Some of the finest and most beautiful pieces of furniture are made from mahogany. Known for it’s unique pink coloring that ages to a deep reddish-brown, mahogany is a wood species prized by woodworkers for its strength, attractive and generally straight grain pattern, as well as its durability and rot resistance. Although somewhat light and rather soft, it is an easily workable wood that is very stable (does not typically shrink or warp). It also stains very well, can be finished to an excellent sheen, and will polish to a fine luster.
While mahogany’s primary use is in the fine furniture trade, it finds use in a lot of other situations as well. It is a solid choice for boat building. Many people use mahogany as flooring. If treated regularly to prevent parasites and fungus, it makes great outdoor furniture. Mahogany makes great pianos, guitars, drums, or other musical instruments. It is a solid choice for cabinets, trim, molding, decorative veneer, and/or turning/carving.
Spanish explorers to the West Indies discovered a wonderful red-brown timber that they called “caoba.” This Cuban, Caribbean or Santo Domingo mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) was a dense, dark variety that first excited European furniture makers hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, there is little left of this species today, so this type of mahogany wood is pretty rare.
Today, “true” mahogany typically refers to Big-leaf Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), found primarily in South American forests and also commonly referred to as Broad-leaved Mahogany, Brazilian Mahogany, Honduras Mahogany, Large-leaved Mahogany, Genuine Mahogany, Sky Fruit, and Tropical American Mahogany, among others. During the twentieth century Brazil became the primary source. Most current mahogany stock comes from Peru or Central America. While still available, heavy logging of this valuable tree has resulted in efforts to encourage more responsible logging practices. The Dutch introduced Big-leaf Mahogany to Indonesia about a hundred years ago. It is now grown on plantations in Indonesia and Fiji.
Big-leaf Mahogany is an enormous canopy tree in the tropical rainforest, reaching heights over 150 feet and having trunks that may be more than 6 feet in diameter. These large trees enable the production of large and continuous boards that enable furniture makers to minimize the number of joints and seams required in their works. Freshly cut logs have bright pink heartwood and colorless sapwood. Exposure to sunlight will rapidly darken the heartwood to a rich coppery-red shade.
Pacific Coast Mahogany (Swietenia humilis) is a dwarf version of the “true mahogany” varieties. These trees are found naturally in the dryer zones of the western Sierra Madre mountain range from Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador and typically grow to heights of only about 20 feet. The lumber from these trees is often labelled Honduras Mahogany or Mexican Mahogany.
Venezuelan Mahogany (Swietenia candollei) is a related species, but is not very common. Common mahogany alternatives include Khaya (pronounced Kigh-yah), Sapele (pronounced Sah-pee-lee), and Lauan (pronounced Loo-ahn).
Khaya (also called African Mahogany) is, today, the most widely used “mahogany” wood. It is not related to South American Mahogany but has a similar look. It is a little more brittle, but still has acceptable working properties. Because supplies are abundant, though, it is cheaper and easier to obtain.
Sapele (also known as sapelli or aboudikro) is a much larger African tree that some experts believe will become the African Mahogany of the future. It’s a little denser, making it easier to work with. It also has a more consistent color.
Lauan, a wood from the collection known as Philippine Mahogany, is not a true mahogany. It comes from the Far East and is a much softer and lighter wood than American Mahogany and has a tendency to splinter. Its texture and grain are not a typical fine furniture choice. It is inexpensive and plentiful, however, making it a common material for plywood, trim, moldings, and commercial furniture.
Genuine mahogany is an important resource that should be harvested in a way that ensures its continued availability and use. A wide variety of similar and complementary wood products enable wider distribution, at more affordable prices, of materials that exhibit qualities similar to those of highly prized “true mahogany.” This will hopefully enable us to continue to experience the unique beauty and durability of mahogany products.