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Sapele lumber with finish

Sapele is a versatile and beautiful wood that can take many kinds of finish. Here it’s shown, top to bottom: raw, dyed & stained, clear sealer/lacquer, and Danish oil with lacquer

It’s easy to love sapele lumber, especially for furniture and cabinetry. The wood is well-mannered when it comes to machining and working it with hand tools, making it a pleasure to use in woodworking projects. But it’s also downright beautiful with flowing ribbons of stripy figure trailing from end to end of the boards. Plus, the boards tend to be big, and utterly consistent.

Somewhat like mahogany in appearance – both the color and grain can make it tough to tell a difference – but it’s a bit harder and has more golden bronze color than mahogany. And sapele is best when it’s quarter sawn because of the ribbon grain that appears.

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So how do you make the ribbon stripe figure look its best? There are a few ways, and in the video above we show you three pretty good methods.

  1. A simple clear finish of SealCoat and spray lacquer.
  2. A coloring method using light dye, some sealer, a quick stain, then also spray lacquer
  3. A natural Danish oil also topped off with spray lacquer

Each method gives a different look, but as far as making the ribbons jump out the most, I think it’s with the Danish oil and lacquer.

Check out the video, and decide what’s best for you. Read more about these finishing processes below.



Finishing Method #1: Clear Sealer and Lacquer

clear finish on sapele

One of our favorite sealers around here is Zinsser SealCoat. It’s a dewaxed shellac that’s crystal clear. The reasons for this sealer are varied, but the best of SealCoat is that it’s a universal sealer. Any protective topcoat can go on top of it, solvent based or water based. SealCoat in particular dries exceptionally fast, which means you can sand it as quick as 10 minutes after applying it, working up 3 or 4 coats between pulling in the driveway after work and sitting down for dinner. SealCoat also sands smooth with just a couple of easy strokes, and the combination of quick-drying and fast-sanding helps you get to a baby-bottom smooth surface rather quickly. In turn, your varnish or lacquer finish that you apply on top of SealCoat has a much easier time going on smoothly. Using sealer helps you achieve a glassy finish with the least amount of elbow grease as possible. To do a simple clear or natural finish on sapele, you’ll be well served to do 3 coats of SealCoat first, sand between each coat, then shoot the final 3 coats with lacquer. You’ll get a beautiful and natural finish.

Finishing Method #2: Dye, Sealer, Stain, Lacquer

sapele with dye and stain

To add color to sapele with a stain, you don’t want to apply an oil pigment stain straight to the raw wood. The stain will actually reduce the shimmer in the ribbon figure, making it dull because it mainly stays on top of the wood. Instead, if you want to color the wood, use this simple process. Using an amber colored dye, thin it to about 20% dye and apply a coat. Once that dries, apply a washcoat of dewaxed shellac. A washcoat is a very thin application of sealer, in this example we thinned the sealer by 25% (1:4 ratio of denatured alcohol to SealCoat). Once the sealer has dried, use an oil stain, the shade you choose depends on the result you’re after. This sample, above, has Zar Merlot #140. Simply wipe the stain on, then wipe it off. Once the stain dries in 12 hours or so, you can then apply a protective top coat. In this case, it’s spray lacquer. But polyurethane or another varnish will work too.

Finishing Method #3: Danish Oil, Lacquer

Danish oil on Sapele

Oil finishes like Danish oil or boiled linseed oil frequently intensify the beauty in certain woods yet offer very little protection from scratches, drink rings, and other hazards around the house. Fortunately, you can apply any good, hard finish on top of these oils once they’re dry—getting the best of both worlds, beauty and protection. That’s certainly the case with ribbon stripe sapele, too. You can see how intense the contrast gets with this recipe. It’s simple to pull it off. Prepare your wood surface as you normally would by sanding to 220 grit or so, then apply the Danish oil just as it says to do on the can. Wipe it onto the surface, wait 30 minutes then wipe off the oil. Unfortunately sapele is a wood that will soak it up unevenly and send little dots and eyes of oil rising back to the wood’s surface if you apply it too heavy. But it’s not a deal-breaker. You’ll just need to keep your eye on it for a couple of hours and wipe off the dots of oil before they have a chance to dry. Once the oil dries, usually after 8 hours, apply a couple of coats of sanding sealer, level them with fine grit sand paper or finishing pads to get to a smooth surface, then spray 2 or 3 coats of lacquer. The results are stunning.


  • Daniel Haberman

    I tried this using danish oil, and i’m getting a color closer to just clear shellac rather than the coloring you have in option 3…any advice on this? i’d love to get it darker like you show here…

    • It should eventually get there with a little age, but also test the appearance in different angles of light.
      It turns out that different brands will have a different effect, and I discovered this about a month ago by using Watco brand of Danish oil. The Deft brand of Danish oil (which was used in the sample here) was purchased a couple of years ago and shut down. What ever it was that made the Deft natural Danish oil give such a dark color to sapele might be lost to history now. The only advice I have is to let the wood darken on its own.

  • Joe Garcia

    Mark, thank you for this video and the one on finishing mahogany. We are making a table top using sapele and we are finding it to be quite porous. Would you suggest using watered down Timbermate wood filler first? Then moving on with one of the three steps listed above? Thanks for your help.

  • Isadore Chavez

    I took 3 pictures. One of table top with the oak. two side shots of an area still being stripped. They show 3 items: stained side, partial stripped with stain off and base coat as a cream color, and then the porous soft wood. Hopefully you can enlarge view to see edge detail. Thx Izzz…

  • Isadore Chavez

    I am finishing a dining table that has an Oak strip inlay, but when I stripping the border the manufacture painted the border with white paint and stained red over top. I am wondering what to use to keep border the Red stain color. I am afraid the softer wood will turn black as it absorbs the stain

  • Brian

    What’s the best finish to aply on purple heart and sapele. I would prefer to use the same on both woods.

    • Hard to say without knowing more, like what kind of project and what you want to have happen to the color in the purple heart, and so forth. To take a stab at it, if you want to “lock” the natural color as it is now you could very well apply dewaxed shellac, then top coat with a water based acrylic finish. Not a bad method for some projects. But not a terribly suitable choice for certain projects like a table top that will get a lot of use.
      Anyway, what’s the project?

  • Bill


    • Pam

      Hey Bill,
      How did the finish turn out? I am doing a picture frame using sapele also. I’m looking for the darkest brown finish I can get.

  • Bill

    Picture frame. Thinking of the danish oil followed by dewed shellac then clear CAB lacquer from Sherwin Williams. Same recipe as the stapele

  • Bill


  • Bill

    Love the simplicity of the Danish oil finish. Tried waterloo as well. I like the danish oil better. Any suggestions for finish on KOA?

    • Danish oil uses linseed oil in the recipe, whereas Waterlox uses tung oil. Linseed oil has a warmer amber color, which might help explain why you liked one more than the other. That’s about the only difference in appearance. With that, either would like nice on koa, that’s for sure. What kind of a project?

  • Yitzchok

    Wow the Danish oil really intensifies the beauty. I’m making key chains out off padauk and purple heart. Do you have a quick finish to recommend. If you don’t mind here it is https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1578594008/the-wood-chip-a-display-of-natures-beauty

    • A quick finish would be simple spray lacquer because it dries so quickly. Sadly, any finish will chip and scratch if it’s used on key chains, though. Be aware of that. You could also entertain using Danish oil, tung oil or boiled linseed oil. They’ll darken the padauk and purple heart substantially, but then again they don’t form a clear film on top of the wood that would get scratched as significantly as the lacquer. Oils are not as quick to dry, though. You’ll have to balance your pros and cons for sure!

  • RI

    First time visit to woodworkerssource won’t be last. The 3 ways to finish sapele demonstated just how dramatic an effect the finish you choose can have. Very interesting info piece and wow!!! on the visuals.