A Tale of Two Mahogany Alternatives

Stacks of Sapele lumber

Stacks of Sapele lumber

A traditional favorite used in furniture and high-end millwork, Mahogany has a rich history spanning hundreds of years. Sadly, its rising price point has made this species less accessible for many woodworkers. As regulation of Mahogany has increased, the supply chain has added additional cost, leaving many once-devout Mahogany fans with more questions than answers.

Here at J. Gibson McIlvain lumber company, we’ve dedicated much research and effort to helping one-time Mahogany customers find an alternative that makes sense for them, and that alternative can be found amid the African hardwoods.

The Top Contender: Sapele

As part of the African Mahogany family, Sapele has risen to the top as the most popular alternative to Genuine, or South American, Mahogany. As a large, stable tree that’s even more dense than Genuine Mahogany, the Sapele tree produces many large boards in a variety of thicknesses. Sapele is harder than Genuine Mahogany, and its interlocking grain pattern combines with that increased hardness to make it difficult to work. Tear out is common, and milling must be very cautiously done.

Quartersawn Sapele produces a striking ribbon stripe that has helped Sapele to establish a market all its own, apart from its original purpose as a Mahogany alternative. That new market is causing an increased demand, along with higher prices, though. While it’s the most expensive of the African Mahoganies, Sapele still costs less than 70% of what Genuine Mahogany does.

Flat sawn Utile (left) and quartersawn Utile (right)

Flat sawn Utile (left) and quartersawn Utile (right)

The Unknown Underdog: Utile

Utile, we believe, is actually the closest match to Genuine Mahogany, yet it’s still relatively unknown to the public. Also referred to as Sipo, this species is in the same genus as Sapele. Utile lacks the highly interlocked grain of Sapele, making it easier to work without tearout. It is lighter than Sapele and only slightly heavier than Genuine Mahogany, making it a closer match to that highly sought-after species.

Quartersawn Utile does display a more mellow version of the ribbon stripe of Sapele, but its flatsawn appearance is nearly identical to that of Genuine Mahogany. This species does include some darker medullary rays that can help experts distinguish it from Genuine Mahogany; those darker lines also provide greater visual interest that many appreciate.

Like the Sapele tree, the Utile tree is quite large, allowing careful mills to produce 12/4 and thicker boards exceeding widths of 10 to 12 inches. With a lower density than Sapele, Utile has greater stability. Since it’s sold in packs including only Utile (instead of a menagerie of African Mahoganies), it’s essentially more consistent than Sapele. Typically available at a price that’s half that of Genuine Mahogany and without a market of its own threatening to cause prices to rise, Utile is an excellent alternative to Genuine Mahogany which we recommend highly to our customers.

McIlvain lumberyard

McIlvain lumberyard

J. Gibson McIlvain Company

Since 1798, when Hugh McIlvain established a lumber business near Philadelphia, the McIlvain family has been immersed in the premium import and domestic lumber industry. With its headquarters located just outside of Baltimore, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company (www.mcilvain.com) is one of the largest U.S. importers of exotic woods.

As an active supporter of sustainable lumber practices, the J. Gibson McIlvain Company has provided fine lumber for notable projects throughout the world, including the White House, Capitol building, Supreme Court, and the Smithsonian museums.

Contact a representative at J. Gibson McIlvain today by calling (800) 638-9100.

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