Top Three Exotic Hardwoods From Africa

At J. Gibson McIlvain, we import many tropical lumber species, many of which come from Africa. We are serious about quality, though, so before we form a relationship with a new source, our highly trained experts visit the lumber mill personally. During those initial visits, we check for sustainability efforts, continuous supply, and premium quality. We also complete thorough research to ensure legal and responsible harvesting and check the paper trail to help guarantee an untainted supply chain. By exercising this kind of caution before we form relationships, we are able to promise our customers that the African lumber they purchase from J. Gibson McIlvain is absolutely the best wood that Africa has to offer. In addition to Ipe, currently our top African seller, we also carry a wide assortment of Sapele, African Mahogany, and Utile.


Sapele is in the same genus as Utile and the same family as Mahogany. This African beauty has a unique appearance, consisting of interlocking grain patterns that give the appearance of light and dark ribbon stripes weaving throughout the board. Usually quartersawn to highlight its attractive grain patterns, Sapele is commonly used for plywood veneer. Also often used for doors, this stable species works well for many exterior applications.

Because of Sapele’s consistent appearance, flatsawn Sapele takes moulded edging well; at the same time, quartersawn Sapele boasts increased stability. On the soft side for a hardwood, Sapele is gentle on tools, a characteristic that most woodworkers find quite positive. The fine dust that Sapele produces, though, can sometimes cause skin irritation and respiratory problems if proper precautions are not taken. Harder than Mahogany, Sapele tends to cost approximately half the price of Genuine Mahogany and less than Utile (a lumber that will be discussed below).

African Mahogany

Often compared to Genuine Mahogany from South America, African Mahogany is truly part of the Mahogany, or Khaya, family. The coloring is similar to the South American variety, a pale reddish brown,and the straight, interlocking grain and hardness of this lumber make it attractive on several levels. The variegated dark and light bands of color makes for an uncommon beauty, and the highest quality specimens machine and finish beautifully.

Well-suited to exterior applications, African Mahogany is commonly used for doors and windows and takes stain and paint quite well. Similar in stability to Genuine Mahogany, African Mahogany is much less expensive but similarly impressive.


Also referred to as “Sipo,” Utile is another African hardwood species often used as an alternative to Genuine Mahogany. Even more similar to the South American species than African Mahogany, Utile’s interlocking grain gives it the highly coveted appearance of tropical hardwood. Even though its light and dark bands lack the intense contrast of African Mahogany, Utile is easier to work with and has less of a tendency for tearout, making it preferable in many circles. With a hardness between that of African and Genuine Mahogany, Utile is increasingly plentiful due to responsible forestry practices.

The wide variability in terms of quality means that lumber mills must be careful when sourcing Utile, though, and because of this, J. Gibson McIlvain has spent much time carefully researching the import regions and lumber mills most likely to produce the best examples of Utile. Exterior uses, cabinetry, and millwork are common end uses for this prized tropical hardwood species.

One of the nation’s oldest and most reputable lumber importers and wholesalers, McIlvain Company is your go-t0 supplier for high quality hardwoods, softwoods, plywoods, millwork, and more. For over 200 years, McIlvain has been supplying some of the most discerning customers in America with the lumber they need for their projects, both large and small. And with McIlvain’s extensive inventory, nationwide shipping, and unmatched expertise, it’s no wonder they’re one of the nation’s top suppliers of high quality lumber. For more information on what makes McIlvain an industry leader or to request a free quote on your order, click here to visit our website. And for insider tips and woodworking tricks, check out these selections from our lumber blog:

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