Stunning grain. Huge boards. Highly rot resistant. A dream (or a
nightmare) to work. What one wood fits this bill? Mahogany, of course.
by Tom Caspar
Even the plainest mahogany boards are quite beautiful, because the color is usually a deep, rich coppery red (Photo 1). Mahogany trees are huge, towering up to 150 ft. over the rain forest floor, and are often sawed into very wide boards up to 4-in. thick. The bombé chest shown above was made from one 24-in.-wide board, 3-in. thick and 16-ft. long!
With all these good qualities, why aren’t we all lining up at the lumberyard for mahogany boards? Because it’s expensive, about $5 to $9 per bd. ft. It’s so expensive that exporters of other woods have worked “mahogany” into the street names of their products and succeeded in confusing the heck out of woodworkers (Photo 2). Let’s clear the air a bit and compare these species side by side.
This is the real McCoy. American mahogany comes from Central and South America, and has been prized for fine furniture and boat building since the eighteenth century (Photo 3).
There are actually two different kinds of American mahogany: Cuban or Santo Domingo mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) and Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). It was the denser, darker Cuban variety that first excited furniture makers 300 years ago, but there’s very little of it left today. When selling mahogany, most lumber dealers are referring to the Honduras type.
Honduras mahogany primarily comes from South America. The best and densest grades, those most like the legendary Cuban mahogany, are exported from the rain forests of Peru. Honduras mahogany is still readily available, but it’s been logged very heavily, often at the expense of a healthy forest. There’s been quite an international effort to certify more responsible logging practices. For more on certified and plantation-grown mahogany, go to www.certifiedwood.org.
Quartersawn Mahogany is Harder to Work
Many mahogany trees have an unusual internal structure called “interlocked grain” (see page 46). When boards are plainsawn (with the growth rings more or less parallel to the wide face), interlocked grain makes beautiful swirling patterns. When boards are quartersawn (with the growth rings at right angles to the wide face), interlocked grain makes a ribbon-stripe figure (Photo 4).
Plainsawn mahogany is generally a pleasure to work, but quartersawn mahogany can be a bear. Each ribbon in a quartersawn board indicates a change in grain or fiber direction. When planing or jointing, you can’t win. Whatever direction you feed a quartersawn board, you may get nasty tear-out.
Color, Density and Figure Are All Over the Map
Looking over a pile of roughsawn American mahogany, you might think all the boards are pretty much the same. Pick up a few, however, and you notice that some are a lot heavier than others. Plane their surfaces, and you’ll see an astonishingly wide range of color.
Few woods are as variable in density, color and figure as American mahogany. In addition to their lower cost, that’s why so many other woods can be marketed as “mahogany,” or blended with American mahogany as showy veneers or secondary solid woods (Photo 5).
Steer away from the least dense boards. Often they have the blandest color, but more importantly, the wood is softer and doesn’t surface well. You’ll get patches of fuzzy grain that are difficult to smooth (Photo 7).
Are less expensive African and Philippine "mahogany" just as good as American mahogany?
Mahoganies from Africa: Khaya and Sapele
Khaya and Sapele have long been used as fine furniture woods, particularly in Europe. Both are less durable for outdoor furniture than American mahogany (Photo 6). Khaya and Sapele are available from many lumber dealers. See Sources, page 46, for a dealer who’ll ship through the mail.
Khaya is a gorgeous wood, and a good substitute for American mahogany. In fact, with many boards, it’s darned hard to tell the two woods apart. Khaya is generally quartersawn to produce a distinctive ribbony appearance.
Quartersawn Khaya is often sold as “Ribbon-Striped African Mahogany.”
Khaya works well, but it’s not on par with the best grades of American mahogany. It’s more prone to tear-out, and there’s a greater chance you’ll get some boards with fuzzy surface patches that are very hard to smooth (Photo 7). Khaya is generally softer, too, and won’t hold as crisp an edge as American mahogany. That means it’s not as good for fine detail in moldings and carvings.
Sapele has a finer texture than American mahogany. It’s easier to tell the two apart, but Sapele is still a good substitute. Like Khaya, Sapele is often quartersawn to reveal a ribbon-stripe grain pattern, but its ribbons are often narrower and closer together. With tighter interlocked grain, Sapele is also more prone to tear-out than American mahogany.
Philippine Mahogany: Lauan
Lauan is inexpensive, plentiful and widely used in plywood, trim moldings and commercial furniture. But it’s not a true mahogany. Lauan is one of many woods that are loosely called “Philippine mahogany.” They all come from the Far East, are generally identified by their color, and have varied properties. The redder varieties are heavier and much more rot resistant than the lighter varieties, for example.
Most of the Lauan sold in the U.S. as lumber and plywood is pretty consistent. It’s a softer and lighter wood than American mahogany, dents easily with your fingernail and has a tendency to splinter. It has little of the beautiful figure of American mahogany and a much coarser texture. For the most part, you shouldn’t use it as the show wood on a piece of fine furniture, but you can use it on the inside of a piece made from American mahogany or Khaya.
Photo 1: American mahogany is one of the world’s most beautiful woods. Its price has been rising slowly but steadily as these South American trees become more expensive to fell, process and export. No wonder everybody’s looking for substitutes!
Photo 2: Common mahogany look-alikes include Khaya, Sapele, and Lauan. (They’re pronounced Kigh-yah, Sah-pee-lee and Loo-ahn.) Khaya and Sapele are often called African mahogany and are in the same botanical family, Meliaceae, as American mahogany. Lauan is sold as Philippine mahogany, but it’s not in the same botanical family.
Photo 3: American mahogany has long been favored for its outstanding working qualities, especially with hand tools. It’s easy to clearly mark with a knife or pencil, smooth with a hand plane and pare with a chisel. Dense boards are usually better for handwork than lightweight boards.
Photo 4: Quartersawn boards often have a ribbon-striped appearance, caused by the grain or fibers periodically changing direction. This means that quartersawn boards often have tear-out problems. American mahogany is generally plainsawn, but Khaya and Sapele are usually quartersawn to show off their strong ribbon-stripe figure.
Photo 5: A wide range of figure and color is available in American mahogany and other closely related veneers. Few other woods have so many different faces. With careful staining, all these veneers can be blended with solid American mahogany, Khaya or Sapele.
Color and pattern “trade names” vary with different suppliers. To buy the veneers shown above, see Sources, below. Prices are given per square foot. These pieces are 9-in. wide.
Photo 6: Outdoor furniture made of American mahogany will last many years because it’s naturally rot resistant. Like all woods, it slowly turns a silvery gray color outdoors unless it’s stained or varnished. Khaya and Sapele are also good choices for outdoor projects, but won’t last as long.
Photo 7: Fuzzy grain is an annoying problem with all of the mahogany-related woods, especially in less-dense boards. Every once in a while you’ll come across a lightweight board that you just can’t get smooth, even with power sanding. Before giving up, try stiffening the fibers with a wash coat of shellac, and then sanding.
What Is Interlocked Grain?
The ribbon-stripe appearance of American mahogany and its look-alikes comes from a peculiar cell structure called “interlocked grain.” The striping is most noticeable when boards are quartersawn, that is, when the growth rings are at right angles to the wide face of the board.
Each stripe reflects a change in the slope of the grain, or fiber direction. Many tropical trees grow in a spiral pattern (rather like the threads of a wood screw). The spiral pattern periodically reverses direction from one growing season to another.
Interlocked grain is both an opportunity and a challenge. It’s an opportunity to create a visually stunning effect, where each stripe can change from dark to light as you walk around a polished piece of wood. The challenge is in planing and sanding the wood without tear-out, because its fibers run in two completely opposite directions. Fortunately, today’s high-speed benchtop planers and random-orbit sanders have made this job a lot easier.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2003, issue #103.
Source information may have changed since the original publication date.
Certainly Wood (716) 655-0206, www.certainlywood.com Mahogany and related veneers West Penn Hardwoods, (888) 636-9663 www.westpennhardwoods.com Solid American mahogany, Khaya and Sapele, plainsawn or quartersawn