The other portion of wood arrived in my shop today, wood which I described in an earlier post as ‘uber special’. Here it is, fresh off the boat, er, semi:
Doesn’t look like much, does it? This motley set of 6 boards cost as much as the two super-wide pieces of Honduran Mahogany I acquired a week or two back. What am I, nuts?
(please hold off on answering that until you have read further…)
What is this stuff, you might ask?
It isn’t Honduran mahogany, which goes by the Latin name of Swietenia macrophylla, the word macrophylla meaning ‘large leaf’. The genus name, the word ‘Swietenia‘, was named after Gerard van Swieten, a Dutch-Austrian physician who lived between 1700 and 1772, by a fellow named Nikolaus von Jacquin. Between 1755 and 1759, Nikolaus von Jacquin was sent to the West Indies and Central America by Francis I to collect plants for the Schönbrunn Palace, and amassed a large collection of animal, plant and mineral samples.
There are three species comprising the genus Swietenia, namely:
- Swietenia macrophylla, or Big leaf Mahogany
- Swietenia mahagoni, referred to as West Indian, Santo Domingo, or Cuban Mahogany – it might also be called ‘small leaf’ mahogany (though accurate, that term is not used)
- Swietenia humilis, a small and often twisted mahogany tree limited to seasonally dry forests in Pacific Central America that is of limited commercial utility.
- Khaya spp., aka African Mahogany
- Entandrophragma utile, or ‘Utile’
- Entandrophragma cylindricum, or Sapele
Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when both species of real mahogany were exploited/pillaged, what-have-you, Great Britain was the champion consumer, importing around 88,000 tons of the wood, primarily from Jamaica, in the peak importation year of 1875. As early as 1846, when mahogany was chiefly used in shipbuilding, Britain imported 85,000,000 board feet of the wood. By comparison, the US was a lightweight, and the peak consumption year of 1899 saw 21,149,750 board feet imported. I take the above facts and figures from Clayton Dissinger Mell, in his seminal work on the topic, published in 1917 as monograph #474 from the USDA, titled True Mahogany.
‘Genuine mahogany’ is all we have left these days it seems, though in the days when mahogany was used heavily, the term ‘genuine’ in reference to the Big Leaf variety would have perhaps been laughed at. The esteemed species of the two true mahoganies, was in fact the Santo Domingo Mahogany (S. mahagoni), as is noted by Mell, and Big Leaf Mahogany was considered inferior:
Though “soft” and “spongy” the apparently inferior Big Leaf Mahogany may be, I personally find it an awesome species, as it is easily worked, suited to indoor or outdoor use, and incredibly stable in service, hardly warping and never checking. I haven’t been able to compare it though to the other variety of course, so I am impoverished in that regard and lacking in perspective. Those guys – well, a few of them – in the 1800’s had access to materials which I can only imagine.
The ‘Age of Mahogany’, as far as furniture is concerned, was the period between the reigns of George II and George III, roughly 1727 to 1820. Mahogany, extolled by Chippendale, caused the pre-eminent wood of the time, namely walnut, to pass completely out of fashion.
In the work Good Furniture, Vol. 4, by the Dean Hicks company (1914), they even wonder if the success of English cabinet makers of the period could have been attained without access to mahogany:
As they note in that text, and as cabinetmaker’s of the period following about 1720 found through direct experience, that mahogany was a wood less liable to chip or check than oak, less likely to become worm-eaten than walnut, sound, tough, of uniform grain, procurable in large planks, rich in figure and color, and hence unrivaled for the purposes of cabinet making.
Again, the mahogany they were talking about is not Honduras Mahogany, but ‘Cuban’ Mahogany. Reading about Cuban Mahogany and learning that it was THE mahogany in the time in which lots of mahogany furniture and ships were built on a large scale, has lead me to a strong desire to get a chance to work the S. mahagoni material. Obtaining it however, has been a bit like chasing a unicorn. I’ve seen it for sale sporadically over the years by private sellers here and there, but always the question hangs as to whether it really is as advertised.
And, like they say on the Hobbit House website,
A note on Cuban mahogany: this species is basically not available in lumber form these days. I think the best expression of this is (this is a slight paraphrase of a comment by Eric Meier of The Wood Database in an email to me):
I just tell people that unless they actually live in Cuba, it’s not Cuban mahogany and you’re being delusionally optimistic to think otherwise.
Delusional yet optimistic? Guilty as charged – who else would become a woodworker?
Another indicator of just how rare/unobtainable the species has become is that my copy of the two volume set, A Guide to Useful Woods of the World, put out by the International Wood Collectors Society, doesn’t even list S. mahagoni. If you can’t even get a little sample for a wood collection, that tells you there isn’t much to be had.
Then, whaddya know, a few months back an ad appeared from a fellow, a retiring furniture maker, offering to sell some Cuban Mahogany, I was interested but skeptical. I emailed him to ask his pricing, which was quoted as “$24~$28 per board foot”. I didn’t have the funds at the time to pursue it further, so I put the matter on the back burner, and besides, it was probably anything but the real thing.
When the new cabinet project was in discussion with my client on the west coast, there came the point where he asked me which woods I recommended, and I said that I thought it would be great to carry the use of Shedua from the other cabinet I had built forward, and then pair it with mahogany. I was thinking exclusively of Honduran Mahogany, which is as likely as not to come from Peru these days, as that was what one would normally think of in respect to mahogany. When the client came back in approval of the plan to use those woods, I got to thinking about it more, and then remembered the ad from a few months back. I looked through my email and found the conversation and emailed the fellow again to see if he still had any stock.
It turned out he still did have a fair amount. I then asked him how he knew it was Cuban Mahogany, given how rare a material that is. He replied that it was ‘obvious’ as the wood had a deeper purple tone, and was considerably denser and heavier than the Big Leaf Mahogany. That sounded good, however, I was still skeptical and asked him if he would provide me with a sample or two, thinking that I could take it to a wood lab near me for analysis. He said he would do that, and if I declined to buy any wood I could pay him for the postage, otherwise, if I did buy some wood, he would absorb the cost. Fair enough.
A week or so later and two samples arrived, each about 8″ square and 5/8″ thick or so. Pulling them out of the package, I could immediately discern that the pieces were heaver than I would expect with Honduran Mahogany. I put in a call to the recently-retired UMass professor Bruce Hoadley, author of Identifying Wood and Understanding Wood, and left a message in regards to testing the samples I had. In the meantime, I did some further research, and learned that, by the conventional method of wood species identification, namely examining a cleaned portion of end grain under 10x~20x magnification and comparing physical features, Swietenia mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla could not be distinguished. Hmm, a wrinkle in my plan….
I never did reach Professor Hoadley, though we had a fine game of phone tag for a while. I did manage to make contact with a Michael Wiemann, a botanist at the US Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison Wisconsin though. He confirmed just what I had read, that one cannot distinguish between the two mahoganies by the usual method. I was thinking he would point me towards a modern high tech method that I imagined existed, some trickery involving DNA analysis or near-infrared spectrographic methods, however he said that distinguishing between closely-related species remains a challenging task in his field. He then said that what he would do, if presented with my sample, is refer to notes from a British text on the topic. He said he could send me a .pdf of the relevant section if I was interested (?). You bet I was!
Reading that document, it turns out that the two mahoganies have a slight overlap in characteristics, looking at density, color, growth ring count, and so forth, so if you have a sample that sits in the zone of overlap, it is quite difficult to distinguish one from another. However if your sample is clearly sitting outside of that overlap zone, you can be reasonably sure of what you have.
For color and density, I was quite clear on the fact that the samples I had were unlike Honduran Mahogany, at least in my experience. The key point came down to growth ring count, which, for S. macrophylla is 4~8 per inch, and for S. mahagoni 10~25 per inch. The samples were happily very clear in that regard, as the growth ring count I saw on both pieces was around 20 per inch.
I was starting to feel fairly certain that I had stumbled upon actual ‘Cuban’ Mahogany. I asked the seller for more background on the material. I learned that it had been cut something like 40 years ago, and was from a wind-downed tree in the Florida Keys. He’d had it for about 20 years and had purchased it from another fellow, the person who obtained the wood from the trees originally, who had also squirreled the stuff away for 20 years.
Some further reading from Mull’s work True Mahogany revealed other distinguishing characteristics in regards to mahogany from the Florida Keys:
Cool. The mahogany growing in the Florida Keys, at the northern end of the plant’s growth range, proves to be the densest.
It also seems to be the case that the mahogany from Florida has the shortest wood fibers of any mahogany in the New World.
I decided that even if this material was not actually S. mahagoni, but just some really nice S. macrophylla, it was worth it at the price regardless. I bought all the seller’s 8/4 material, and that is what arrived at my shop today. I’m excited to have captured a unicorn at last!
After dragging the wood into my shop, I immediately trimmed off the bug-eaten portions where the sapwood had once been:
The above board was one of the worst in that regard.
Did I mention ‘bug-eaten’?:
I also did a bit of jointing and planing. Here’s a closer look at the surface of one board, where you can see the numerous white flecks on the face:
Those white flecks are deposits of some kind. I take them to be a sign of good material – at least when it came to Honduran Mahogany, where they are a rare occurrence, they had proved to be a sign of nice wood to work, and I’m thinking the same goes here.
Cutting this material was relatively easy, and the sawdust has a smell similar to Honduran Mahogany. The wood though is significantly heavier than any Honduran Mahogany I have had my hands on. I’m 99% sure I have that unicorn. This is up there, for me, with finding Huanghuali or Zitan (that is, seriously unlikely to happen in my lifetime). Sometimes you get lucky I guess.
The tree was on the order of 20″ in diameter or thereabouts, with the widest board in my pile of six being 18″ wide:
Edge-jointing after re-sawing the edge off:
I mentioned the growth ring detail – here’s a close up of what swietenia mahagoni – the stuff I have -looks like:
I cleaned up, to one extent or another, 5 of the 6 boards, and left the largest for the time being. Here’s a ‘family reunion’ sort of photo, with the recently-acquired Honduran forming the backdrop:
Welcome to ‘Mahogany World’. It’s rich, it’s chocolatey.
The one large plank of Honduran was trimmed last week, giving me these pieces of stock for the front door panels and the drawer floors of the cabinet:
I need to rip these for thickness, however they exceed the capacity of my re-saw, which means some fun days ahead.
There we have it. Material is in place. I’m nearly finished the drawing work, So I think I’ll be getting going on the build before too long. Look for a new build thread to start here in the near future, though there might be an unrelated post or two in the meantime.
Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.