Working with Sapelle

Notes on the workability and machinability of this exotic tropical hardwood. January 8, 2007

I am looking for info on the workability of Sapelle. How is it when you cut it? Does it stay pretty straight or does it wander and twist? Also, how hard is it? I heard you need to pre-drill or it tends to split.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor T:
We recently produced a fairly large kitchen from Sapelle. There were no issues at all related to warp or twist. I was nervous about this myself because we had this problem on a similar project in African mahogany. One of the differences was in how we cut out the lumber. We used to rip all our staves down with a table saw, but now do this on a band saw. For some reason, boards ripped on the band saw tend to stay straighter. I heard this has to do with the differences in how much heat is imparted to the lumber if you cut with a band saw vs. a table saw. This heat is also being imparted right at the same time you are changing the tension of the board while cutting it. Have you ever noticed the black burn marks that show up whenever you pause while ripping with a table saw? What you have essentially done here is catch the wood on fire.

Each tooth of a bandsaw blade has an opportunity to cool down before it strikes again. Additionally, this cutting action is occurring against the grain, not with the grain. There is less tendency for the wood fibers to bind up on the blade and heat up. This is all anecdotal analysis. I have no science to back up this claim. I just know that the boards we cut on a bandsaw tend to stay straighter than those we cut on a table saw.

I would guess that the guys who rip with a straight line rip saw do not have this heat dissipation problem. The wood is probably passing through the blade so fast that the heat does not have any time to build up. I certainly hope so because I would like to add a straight line saw to the process. Your mileage may vary.

From contributor V:
As well as cabinetry, I also specialize in custom wine cellars. The most recent is in the works as we speak and I'm using Sapelle. It seems that African and Honduran have gone through the roof price wise and my mill recommended Sapelle as an alternative. This week I'm making 2, 1 3/4" interior doors in a custom design using 8/4 stock. I'll know right away if I'm going to have trouble. The extra from this lot I'll rip down to 3/4" square pieces as an experiment to see how it reacts in a rip. If I have little trouble, all of the racking and the framework for the glass front will be made of the same.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:

Sapelle is a good wood. Its hardness means that gluing and machining must be adjusted in accordance. Pre-drilling is always a good idea with denser woods.

From contributor C:
We use a lot of Sapele here in the Tampa Bay area. Local suppliers carry 1/4" ply in flat sawn and ribbon stripped. Also 3/4 A-1 plain sliced ply. 4/4 and 8/4 FAS rough solid stock. I have only ever used kiln dried stock and the kerf is usually 1/8" for about five feet past the blade. If the wood goes wild, I usually suspect the grade of lumber and then the drying and storage.

From contributor V:
This afternoon I started milling down that Sapelle. Let me tell you - this stuff is great to work with. It has some of the same working properties as Spanish cedar does, not nearly as hard as Honduran or African. I'm working with 8/4 right now to create two rustic interior doors for this wine cellar project. The grain on at least one piece does spiral out of control and I hesitated to rip it, but I did. Planed it true on one edge, then sent it through the table saw! Didn't crown or bind back at all. This stuff planes out real nice with little or no pick out, too. I don't think you'll have any trouble working with it on your project. First time for me using it and I'll use it now for the rest of this project, which includes a full glass front, framed in Sapelle, and then all the wine racking for the cellar. I'll keep you posted as the project progresses.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. It looks like it'll be nice to mill.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Some details about sapele. It is in the mahogany family. In fact, some other names include scented mahogany and sapele mahogany. (It has a cedar-like odor.) It is in the same strength class as the oaks. If you get interlocked grain, it will distort in drying and also if the MC in use changes much. Dry it right and there will not be any issues. Powderpost beetles can get in the sapwood, so follow safe storage procedures. Because of the interlocked grain, it is possible to get chipped grain in small areas, especially if over-dried and/or taking large cuts (deep or fast), when planing and molding. Otherwise, it is an excellent wood for machining. Pre-drilling of holes for fasteners located near the ends of pieces can eliminate splitting.

From the original questioner:
Just started milling it. It seems to work nice. Most of the pieces are running through without distorting, 85% would be my guess. The rest have a slight distortion. Nothing like the African Mahogany I was using, which is just the opposite - 85% going wacko, 15% more or less stable. The sample I had gotten from one place didn't really have any ribboning in it, while this stuff I am using has a heavy ribbon. When I rip it, the edge looks like it has no ribboning. If I got it in a quarter-sawn, would I get less ribboning?