The classic choice
in tropical timber
The first mahogany to reach England was in the shape of shipsthose of the Spanish Armada that later succumbed to the English fleet's cannonballs. That was in 1588, more than 30 years after the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes discovered mahogany in the Caribbean.
Although English shipbuilders marveled at the new seagoing stock, it was the joiners who really appreciated this New World treasure. They could span greater lengths and widths than with any other wood available, due to the sheer size of the mahogany timbers.
By the late 1700s, the now- famous English cabinetmakers Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton were shaping mahogany into classic furniture styles that kept the wood prominent for 150 years. Today's woodworker still finds delight in working mahogany into elegant cabinets, desks, tables, and other furniture.
Often referred to in the wood trade as Tropical American mahogany, Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) grows throughout much of Central and South America, including southern Mexico. However, the first mahogany discovered by Spanish explorers was Cuban mahogany (Swietenia mahogoni), a species no longer commercially available. Another true mahogany exists in AfricaAfrican mahogany (Khaya ivorensis). Philippine mahogany isn't a mahogany at all, but rather a Shorea species called lauan.
In the tropical forest, Honduras mahogany sometimes attains 150' heights and diameters of 72". Trees planted and grown for lumber on plantations (found in mahogany's natural range and the South Pacific), run smaller. Honduras mahogany on the stump has a heavily buttressed trunk base, scaly gray bark, and leaves displaying six to eight leaflets arranged on a single stem, much like those of the black walnut tree.
Honduras mahogany wood has straight, semi-open grain and a color that ranges from yellow-brown to dark red, depending on where it grows. With age, though, mahogany of all colors becomes a rich, dark red-brown. The wood also may display exceptional fiddleback, quilt, and ribbon-stripe figure.
A bit lighter than maple at 32 pounds per cubic foot, Honduras mahogany matches oak in strength. The wood also with stands moisture, resists fire and decay, and remains stable in use.
|Uses in woodworking
Mahogany claims the qualities that make it the ideal stock for majestic desks, tables, and large cabinets. Both turners and carvers find the wood suited for intricately detailed work. And, today's boatbuilders, like those centuries ago, turn to Honduras mahogany for structural members, decking, and trim.
Due to the tree's size, Honduras mahogany boards usually run wide and long.
Paul McClure, WOOD® magazine's consultant on wood technology, calls Honduras mahogany "the wood by which all other woods are measured." By that, he means you couldn't ask for a better wood to work. And, all the craftsmen we asked agree with him. So, note our advice, and enjoy this singular stock:
TECHNIQUES THAT ALWAYS WORK
Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species, appear under headings elsewhere on this page.