Easily one of the most popular hardwoods in our inventory in the last year has been Sapele. Each day we get requests for quotes and the Sapele species page on this site is one of the most clicked on. In my opinion all of this attention is justified as Sapele is an outstanding African species that is only gaining in popularity because of it’s ease of use in so many applications. Sapele has long been a known entity by the windows, doors, and siding manufacturers. The more customers we expose to this wonderful hardwood, the more people who are blown away and start requesting it regularly. This article is an attempt to highlight some of the pluses of using Sapele and in many cases introduce it to the builder or contractor that may have only heard of it.
What is Sapele Wood?
Sapele is a large hardwood tree naturally that has a widespread growth range across Africa. It is common for the trunk to exceed 6 feet in diameter and it has a very straight trunk with little to no branching below 80 feet. This yields very straight grained, wide and long lumber in great abundance per log. With such a large resource to harvest from, it remains easy to get large amounts of Sapele throughout the year. This availability will keep costs down as well as make it a species you can consistently rely on getting for your projects.
Mahogany Sapele is Highly Stable Lumber
One of the most common questions we hear, “is Sapele a hardwood or softwood?” Usually this is because Sapele is known as an exterior wood and so many good exterior woods are also softwoods. The funny thing is that the botanical definition of hardwood and softwood has nothing to do with how hard the wood actually is; but rather it denotes the structure of the tree and in general whether or not it loses its leaves. Sapele is technically a hardwood or a deciduous tree. But to answer to more common question it is also a quite hard wood when you compare it to the typical North American species, and much harder than much of the typical exterior woods like Cedar and Cypress. Sapele wood is of medium hardness with a Janka rating of 1510 lbs making is harder than most domestic North American Species and almost twice as hard as Genuine Mahogany. Additionally Sapele grows with an interlocking grain pattern where the fibers twist around the tree as they grow. While the grain pattern is still moving in the same direction, the interlocking pattern acts to cancel out a lot of movement that is typically found across the grain. This hardness and medium density as well as propensity for straight grained boles (central trunk of the tree) makes Sapele wood very stable and thus predictable from the moment it is felled to when it is pulled from a drying kiln.
This lumber travels a long distance and much can happen to the wood from shipping damage to climate change induced movement. The natural superior stability means that there is much less waste over this journey as well as reliability once the wood is installed in it’s final project.
Sapele vs Mahogany
Sapele lumber is often marketed as a type of African Mahogany. In some ways this is true since Sapele is in the Mahogany family, Meliceae. The issue here is there are many species that get lumped under the African Mahogany moniker. “Mahogany” tends to get thrown onto all kinds of things to make them more luxurious or expensive so Mahogany Sapele and Sapele Mahogany are names that show up quite a bit in trade manifests and architectural specifications. This is a disservice to the average buyer however because when you look at Sapele vs Mahogany (the genuine, South American stuff) there is really no comparison. Sapele is quite a bit denser and nearly twice as hard. Not all of the Mahogany labelled species behave as well and they vary dramatically in density, color, and stability. However, the comparison to Mahogany as an outstanding exterior grade wood that has a rich reddish-brown heartwood holds true. Sapele is most often used as a window and door material because it is so stable and almost completely rot and weather resistant. The grain and pore structure is tighter than Genuine Mahogany so Sapele also serves as a great substrate for painted surfaces. When quarter sawn, the interlocking grain pattern aligns to form beautiful ribbon striping that is often seen in door panels and plywood veneer. The quarter sawn Sapele is even more stable as well as stunning in appearance and that makes for a pretty attractive product.
Sapele Mahogany is Highly Sustainable and Verifiable
Unfortunately like many lumber species that get “discovered” and become popular, over harvesting can be a problem. Much of Western Africa ran into this problem and Sapele is still recovering. Due to greater awareness and strict controls, the species is recovering nicely. Sierra Leone has created plantations as has Cote d’Ivoire. The Congo is one of the greatest producers of Sapele and while the area is in political turmoil as of late, the logging companies have embraced strict regulation and verification schemes like TLTV and VLO. We buy all of our Sapele from TLTV stock giving us document-able and verifiable chains of evidence showing the tree was responsibly harvested from a sustainable area. This certainly gives our customers peace of mind when it comes to legislation like the Lacey Act, but the level of detail also ensures that the buyer knows what they are getting. African Mahoganies are often lumped together so many species can be present in a single shipment. Without careful buying and documentation, one could be getting several species that won’t necessarily perform as well as Sapele.
Sapele is definitely the cream of the African Mahogany like hardwoods in performance, stability, and appearance. We feel certain that the popularity will continue to grow as other industries begin to recognize it’s potential. We are so certain in fact that at any given moment you will find 400-600,000 board feet in stock on our yard with a constant stream of inbound stock to be carefully dried by us and prepared for sale in North America. Whether you buy Sapele lumber from J. Gibson McIlvain or another supplier, pay close attention to the provenance documentation to ensure that you are in fact getting Sapele as compared to another similar species. It might surprise you how often this is overlooked. More importantly, the legality and sustainability documentation is included to show where the tree came from. Sapele is a valuable resource and it is imperative we continue to treat it as such so this highly popular species won’t become difficult to obtain thus sparking questionable harvesting practices. Always buy Sapele wood from a dealer that understands the provenance as well as how to properly dry and mill it. This attention to detail will keep the good suppliers, importers, and sawyers in business and only serve to close the market on those that abuse the resource.