Wood of the Month:
Unique Sapele Pommele Prized Worldwide

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Entandrophragma cylindricum of the family Meliaceae

Sapele: sapelewood, aboudikrou, sapelli, sipo, sapele mahogany, tiama, Gold Coast cedar, penkwa, libuyu. Sapele pommele.

Sapele grows from 150-200 feet with diameters of 3 to 6 feet and clean boles for 100 feet. Weight ranges from 35 to 43 pounds per cubic foot.

Sapele seasons rapidly but has a tendency to warp and is very variable in drying properties. Experts recommend a kiln schedule of T2-D4 for 4/4 stock; T3-D3 for 8/4 stock. Careful stacking of material minimizes problems. Works easily with hand and machine tools, although presence of interlocked grain can pose problems such as blunting of tools. Wood finishes well, saws easily, peels and slices satisfactorily. It has good gluing and nailing properties. Heartwood is moderately durable. Sapwood sometimes susceptible to powder-post beetle infestation. Heartwood can be resistant to termites, but not always. Wood has innate luster.

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.

Sapele can be plain or have ribbon-like stripes or a highly figured grain, but the term "sapele pommele" is reserved for a specific figure.

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."

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

A Step Beyond Bird's-Eye
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."

"Sapele is like many of the African species," he says, "in that each tree gives a variety of figures. For sapele, you can get figures such as mottled, block or fiddleback or a variation of all three." Banas says he has seen pommele logs ruined because they were sliced incorrectly. The logs were cut perpendicular to the grain instead of cutting the circumference of the tree.

Upscale and Distinguished
Stem says the wood has long been popular for upscale applications and he sees the greatest use of the material in architectural woodworking projects, specialty items and fine furniture designs. "I wouldn't suggest it for a large area of paneling. It would be too overpowering. I think you get an attractive look by mixing sapele pommele with a solid wood accent."

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.

Sapele grows in East, Central and West Africa. Its growth range includes the Ivory Coast to the Cameroons to Zaire, Uganda and Tanzania. Color varies from a medium to dark red to purple brown but Stem says his customers prefer a red-brown hue.

In the past, the wood has been marketed as sapele mahogany in some markets, according to Constantine. "Sometimes it is mistaken for African mahogany and used as such; however, it is harder and heavier, weighing from 35 to 40 pounds per cubic foot, and the stripe is much more pronounced." Constantine writes that sapele is superior to both African and American mahogany in strength. He compares its strength to American oak.

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.


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