Spring Outdoor Projects: Introducing Sapele Lumber

Photo by Wood Workers Source

Tougher than Expected

Most homeowners, woodworkers and tradespeople are used to standard products when doing exterior grade products: treated pine is usually the foremost, followed by southern yellow pine, followed by more specialized products usually used by professionals, such as torrified (thermally modified) pine, pvc, boral/fly-ash, and so on. 

However, there is another option rarely taken advantage of by the standard consumer: hardwoods. Specifically, sapele mahogany. 

An African hardwood tree, sapele is known for wide, long, and straight trunks. The yield of boards is typically quite large, with exceptionally straight and clear grain. The material is also much harder than its counterparts western red cedar and treated yellow pine. The hardness of a lumber is measured using the Janka Hardness Scale, a specific rating measure given in pounds force (lbf). The objective number is not usually the most helpful component - instead, it is usually much more helpful to use the number in comparison, particularly woods with similar application. For instance, the Janka Hardness of western red cedar is about 350 lbf (WoodDatabase.com). Compare this against woods such as southern/longleaf yellow pine, with a hardness of 870 lbf, or white oak, with a substantial hardness of 1,350 lbf. Sapele however, weighs in at a whopping 1,410 lbf. This puts its hardness right above white oak, by comparison. That's an incredible difference in durability!

Exterior Longevity

Extremely resistant to rot, weather, and insect damage, sapele can easily last a lifetime with appropriate care and maintenance. For instance, a sapele Adirondack chair will last far longer and look much better even than its uncared-for counterpart if the bottoms of the feet are coated with durable epoxy and if the exterior grade clear finish is reapplied when necessary. With minimal effort, outdoor furniture and fixtures can remain beautiful for many, many years. 

There is an incredible range of uses for material such as sapele - exterior and interior. Of course, we have already seen how well sapele performs outside. However, it is also an exceptional wood for other interior work as well. Flooring, cabinetry, furniture. and small woodworking projects frequently use high quality hardwoods, including the more decorative forms of sapele such as quarter-sawn ribbon cut or pommele cut sapele. 

Sustainably Harvested; An Alternative to Genuine Mahogany

The value of genuine mahogany is quite widely recognized - what may not be as widely recognized is the strict management of the material, under restrictions such as the Lacey Act, which is the United States' law which governs the import and export of natural resources such as wildlife and timber. Rigid harvest and export guidelines, coupled with local tensions in many African areas where the lumber is obtained, make the supply short and prices high. However, sapele is much more easily grown, easily harvested, and yields far greater quantities of excellent lumber per bole. 

So this spring or summer, as you are looking outside and thinking about making that new picnic table, or deck, or Adirondack chair, take a moment to consider using sapele instead of the lesser options. Instead of a product which may survive a decade or so, you'll have a product which will, with love and care, be passed down to other family members in the years to come. 

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