UN-JUMBLING THE MAHOGANY MESS
Hypothetical situation: So you’ve just stumbled across some sort of “mahogany” wood, and you’re wondering if you have the real deal. After all, there are currently over a half dozen types of mahogany listed on The Wood Database. Much like cedar, the “mahogany” label gets tossed around with relative liberality—and not always with regard to the botanical designation of the wood in question. Ultimately, the ambiguous term mahogany remains somewhat subjective. But regardless of where anyone happens to draw the line on what is and is not true mahogany, certain facts and scientific classifications of the trees remain constant, and a general consensus can at least be made on the objective facts surrounding these woods.
But before we sort everything out, it would be helpful to ask a needed question: why? Why bother trying to sort things out? If it looks like mahogany, what’s the difference anyhow? A lot, it turns out. Beyond simply being worth more in terms of dollars per board-foot, there are practical implications to using true mahogany. Listed below are the ideal characteristics (hopefully) found in the wood: chances are most non-mahoganies will lack at least one (or more) of these characteristics.
WHAT MAKES MAHOGANY SO GREAT
“Rosewood.” “Teak.” “Satinwood.” Each well-known wood has along with it a set of expectations. Mahogany is no different. From the top-notch mahogany of yesterday, one would expect to encounter the following characteristics of the wood:
Excellent workability. Mahogany is known for its cooperative nature and easy sanding and machining, with a Goldilocks-esque balance of density thats just hard enough but not too hard. When the grain is straight and consistent, there’s not much that can go wrong.
Excellent stability. As much as it’s known for its workability, mahogany is equally known for its superb dimensional stability. Flat pieces will remain flat. Joints and glue-ups will remain intact. In the midst of seasonal changes in humidity, mahogany exhibits minimal shrinkage and swelling.
Decent rot resistance. Perhaps not to the same level as Teak or other exotic tropical timbers, but certainly respectable. Though younger plantation-grown trees aren’t quite as durable as the older wild-grown trees of centuries past.
Beautiful grain. Mahogany can sometimes be rather plain and almost utilitarian, but on other pieces, it ascends to the heights of sophistication. What antique bombe chest would be complete without exquisite crotch mahogany veneer drawer fronts?
Large, clear lumber. Mahogany trees get huge. They’re both tall and stout, yielding long, wide, knot and defect-free boards.