Woodsense: Spotlight on Mahogany

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This article is from Issue 24 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Pete Stephano

Woodworking craftsmen the world over regard genuine mahogany as the finest of all furniture woods. It has the qualities to recommend it for pieces of lasting beauty–from incredible working characteristics to durability, stability, and a wonderful luster. Carvers find that it also takes and holds exceptional detail, while turners shape it with ease. What is “genuine” mahogany? To most in the woodworking world, it’s Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), from Central and South America. Yet there’s also Cuban or Spanish mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) growing in Cuba and the West Indies (where most of it stays). African mahogany (Khaya ivorensis) is a closely related species. All mahoganies share similar characteristics, although craftsmen have traditionally favored Swietenia.

Note: Philippine mahogany is not a true mahogany, no matter its name!

History in woodworking

Eighteenth-century English cabinetmakers Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton, created mahogany furniture of such classic style that the wood stayed in favor for nearly 200 years. However, it was shipbuilders who first appreciated the wood.

In the late 1500s, ships of the Spanish Armada, built of mahogany from the Caribbean, caught the eye and appreciation of English shipbuilders (as well as cannonballs from their Royal Navy).

Never before had they seen wood of that size. Large mahogany planks would enable them to build with greater lengths and widths than those of their customary oak. And this seafaring past isn’t lost today, with many a splendid yacht or sailing ship boasting mahogany decks and trim.

Where it comes from

In the wood trade, Honduras mahogany goes by “Tropical American mahogany,” due to its origins in much of Central America, South America, and southern Mexico. The mahogany first discovered by the Spanish for their ships was Cuban mahogany, now no longer commercially available. Swietenia mahogany also has been widely grown for lumber on plantations throughout its natural range as well as in the South Pacific.

What you’ll pay

Large trees produce large boards, and mahogany grows to immense size. You’ll find thick, wide, and long stock available, particularly from specialty importers of the wood. Genuine mahogany sells for nearly $7 per board foot for 4/4 FAS (best quality) stock. Rough-sawn boards will cost less. As for figured stock (see “It’s a fact that…”), count on a much higher price tag, with some sellers charging nearly $1 per lineal inch! African mahogany sells for nearly 50% less.

Veneer comes in a wide range of figure, but is costly at up to $25 per square foot. Unfortunately, genuine mahogany isn’t normally available in plywood form.

How to select the best stock

Due to mahogany’s various origins and growing conditions, its heartwood color ranges considerably. It’ll be yellowish, reddish, pink, or salmon colored when freshly cut, although all shades normally darken to a deep reddish brown with age. But don’t take chances: Try to pick boards of uniform color.

Mahogany has straight, semi-open grain that’s sometimes interlocked. Flatsawn, the wood can display attractive, wavy horizontal bands similar to the appearance of quartersawn oak. Depending on your project, you may want to avoid wavy boards or only add them as highlights. Avoid any boards with dark-colored gum or white deposits in the grain.

Working mahogany in the shop

Not quite as hard as black cherry and lighter than red oak, mahogany has been fondly called “the wood by which all other woods is measured,” referring to its workability. Here are some observations.

Ripping and routing.

Before you begin cutting or machining mahogany, don a respirator. The wood’s fine dust hangs in the air an unusually long time.

You’ll discover that mahogany cuts well with either steel or carbide-tipped blades, but a misaligned fence, dull blade, or other table saw setup issues increase the chance of burning. Crosscutting requires a backing board to avoid tear-out, as do exit cuts with a router (use only sharp bits).

Jointing and planing.

The wood’s hardness and mostly straight, open grain means little tear-out. With figured mahogany (as with all figured stock), it should be fed slowly into the planer at a slight angle with the final 1/32" removed by a drum sander if you have one.

Carving.

Power carvers take caution: Motorized cutting bits can get too aggressive, so go lightly.

Assembling.

Mahogany lacks the natural oils characteristic of many tropical woods, so all woodworking adhesives work well. For outdoor projects, use a waterproof glue. Mahogany’s fine to medium texture doesn’t require predrilling for screws, but it’s a good practice when creating fine furniture.

Sanding becomes a satisfying process with mahogany as it doesn’t easily scratch or burnish as do harder woods. For the finest touch, though, first fill its open grain.

Mahogany Finishing Secrets

  • On a flat surface like tabletops, fill mahogany’s grain with several coats of finish, sanding between applications (hard-curing shellac, lacquer, varnish, or water-base work best) or use a paste-wood filler. The latter goes much faster, and the filler can be toned to give the wood a rich color.
  • To get an Old-World mahogany look, first sand to 220-grit (after filling the grain if you choose to), then apply medium brown dye stain (the wood has enough red color). Let dry, then sand with 320-grit. Remove dust and apply six or more coats of thinned lacquer. Dry for two or more weeks, then finally sand with 600-grit wet/dry paper using a mineral spirits lubricant. Finally, rub the surface along the grain with #0000 steel wool moistened with mild soap and water. Rinse with clean water and polish with a soft cloth.

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