Old-growth Mahogany Discovered

In antique period furniture, mahogany is king. Sure there are areas where walnut was a popular choice among wealthy patrons of the day, but for the most part, prior to the Chippendale period work in and around Philadelphia, mahogany was the wood that woodworkers wanted to work and the “well-to-do” desired. And swietenia macrophylla (Honduran mahogany) was, and is, the best mahogany.

Yes, we can get swietenia macrophylla today, but it’s not the same lumber used back in the day. In fact, any lumber used in the 1700s is different from what we have available today. Unless, that is, you get your hands on some of the original old-growth stock. Then you’ll experience the exorbitant number of growth rings per inch , I’m told the rings per inch in old-growth mahogany lumber can be around 40 , 60 (as high as 100) whereas the rings in mahogany harvested today, lumber that is considered very dense, stands near 25.

So how can you, as a reproduction furniture maker (or someone who wants to work with fantastic mahogany), get your hands on old-growth lumber? That’s what this entry is all about.

In 2007, a group of scuba divers, wood experts and businessmen formed a company in Belize to salvage exotic tropical logs from the country’s waterways. That company is Greener Logs Limited.

The logs being salvaged have been on the bottom of the waterways for up to 200 years and the supply is quite large. How large? In the day, trees were felled and held in the bends of the waterway to wait until a shipper, at the river’s end, was ready for a load. Then, the chains used to hold back the logs would be released and the logs traveled down the river to the shippers.

The owners of Greener Logs Limited came across Forest Service studies done in 1997 that compared original logger records to the shipper’s records to determine the number of trees lost along the journey. It’s suspected that as much as 50 percent of the logs harvested never made it down the rivers to the coast. It’s almost as if Mother Nature knew what was about to happen to the rain forests and created a stash for us to find centuries later.

Around August 8, 2009 the first 20′ container of logs was imported by Greener Lumber, LLC and made its way into port in Alabama. On the next leg of the journey, the logs were trucked to Cardwell Lumber, a mill in Central Missouri, where eight mahogany logs (along with some sapodilla, santa maria and bullet tree logs) were sawn for lumber. The logs produced 1,400 board feet of mahogany and 3,700 board feet of lumber total. A single piece of fiddleback mahogany came in around 19″ wide.

The lumber was actually steaming as it was sawn. That indicates that the logs shipped in at much higher moisture content than was expected, even after sitting out of the water since March. According to the sawyer, the drying process will be “low and slow” and it looks like mid to late October before the first load is coming out of the kiln.

Check back for more information. I’m getting regular weekly updates on this lumber. One of the questions I have, and I know you have, is about the cost of this lumber. I posed this question to my contact and am awaiting a response. I can tell you that you’ll have to get your hands deep into your pockets. I don’t expect this mahogany “gold” to be over-priced, just reasonably priced. And that’s not going to be $10 per board foot.

– Glen D. Huey

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12 thoughts on “Old-growth Mahogany Discovered

  1. Subtropical hardwoods

    If your looking for Cuban mahogany we stock a large supply of air dried live edge pieces. One piece we have is 36″ wide by 14.5′ long. Also have many other rare species of wood
    Subtropicalhardwoods.com

  2. Chris Janssen

    I’m no historian, but wasn’t lumber prepared two hundred years ago air dried? I use hand tools as a primary method of woodworking and have been spoiled by my father’s supply of air dried lumber. From what I have seen so far, it is easier to work, more stable, and aesthetically superior. If this lumber is an opportunity for wood workers to use the exact same medium as the masters two centuries ago, wouldn’t they want the lumber prepared the same way? I hope that this company who took the business risk to gather, prepare and sell this material understands the differences in preparing lumber for hand made furniture (hand tools or powered).

    That said, I can’t say I have used a lot of mahogany so perhaps there is not much of a difference between air dried and kiln dried mahogany. If there is though, then I think it is a shame to miss an opportunity to truly reenact what master furniture makers did two centuries ago just so the company can minimize their business risk by rushing this material out the door. This opportunity does not present itself often.

  3. Steve Hilton

    Keep us all informed Glen. I would love to get some of this mahogany for myself no matter what it cost.

    Steve Hilton
    Prescott, Arkansas

  4. Grantman

    This is pretty amazing, and the info from Rob Bois above is pretty cool, too. I just wish my skills were of sufficient quality to make something worthy of the wood. 200 year old growth for $25 a foot? Expensive, sure, but much, much cheaper than time travel.

  5. Rob Bois

    I actually just got my hands on some 100+ year old Belizian mahogany just a few weeks back. Hearne Hardwoods in PA has also gotten their hands on at least 20,000 BF of sinkers (maybe from this same river). It’s already dried and available on their web site (you have to call them for prices though). I won’t tell you what I paid, but it was more than $10 and less than $30.

  6. Tom O'Brien

    I have in my hand a small box made from three Belizean hardwoods: Sapodilla, Madre Cocoa, and Salm Wood.

    Sapodilla, one of the woods mentioned in the article, is a beautiful wood with a fine, tight grain and an almost creamy light brown color. It reminds me of Parana Pine, but a bit darker brown. The Madre Cocoa is a darker brown, with a swirly grain almost like a burl. The Salm Wood is straight grained, with tiny birds-eye knots, and a texture like Lauan Mahogany. These woods take a fine polish with several applications of liquid floor polish.

    The box was made by Belizean fellow woodworker Allison Wright, of Caye Caulker.

    I’m looking forward to seeing some of the Sapodilla and Madre Cocoa available on the US marker.

  7. Dan

    Does "that’s not going to be $10 per board foot" mean it’s going to be more or less than 10? I’m assuming more. A lot more. But I’d like to be sure.

  8. Glen

    Steve,

    You are correct. I should have mentioned Cuban mahogany as the primo lumber of the day. But today, with great technology at hand, we are finding examples of what was once considered mahogany actually being a different wood, one that looks like mahogany (the Frothingham highboy at Winterthur for example). And during my time as a woodworker, I seldom have had the opportunity to purchase Cuban lumber, but I have worked with heaps of Honduran mahogany. I can’t wait to get a look at this material.

  9. Bob Diehl

    You are lucky if you can still get Honduran. I live in San Diego and all our lumber sources now only have AfricanJ6QZN.

  10. joel

    Ever since I read B. Travel’s Jungle series I look at all tropical woods differently. If you are interested in knowing the conditions that existed in the lumber camps where these woods were originally cut down the following books are a great read:

    * Government (1931) ISBN 1-56663-038-X
    * The Carreta (1931) ISBN 1-56663-045-2
    * March to the Monteria (1933) ISBN 1-56663-046-0
    * Trozas (1936) ISBN 1-56663-219-6
    * The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936; first English pub. 1952) ISBN 1-56663-064-9
    * A General from the Jungle (1940) ISBN 1-56663-076-2

    The last three take place mostly in the lumber camps.

    (B. Traven also wrote "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" which John Huston turned into an awesome movie with Humphrey Bogart (we don’t need those stinkin’ badges)
    joel

  11. Steve

    The "original" mahogany is <i>Swietenia mahogani</i>, also known as Cuban mahogany or West Indian mahogany. It is native to several Caribbean islands and the southern tip of Florida.

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