommended to avoid problems with degrade.
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Title Annotation:WOOD OF THE MONTH: Sapele
Comment:Figuratively speaking: Sapele's ribbon striping and other popular figures make it a perfect substitute for South American mahoganies.(WOOD OF THE MONTH: Sapele)
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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