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Spotlight On Sapele

A shimmery mahogany substitute

Ken Burton

Since the days of Thomas Chippen-dale, woodworkers have enjoyed a love affair with mahogany. Sadly, over the course of two centuries, genuine mahogany (Swietnia macrophylla) has been listed as an endangered species. As a result, this Cadillac of cabinet woods has become extremely difficult to find and prohibitively expensive. In response, lumber dealers have relabeled several sustainable substitute species as “mahogany.” Of the bunch, sapele—pronounced sah-PELL-ay—(Entandrophragma cylindricium) stands out from the rest.

Although a member of a different species, sapele (a.k.a. sapelli or sapeli) has a similar reddish-orange color as mahogany. When quarter sawn, sapele boards exhibit a uniform ribbon pattern that shimmers in the light. In flat sawn boards, this squirrel grain makes for wild swirls and surfaces that shift color depending on how the light strikes. This beautiful pattern occurs because sapele’s grain is “rowed” or interlocked, which can make planing and shaping tricky. Despite some challenges, sapele’s color and lively grain make this wood worth the effort it takes to tame. Read on to learn how to select the best boards and make the most of them.

Where the wood comes from

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June-July 2017