Tree of the Week - Mahogany

Tuesday 10 January 2012

What it is

Mahogany has a generally straight grain and is usually free of voids and pockets. It has a reddish-brown colour, which darkens over time, and displays a reddish sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable. Historically, the tree's girth allowed for wide boards from traditional mahogany species. These properties make it a favourable wood for crafting cabinets and furniture.

Mahogany through the ages

Pre-History: Dense tropical rainforests gradually developed over the millennia, with tall straight growing mahogany trees forming a major part of the forest canopy, until...1492: Christopher Columbus discovers the 'Americas'

1500s: Logging and deforestation of mahogany in the Caribbean, Central and South America begins when European colonialisation takes hold.

1724: The first recorded use of mahogany as a furniture timber in Europe. When it was first introduced to England from the West Indies, Sir Walter Raleigh had a mahogany table made for Elizabeth I.

1960s: Mahogany is used for drum making, because of its integrity and capability to produce a dark, warm tone. The famous Beatles sound was made with Ludwig drums in mahogany shells.

2008: Mahogany is now used for high-end stereo phonographic record cartridges and for stereo headphones, where it is noted for the 'warm musical' sound.

Types of mahogany

Among the group that are recognised as being mahoganies are: Latin America Caribbean mahogany, Honduran or Pacific Coast mahogany, bigleaf or big-leafed mahogany and Venezuelan mahogany and the related New Zealand mahogany. In addition there are African timbers that are also referred to as mahoganies of the Afzelia and Khaya genus.


'The Mahogany Ship' refers to a wrecked Portuguese caravel that is purported to lie beneath the sand six miles west of Warmambool in southwest Victoria, Australia. It was described as being constructed of panels and its timbers were of a dark wood, described as either mahogany or cedar. If the remains of the ship were ever uncovered, they could provide evidence of an unrecorded Portuguese landing on the shores of Australia in the 16th century, or even an earlier visit by explorers from China.

A striking example

This cabinet was designed by John Channon in about 1745. It is veneered in fine 'Cuban' mahogany with padouk cross-banding on oak and pine groundwork. The term 'Cuban' is frequently used to differentiate good, dense, highly figured mahogany in antique furniture. In fact it is quite likely that it came from another Caribbean island such as Jamaica, but everyone still calls it 'Cuban'! The mounts are gilt bronze and made for the piece. There is an adjacent chest of drawers in the same room, which is a close match to this cabinet.

According To Wikipedia, much of the first-quality furniture made in the American colonies from the mid 18th century was made of mahogany, when the wood first became available to American craftsmen. Mahogany also resists wood rot, making it attractive in boat construction. It is also often used for musical instruments, particularly the backs of acoustic guitars and drums shells because of its ability to produce a very deep, warm tone compared to other commonly used woods such as maple or birch.

The future

Unless the magnificent family of 'big leaf' mahogany trees is sustainably managed then they could all die out within years due to illegal logging activity. Only buy mahogany products from certified forests, such as those products that carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) trademark.

Images, from top to bottom:

1. A mahogany tree

2. The grain of a piece of mahogany timber

3. Another view of a piece of mahogany timber

4. The Mahogany Ship refers to a wrecked Portuguese caravel that is purported to lie beneath the sand six miles west of Warmambool in southwest Victoria, Australia

5. Cuban mahogany cabinet designed by John Channon

6. Chest of drawers in mahogany

7. Ensure to only buy mahogany products from certified forests