August 14, 2011 | 5:04 pm CDT

Wood of the Month:
Sapele Yields Coveted Furniture Wood

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Entandrophragma cylindricum of the Family Meliaceae

Sapele, aboudikro, penkwa, muyovu, sapelli, libuyu, Gold Coast cedar, sapelewood

Trees can grow to heights of 150 to 200 feet with straight boles clear to 100 feet. Weight varies between 35 to 43 pounds per cubic foot with an average weight of 39 pounds per cubic foot. Specific gravity is 0.62.

Wood dries fairly rapidly but has a tendency to distort; the quartered material is less likely to distort. The wood has medium density, medium bending and shock resistance. Sapele buckles and ruptures severely when steam bent, so it is not suited for steam bending. It also has a high crushing strength. The wood works easily with machine tools, however the interlocked grain can make it difficult to plane and may cause blunting of cutting edges. Sapele nails, screws and glues well. It may need filling before finishing, but the wood will finish well and has a natural luster.

Sapele is called Gold Coast cedar by some because the wood has a cedar-like aroma when first cut. But this highly prized furniture- and cabinetry wood is not like cedar in any other way.

When compared with other hardwoods, sapele's color is said to be similar to African mahogany, and it has strength properties similar to oak. The mahogany reference is explained in the book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees by Herbert Edlin and Maurice Nimmo:

"All the tropical rain forest areas produce light, medium and dark red utility timbers with a considerable range in technical properties. Wherever possible retailers will call a tropical red wood 'mahogany.' Species of Khaya are often referred to as the 'African mahoganies' and species of Entandrophragma have been called the 'West African mahoganies' although neither of the species is considered a true mahogany."

The authors add that adopting the name mahogany for commercial purposes was a compliment because "most people have heard of this as an excellent wood."

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).

Yields Fine Figures
Although sapele has been used in place of mahogany, it is more durable than the true mahoganies. It is also distinguished for the array of interesting figures it yields.

Some of the very attractive figures found include: pommele sapele with its dappled and blistered figure, bee's wings and a 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.

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 reminds me of a dark counterpart to bird's-eye maple, giving that intense pattern overall - like a fabric of pattern."

Judd has used sapele in a variety of designs including veneer bookmatched across a table and an entertainment center lit by halogen lights, giving the sapele a 3-D quality.

"For a recent commissioned piece I made a cabinet with doors of sapele. Each door had a square with an "X" drawn across. Malachite stone was inlaid in the center. The top and bottom featured a tight fiddleback sapele opposed by a top and bottom of pommele sapele. The color tones were the same but the figures, all sapele, were intensely different. Sapele gives a rich, dark color, either mahogany or reddish brown that is very attractive," said Judd.

Multiple uses
Sapele is salmon-colored when first cut, but it matures to a medium to dark red-brown color. While the heartwood is a rich brown to reddish brown, it often features a ribbon striped figure which is a pale yellow. The wood has a fine and even texture.

In addition to fine furniture and cabinetry, sapele is well-known as an architectural wood, used in both veneer and solid form. Other uses include joinery, shop fitting, office furniture, solid doors, countertops, paneling, piano casework (and other musical instruments), constructional veneer for plywood, decorative face veneers and marquetry and sports goods. It is a popular residential and commercial flooring material. Sapele is also used for boat building, vehicles and coffins.

Sapele specifics
A hardwood, sapele comes from eastern and western Africa, growing in a range from the Ivory Coast to the Cameroons, and eastward through Zaire to Uganda. The tall, straight trees grow in evergreen, deciduous and transitional forest formations.

Sapele seasons fairly quickly but it has a tendency to warp and is inconsistent in its drying properties. Experts recommend careful stacking. The USDA Forest Service handbook recommends a kiln schedule of T2-D4 for 4/4 stock and T2-D3 for 8/4 stock.


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