Friday, October 29, 2010

Focus on wood - Mahogany

I was asking my readers what things they would like to learn more about. What kind of information can I provide them that they might not know anything about?  One response was to go into a bit more detail on the different types of woods.  Since each type of wood will have its own properties, I thought that might be a good idea to go into.  So we will start with one of my favorite woods to work with. Mahogany

Mahogany used to be simple.  Mahogany was, well, mahogany.  Now we have true mahogany, African Mahogany, Philippine mahogany, and even a New Zealand  mahogany. So do we have true mahogany and a bunch of fake mahogany knock offs?  What's the deal? 

Well, let's start with true or genuine mahogany.  What is genuine mahogany is actually not the mahogany that made mahogany famous a century or so ago.  The mahogany that mahogany famous is actually Cuban mahogany or Swietenia mahagoni.  But since Cuba has tended to over harvest it a bit and that stcky little trade embargo that we have with them, Cuban mahogany is about as scarce as gnats in a windstorm.  Next, we started calling Honduran Mahogany, or Swietenia macrophylla, genuine mahogany. They are close cousins, very close in fact.  Both Swietena mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla are from the Meliaceae family. Well, now those two particular species are grown in several areas of the world.  They are the national tree of both the Dominican Republic and Belize.  This means that we can't really distinguish them by country of origin and now days, we don't.  To be called genuine mahogany, the wood must be from the Swietenia mahogany line.  It doesn't depend upon where it is grown.   It looks like this:

It is moderately dense and hard which makes it well suited for fine furniture.  Buyers love mahogany for its even grain structure and its beautiful color. The picture above shows fresh cut genuine mahogany.  It will darken considerably with age.  Woodworkers love working with mahogany because it is very easy to work with.  It carves and turns well, holds clean edges well, and doesn't burn when you put it within 3 feet of your tablesaw (like say, cherry).  One thing that more thing that most people don't think about or know about genuine mahogany is that it has very good decay resistance.  This makes it an excellent choice for outdoor furniture.  Ok, I'm sure some of you laughed a bit there.  I'm guessing it went along the lines of, "yeah sure.  I'm going to pay for a mahogany table and chairs then just leave it out on the porch in the snow."  Um, yeah.  It does well outside.  At least compared to many other woods, say like red oak.  With a little care and maybe a cover like  you put on your BBQ grill, it will last for many years out there.

Next there is what is called true mahogany.  True mahogany is any timber from the Meliacae (Mahogany) family.  This applies to Khaya (African Mahogany) and Toona (Chinese Mahogany).  A picture of Khaya is shown below
Philippine mahogany isn't mahogany at all.  It is not a part of the Meliacae  family at all. Rather it comes from th Shorea family and is also known as Luauan.  It is still allowed to be called Philippine mahogany by the FTC, but the Philippine part is mandatory.  You can't just call it mahogany.  It works entirely differently and even has a distinctly different smell to it when cut.  When worked or routed it smells kind of like black pepper (with the same effect on the nose).  It was probably first called mahogany because it does resemble mahogany in appearance, but the similarities end there.  It is only allowed to still be called mahogany at all because it has already been referred to as mahogany for so many years.

Well, until next time......