What a difference a few years makes. Genuine mahogany, once the kingpin of imported species, is now just a tiny blip on the wood markets' radar screen. In November 2003, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) imposed stricter regulations on mahogany trade by officially listing it on CITES Appendix II. Shipping of genuine mahogany in the form of logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets and plywood, must be accompanied by a CITES Appendix II export permit.
Shipments from Brazil stopped, supplies from Peru and Bolivia dwindled to a trickle and mahogany brought in from Guatemala and Mexico are generally considered to be of inferior quality. The end result is that supplies are down, the price is up, the quality is down and the public seems to be turned off. It's not a pretty picture for most dealers who based the majority of their overall sales on mahogany.
Genuine mahogany’s specific gravity: .45 (green).
Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water.
Genuine mahogany’s radial shrinkage: 3 percent.
Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces.
Genuine mahogany’s tangential shrinkage: 4.1 percent.
Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces.
Example: A 12" wide flatsawn Genuine mahogany board will shrink .103" (about 3/32") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .076" (about 1/16").
"It's classic supply-and-demand; the price goes up and demand falls off," says Doug Newman of Newman Lumber Co. in Gulfport, Miss., one of the largest mahogany wholesalers in the country. "The price shot up, doubled, so demand fell off. There is still a demand for it, it is still available, but at the price point that it is at, the market for it has certainly declined. The price has been stable for the last two years. Between 2002 and 2007 the price doubled.
"I think mahogany basically is a market that has to be re-established, has to be reintroduced," says William von der Goltz, a wholesale importer with Downes & Reader Hardwood Co., based in Stoughton, Mass. "It went so low to a point that people almost forgot about it. Mahogany, as far as a species is concerned, in my humble opinion has to be reintroduced, almost like a new species.
"My conclusion is that I'm not going to waste my time with mahogany unless there is something out there that is not suffering pressure from the environmentalists or CITES, that I can bring in at a very low price, that can be reintroduced into the mahogany market that we had before."
Genuine mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), also known as Honduras mahogany, Bigleaf mahogany and South American mahogany, is exported in the form of logs, sawn wood, veneer sheets and plywood. Mahogany trees reach heights up to 150' with trunk diameters as large as 7'. Its primary growing region is South America and, to a lesser degree, in Central America and small portions of Mexico. It is the most valuable timber species in its growth area and its uses include fine furniture, architectural millwork, paneling, cabinetry and boatbuilding.
"I classify mahogany in three ways and, you'll laugh at me, but I do it by color - light, medium and dark," says Matt Westmoreland, a wholesaler with World Timber Corp. in Hubert, N.C. "That's kind of a funny thing. But mahogany went from Honduras mahogany to Brazilian mahogany to South American mahogany to Peruvian mahogany and now they just call it genuine mahogany. So every time they jumped into a different region, they just started calling it South American. So I just tell everyone light, medium or dark.
"Sapele and African mahogany started becoming so popular, that's why we kind of got out of it. A lot of people just backed off from buying genuine mahogany, but some people still buy it because they have to have it. But unless you are 5 cents a board foot cheaper than your competition, you are not going to sell it in large quantities. It is such a cutthroat competitive business."
The working characteristics of genuine mahogany are superb. From drying to cutting to finishing, the wood is outstanding in every facet. It is a staple among period furniture makers because of its density, which makes it an ideal carving wood. It is also a great tonewood used for guitar necks, acoustic backs and sides, and electric bodies.
"The import species in general are in very low demand, so when you think about that and when it comes to mahogany, think of the past," von der Goltz says. "In order to come back, it has to come back at a very, very low price and it has to be reintroduced and it has to gain confidence. If you are talking proportionally today versus demand, there is a lot of mahogany on the market. I've been here for 35 years and it definitely isn't the same thing we had in 1982. This is different. My words of wisdom: find another species."
"The supply is not what it used to be, but the demand isn't what it used to be," adds Newman. "Supply and demand have found [an] equilibrium, that's what they have done. All my life I have heard that mahogany isn't going to be available in five years and here it is 30 years later and we're still buying it and selling it."
Nationally, retail prices for kiln-dried 4/4 FAS genuine mahogany, surfaced on two sides, continued to be widespread. Prices from $8.25 to $10.25/bf were quoted for boards in the 6" to 8" width range. Pricing continued to escalate as widths increased. Several dealers offer mahogany in thicknesses from 4/4 through 16/4.
For information on wood properties and species information, visit the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory's Web site: www2.fpl.fs.fed.us.
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.