Mahogany: Wood of Kings

Cuban Mahogany
Cuban Mahogany

The Cuban king

Mahogany has been synonymous with luxury since English furnituremakers Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton made it their wood of choice in the late 1700s. Its easy workability made it ideal for the hand tools of the day, and perfect for the ornate carvings adorning their high-end furniture. And its rich, pink-tinged tan color that darkened to a deep, lustrous red secured its dominion as the "Wood of Kings."

Those classic cabinetmakers preferred Cuban mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), above, for good reason: It proved superior in nearly all areas that matter to woodworkers. Boatbuilders loved the wide, rot-resistant and dimensionally stable planks. Furniture makers appreciated the tight grain that readily accepted any finish. And the world's consumers loved the rich color. But its popularity proved to be its demise because by the mid-1800s, it had been harvested to commercial extinction. For all intents and purposes, the king is dead.

Modern sources are scarce, limited to salvage operations and centuries-old groves transplanted to South Pacific islands by Spanish missionaries. But because mahogany's old-world mystique lingers, replacements were desperately sought, and marketers quickly advanced alternatives.

Pros: Extremely stable Rot-resistant Easy to carve and shape with hand tools or power tools Stains and finishes easily and beautifully
Cons: Scarce and expensive

The Honduras heir apparent

Honduran mahogany
Honduran mahogany

The logical heir to the mahogany throne was, and is, Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), above. Also in the Swietenia genus, Honduran mahogany, like Cuban, is entitled to the "genuine mahogany" honorific—and not just by family right. Honduran mahogany shares all of the prized characteristics of its cousin, differing in hardness (it's a bit softer), texture (it has slightly larger pores) and color (it's lighter and redder).

Unfortunately, overuse has started Honduran mahogany down the path of scarce supply and export restrictions, too. However, Keith Stephens, owner of hardwood retailer Woodworkers Source (800-423-2450, woodworkerssource.com), says Honduran mahogany has recently seen a glut in supply due to the slumping high-end housing market. "If you want to make something out of genuine mahogany, now is the time to do it," Stephens says. "Prices are as low as they've been for years."

Pros: Extremely stable Rot-resistant Easy to carve and shape with hand tools or power tools
Cons: Sporadic availability

Interlocked grain

A mahogany family trait
A mahogany family trait

The spiraling grain of mahogany switches direction between growing seasons, causing distinctive stripes on quartersawn faces but unpredictability when planing.

Out of Africa: Rival claims to the throne

African mahogany
African mahogany

With its supply and price issues, Honduras mahogany's rule is a shaky one. So, several African upstarts are making a name for themselves as genuine mahogany substitutes. Like the Swietenia varieties, these three woods hail from the Meliaceae family, earning them the regal distinction of "true mahogany" and due consideration as successors.

Khaya ivorensis, above, the species most-often marketed under the African mahogany moniker, has snagged much of the genuine-mahogany replacement market. While its coloring appears similar to genuine mahogany, its working characteristics differ distinctly. Khaya's tendency toward interlocked grain (see illustration, opposite page) manifests itself prominently. For jointing, planing, and hand-tool work, this makes it nearly impossible to read the grain direction.

Pros: Similar in appearance to genuine mahoganies Low cost and wide availability
Cons: Fuzzy, stringy grain Larger pores don't carve or finish as well as genuine mahoganies Interlocking makes the grain difficult to read for jointing and planing

Sapele

Sapele
Sapele

Sapele (suh-PEE-lee), Entandrophragma cylindricum, uses its family tendency toward interlocked grain to display a characteristic ribbon-striped pattern, shown above. Often found in the same African mahogany bin as its cousins, Sapele's dark red tone and dramatic appearance set it apart. Use Sapele to draw attention to the grain in projects, and machine it as you would other figured woods: with shallow cuts, and reduced cutting angles to avoid tear-out.

Pros: Ribbon-striped grain patterns are common Lustrous, three-dimensional appearance
Cons: Prone to tear-out Difficult to match to genuine mahoganies

Sipo

Sipo
Sipo

Sipo (SEE-poh), Entandrophragma utile, above, often sold as utile (YOO-tih-lee), has a more subdued grain pattern than its African counterparts. Because of this, it tends to share the easier workability of its American cousins. Sipo's darker tone makes it a closer match for age-darkened genuine mahogany furniture pieces. This, combined with its lower price, makes Sipo a strong contender as the mahogany substitute of choice, especially for period reproduction work.

Pros: Easy to carve and shape with hand tools or power tools Instant aged mahogany look Low cost
Cons: Less availability than other African varieties

Pretenders to the crown

Mahogany's lofty status has led marketers to slap the label "mahogany" on many nonrelated species.

Philippine mahogany—actually several species of the Shorea genus—is sometimes marketed under the name lauan. The designation is allowed by the Federal Trade Commission due to long-standing usage of the term. The Asian hardwood has found its way into low-cost plywood veneer, door skins, and house trim. But its nickname doesn't mask its lack of stability and rot resistance, nor its coarser texture.

Philipine Mahogany(Lauan)
Philipine Mahogany (Lauan)

Santos Mahogany (Myroxylon balsamum) and Royal Mahogany (Pithecellobium arboreum) have the hardwood flooring industry to thank for their artful appellations. Though prized in that capacity for their hardness, they bear only passing color similarities to the genuine stuff, and closer comparison easily gives them away as impostors.

Santos Mahogany
Santos Mahogany

Royal Mahogany (Barba de Jolote)
Royal Mahogany (Barba de Jolote)

Cuban Mahogany

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