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Sorting through the mahogany substitutes

‘Sinker’ mahoagany recovered from the rivers of Belize and available from Hearne Hardwoods.

‘Sinker’ mahoagany recovered from the rivers of Belize and available from Hearne Hardwoods.

We’ve all been there. The big box store offers ‘mahogany’ doors or plywood in an inexpensive paint grade, while down the street the lumberyard offers mahogany boards at a king’s ransom. And even when we accept that the big box species is actually farmed lauan, the lumberyard then confuses us more by having several different mahogany species for sale.

When a customer wants us to match some existing mahogany furniture, or an architect’s spec simply states ‘mahogany’, what on earth is a woodworker to do?

Even the government seems confused. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, mahogany consists of three species: Honduras mahogany (Swietenia humilis), bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), and American mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni).

Would that there were only three! Well, technically there are, but the wood industry is nothing if not creative. Mahogany is sort of like the word Google, which started out as a proper noun and through frequent use has morphed into a verb. Over a couple of centuries, the term mahogany has become an all-encompassing umbrella that describes any hardwood species that has a reddish hue and relatively straight grain.

Alphabetically, here are most of the mahoganies that you may come across in a warehouse: African, Australian red cedar, bosse, Brazilian, Chinese, chinaberry, crabwood, Cuban, Entandrophragma, Honduran, Indian, Indonesian, Khaya, New Zealand, Philippine, santos, sapele, Spanish cedar, Toona, utile and West Indian.

‘Genuine’ mahogany

Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite are described as “The Big Three” in classical 18th-century Georgian English furniture. All three published catalogs called Directors, and these were filled to the brim with Cuban mahogany pieces. The wood worked well with hand tools, was rich and colorful, and carved well, too. The Directors were guides for cabinetmakers and furniture builders, so they fostered three very separate and distinct styles that also used satinwood, tulipwood and rosewood. Federal-style furniture builders in the newly formed United States also prized these woods.

Georgian mahogany was from the West Indies, which is a crescent-shaped line of islands that lie between the Caribbean and the wild Atlantic. This is what we now call Cuban mahogany (Swietenia mahogani), and it is highly prized because of its rarity. It’s relatively straight-grained, although it can have some wild grain. It’s a rich red/brown that comes alive when finished. Unfortunately, woodworkers often need to remove some finish to work it, because it’s no longer commercially available.

Hearne’s ‘sinker’ mahogany is comparable to Honduras mahogany.

Hearne’s ‘sinker’ mahogany is comparable to Honduras mahogany.

Traveling south and with a range from Mexico to Brazil, Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is also hard to find now. It has been listed as endangered by CITES (the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) since 2003. That was mostly the result of irresponsible logging that not only wiped out most of the species but also did an awful lot of environmental damage. Back then, CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers said that “illegal logging and unsustainable export levels are threatening to render big-leaf mahogany commercially extinct in the near future, a trend that has been reflected in recent years by rising prices.” Big-leaf mahogany was listed on Appendix II, which requires that shipments of the timber be accompanied by a CITES export permit.

A third mahogany from central America, Swietenia humilis, is a stunted tree without much usable lumber, and these three together are broadly described as genuine mahogany. This latter is sometimes referred to as Mexican mahogany.

African mahogany

These are, for the most part, commercially viable substitutes for Honduras and Cuban mahogany, and chief among them are Khaya or African mahogany, and sapele.

Advantage Lumber is in the business of sourcing, manufacturing and shipping sustainably harvested exotic hardwood decking. Advantage describes African mahogany as having “heartwood that ranges from light to deep reddish-brown in color. The grain is straight to interlocked and its texture is medium to coarse. Logs may have brittle or soft heartwood and sometimes fractures or heartbreaks. Its weight is about 24 to 36 lbs. per cubic foot.” The company also notes that it has a moderate blunting effect on cutters and low angle cutting is recommended to avoid tear-out. The brittle heartwood and interlocked grain can cause ‘woolliness’, but African mahogany has good nailing, screwing and gluing characteristics. It also stains and polishes to an excellent finish.

Swaner Hardwood in Burbank, Calif. notes that African mahogany’s sapwood is “creamy white or yellowish color. When freshly sawn the heartwood is a light pinkish-brown color, and that deepens to a reddish-brown and sometimes has a purple hue. The grain is straight to interlocked. The interlocked grain produces a striped ribbon-like figure on quarter-sawn surfaces. [The species] works well but tends to woolliness and torn grain. It produces a moderate blunting effect on tools, therefore sharp thin cutting edges are recommended. It has good gluing properties and holds nails and screws well. It can be stained or polished to an excellent finish. It is easy to slice and peel and makes excellent veneers.” Swaner notes that physically it has low stiffness and resistance to shock, with a medium crush strength and poor bending characteristics.

Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa. says that “African mahogany is becoming more popular due to the large price increases in genuine mahogany. It has a very similar color and graining, but it is not as stable. The trees can grow to be quite large, so it is possible to find wide, long, clear boards. From a sustainability standpoint, African mahogany grows in rich ground that is not nearly as delicate as the Amazon basin.”

Hearne offers an unusual choice for woodshops that are looking for genuine mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). The company has an inventory of what it calls ‘sinker’ mahogany, which is stock from Belize that is basically the same texture and color as highly prized Honduras mahogany, but this has been submerged in the rivers of Belize for 75 to 150 years. Those waterways were the highways of choice for moving virgin logs from the interior to the coast a century ago, where they would board ships bound for the sawmills of Europe. Some of the logs got waterlogged and sank to the bottom of the river in holding areas, while others got tangled in brush and roots along the riverbanks and sank. They are only now finding their way to North American sawyers, where finite supplies of sinker mahogany are currently available. And while furniture makers love its color and workability, the species is also an exceptional tone wood. Hearne notes that “all those years of curing at the bottom of crocodile infested rivers changes the structure of the wood to produce amazing voices in acoustic guitars.”

Sapele and close cousins

Hearne Hardwoods notes that sapele was “once considered a more refined member of the mahogany family, [and] is now being used as the industry standard for doors, windows and moldings due to the restrictions on South American mahogany. It has a peaceful nature and a medium texture. It is used for both veneers and lumber and is highly prized when figured.”

Quarter-sawn sapele can exhibit a ribbon effect similar to the medullary flake effect seen in white or red oak. Sapele is also used as a tone wood. The trees can grow huge, and 4’ diameter logs are not uncommon. A tone wood is a species that luthiers choose when building woodwind or acoustic stringed instruments, because of its physical capacity to reproduce sound.”

Arizona-based Woodworkers Source describes sapele as a “gorgeous mahogany look-alike with a slightly finer texture than Honduras mahogany, and a typically interlocked grain. Sapele is also a lustrous wood that works fairly well in all operations including planing, sawing, routing and sanding.”

Australian red cedar comes from southern Asia and, of course, Australia. It looks like mahogany but is lightweight like cedar. However, it doesn’t have the bug or moisture resistance of, say, Western red cedar, but it definitely has that kind of aroma. It works well, but sometimes has a little sap residue.

Bosse pommele mahogany is described by M. Bohlke Veneer Corp. in Fairfield, Ohio as greatly resembling mahogany but it is also called African cedar because it has a cedar scent. Bohlke says the pommele wood veneer is initially a pink brown hue that darkens considerably upon light exposure to a more golden to medium brown. (Pommele is a small- to medium-sized blister figure.)

Brazilian mahogany is another name for genuine, big-leaf mahogany.

Chinese mahogany (Toona sinensis) is commonly known as Chinese cedar, and its leaves are actually used as a vegetable in its range, especially in central and southwestern China. The wood is used by luthiers to build guitars and by furniture builders.

Chinaberry trees don’t grow very large, or very straight. The wood is sometimes used by turners because it’s quite attractive and works well on a lathe. Furniture builders often point out that its large cell structure can require filling before finishing.

Crabwood (Carapa guianensis) is another small tree that is similar in color, grain and workability to mahogany. It is sometimes called andiroba, and it can be ribboned when quartersawn.

Entandrophragma is also called mountain mahogany and includes ten African tropical species.

Indian mahogany describes two species (Toona ciliate and Chukrasia velutina) that are found in southeast Asia and parts of Australia. It also refers to Australian red cedar.

Indonesian or Vietnamese mahogany (Toona sureni) is a medium to large species that often provides long, straight and thick logs, but it has roots above ground that remind one of cypress swamps. The wood is widely used for furniture, and the bark has value for traditional medicines.

Khaya is African mahogany.

New Zealand mahogany, or Kohekohe, is a good substitute for genuine mahogany although it’s not quite as dramatic and may need some staining to match tone and color to an existing piece. The tree is not too large (about 40 to 50 feet tall), so the boards are somewhat limited.

Philippine mahogany (lauan) is a reddish, somewhat bland family of woods from southeast Asia that is predictable and often used in plywood and trim. It is one of the most common woods in use.

Santos mahogany (Myroxylon balsamum) is hard enough to be a popular choice for flooring and is quite heavy. There can be a wide variation in color and pattern. One of its uses is its resin, which is used in pharmaceuticals, perfumes and even food additives.

Spanish cedar is a popular choice for cigar humidors. This member of the Chinaberry family has some resistance to decay and insects, so it is sometimes found in exterior millwork. It’s easy to work and finish. Boards sourced in South America are usually larger than those farmed in Africa.

Utile, or sipo, is an African hardwood that is similar to sapele. The J. Gibson McIlvain Co. in White Marsh, Md. operates a website called MahoganyOutlet.com and the company says that utile is “arguably the species that most closely resembles” genuine mahogany. “While quarter-sawn utile offers a ribbon-like striping effect similar to that of sapele, the grain patterns and coloring of utile make it nearly indistinguishable from mahogany when flatsawn, at least to the untrained eye.”

And that’s the whole point here, isn’t it? Many of these species have the color, grain, hardness and other characteristics of the real thing, but are easily sourced and a whole lot less expensive. How we finish them plays a role, as some accept coatings in different ways – for example, they can become darker over time, or lack the translucent shimmer of a hand-rubbed Chippendale piece. But no matter which variety we choose, it’s always best to know exactly what we’re buying. And selling. 

This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.

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