August 14, 2011 | 5:36 pm CDT

Wood of the Month:
The Fascinating Tale of Mahogany

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Swietenia macrophylla of the Family Meliaceae

Bigleaf mahogany, American mahogany, Cuban mahogany, British Honduras mahogany, (etc. by country of origin) mahogany, caoba, sopilote gateado, araputanga, aguano, acajou, and mogno.

Trees can grow as tall as 150 feet with 6-foot diameters above heavy buttresses and boles clear to 60 feet or more. Weight averages from 34 to 40 pounds per cubic foot.

Wood can be air-seasoned or kiln-dried easily. USDA Forest Service recommends a kiln schedule of T6-D4 for 4/4 stock and T3-D3 for 8/4 stock. Movement in service is small. The wood is considered easy to work with by hand and machine tools, although figured material can pose problems. Easily finished, the wood takes an excellent polish and has a natural high luster.

Mahogany's story is a fascinating one. Mahogany was one of the treasures of the new world which was exploited to the point of extinction in many areas. Cuban mahogany, which is also called baywood and Havana wood (Swietenia mahogani), is widely considered the top mahogany, but over-harvesting wiped out what was considered to be Cuba's finest natural resource. The logging practices were so mismanaged in Cuba and in other parts of Central and South America that experts point to them as examples of what not to do.

One of the reasons for much of the harvesting has to do with mahogany's importance as a cabinet wood, an importance which goes back several centuries. According to the authors of The Encyclopedia of Wood, "The first description of the qualities of mahogany came as early as 1595, from the carpenter on Sir Walter Raleigh's ship during an exploratory voyage to South America. The Spaniards began to use it regularly for ship repairs from the early 17th century."

True mahogany is also commonly called New World, genuine and American mahogany dating to the time it was first cut and exported around the world. "The first recorded purchase in England of 'Jamaica' wood for domestic purposes appears in the accounts for Hampton Court Palace in 1661, and the first recorded piece of furniture in Great Britain, a butcher's chair now in Trinity Hall Museum in Aberdeen, dates from the same year," write the authors. Mahogany's use escalated in 1721 when the English Parliament repealed a heavy duty on timber imports from the colonies; the duties were imposed to preserve mahogany supplies for use by the Royal Navy. Mahogany's popularity as a fine furniture wood was further impacted by a shortage of walnut, which was the most popular furniture wood of the era, due to "a devastating frost which wiped out a large proportion of European walnut trees in 1704."

According to Albert Constantine Jr., in the book Know Your Woods, "No one knows when mahogany was first introduced into England, but it was probably long before it became fashionable for furniture, its identity concealed under the non-distinctive name of cedar. In an account of the trees of Bermuda about 1619, the native cedar is described as 'firmer and more durable than any of its kind we are acquainted with and answers in every respect to oak timber.'" Constantine cites other references to "cedar wood," but adds modern evidence "of this wood's hardness and beauty shows that the wood was actually mahogany."

Prized for its Characteristics
From reports of its early uses through today, mahogany offers a host of fine properties - crisp, strong texture, beautiful rich color, fine working qualities and dimensions - that make it suitable for a wide range of uses. Mahogany is a stable and resilient wood that works well in almost all furniture and woodworking applications, with the possible exception of when the wood exhibits an interlocked grain that may tear when worked with hand or machine tools.

Mahogany's color is distinctive. It is typically a bright pink to red when first cut, but this ages to a copper-like reddish brown or a yellowish brown. The color of the wood is affected by the area of origin as well as the density of the wood; denser woods are usually deeper in color.

The grain of the wood tends to be straight and plain, but mahogany logs occasionally yield a variety of very interesting looks, among them rippled, curly, striped, quilted, blistered, roey, wavy, mottled and one of the most famous, fiddleback. Cutting affects the wood's pattern. Flat sawn wood may yield interestingly swirled growth rings while quartered wood shows little in the way of the grain.

South American Mahogany
Today, the most commercially important species of mahogany is Swietenia macrophylla, also known as Bigleaf mahogany, from Central and South America. Its uses include fine furniture and cabinetmaking, fancy veneers, paneling, boat building, caskets, musical instruments, pattern making, turnery and carving. It is valuable in lumber and veneer form, with highly figured logs fetching the highest prices.

Al Matulevich, architectural department manager of the David R. Webb Co., said South American Swietenia tends to be more of an orange brown color and not a deep red hue, although this can vary. He added that his company has seen a greater demand for flat cut mahogany versus quartered or straight grain. According to Matulevich, Swietenia mahogany is reasonably priced "in comparison to other veneer of that quality. People buy Swietenia as opposed to look-alikes or similar woods because, quite simply, they can."

Use of the term "mahogany" for woods that are not considered "genuine" mahoganies is due to the fact that "mahogany" carries certain attributes. "People equate it with certain qualities and properties and that adds to the value and allure of the wood," Matulevich said.


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