Identifying, classifying, and naming native American hardwoods becomes child's play compared to the complexity involving what many of us refer to as Philippine mahogany. You see, in the world timber trade, the wood of many species with similar characteristics can sometimes be lumped together and sold under one name. That's the story behind Philippine mahogany. The Philippine Islands, as well as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, produce a great variety of hardwoods. But the most volume comes from a group of tree species known commercially as Philippine mahogany, due to the appearance of their lumber and the fact that the word mahogany is widely recognized. However, none of these species belong to the family Meliaceae that includes the New World mahoganies of the Swietenia genus, such as Honduras mahogany. Generally, the trees that supply the timber for Philippine mahogany lumber and plywood belong to the huge plant family called Dipterocarpaceae. And in that family, the Shorea species has five distinct, commercially important trees named meranti.
In the Philippines, as well as elsewhere in their range, Shorea trees might be called red or white lauan, tangile, almon, as well as the descriptive "dark-red meranti" or "light-red meranti." But it is meranti (Shorea spp.) that makes up the greatest proportion of timber that's sold as Philippine mahogany. (Note: In botanical science, the letters spp. after the genus name means that several species in that genus share similar appearance and characteristics, e.g. Shorea spp.) Meranti traditionally grows in well-drained soils at low altitudes. In ideal conditions, a meranti tree can reach a 200' height and a trunk diameter of 6'. A lumberman's dream, it will also be branch free for 90'. The bases of some trees feature the vanelike supports called buttresses. Light-red and dark-red meranti produce medium-to-coarse textured wood that ranges in color from pale pink to brown and reddish-brown. The grain may be slightly interlocked. At about 36 pounds per cubic foot air-dry, meranti is heavier than Honduras mahogany. However, it is not nearly as hard nor as strong, and lacks the durability and stability of a true mahogany. And you may find brittleness in some boards.
Uses in woodworking
Meranti represents a wood of world-wide commercial importance. As veneer, much of it becomes plywood, plywood paneling, cabinets, and hollow-core doors. In lumber form, meranti is worked into light structural framing, moldings and trim, and low-cost furniture. Meranti has little durability in outdoor projects.
Home centers and lumber retailers widely stock meranti plywood in a variety of thicknesses. Already milled, it is available as moldings and other interior trim parts. As lumber, you can buy select and better meranti (sold as Philippine mahogany) in up to 2" thickness for about $2.50 per board foot. Veneer should cost about 25 cents per square foot. If you have ever machined genuine mahogany, which has been called the wood by which all other woods are measured, meranti will let you down. However, it does not possess any characteristics that could become particularly irritating. Follow these tips for woodworking success.
- Medium-to-coarse-grained meranti rips easily, but unless you use a smooth-cutting planer blade, expect to find a rather rough sawn edge of tiny fibers that require sanding to remove.
- Plane meranti to thickness by taking shallow cuts to avoid chipping and tearing.
- Not as hard as mahogany, and a bit brittle, meranti tends to easily tear out or splinter in jointing. But unlike some types of pine and fir that yield long splinters, those of meranti tend to be short.
- Crosscutting with either hand or power tools requires a fence or backing board on the exit side to prevent splintering, known as tearout. This also applies to routing across the grain. Always use sharp bits and blades for the least amount of aggravation.
- On the scrollsaw or with a jigsaw, avoid ragged cuts by sawing with a fine-toothed blade.
- Meranti, unlike some tropical woods (teak, for instance), does not contain extractives or traces of silica, so all types of woodworking glues work well.
- Screws (predrill for these) and nails hold well in meranti.
- Although this tropical wood accepts all types of stains and finishes, you should fill its open grain to obtain the smoothest, most attractive surface. Meranti holds paint well, too, but either fill first or use a good primer coat over its open grain.
- Makers of classical furniture loved genuine mahogany because it could be carved in intricate detail. Not so with meranti. Chipping, occasional brittleness, and its open grain defeat attempts at fine detail that you might want to create.
- To avoid chipping, power carvers should use the less aggressive bits when working meranti.
- Round down meranti with a 3⁄4 " gouge and a lathe speed no faster than 1,000 rpm to reduce chipping the wood.
- The open grain of meranti tends to collect finishing material if you apply it while the wood is spinning. The result is a wrinkled surface. You'll have better luck turning off the lathe to finish.
Any exceptions-and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species-appear under other headings on this page.
- For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 1⁄32 ".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscuts require at least a 40-tooth saw blade.
- Avoid using twist drills. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece to reduce wood tearout.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning the wood.
- Carving hardwoods means fairly shallow gouge bevels-15° to 20°-and shallow cuts.