by Eric Meier
I remember in my (slightly) younger days, stepping into a big box hardware store and picking up some shrink-wrapped boards labeled “mahogany” with prices that seemed just too good to be true. I told the employee that they had very good prices on mahogany, and he half-smirked and hesitantly commented “well, there’s a lot of different types of mahogany out there…” So began my early lessons in this sometimes-coveted and sometimes-disdained wood. Little did I know that these discrepancies stemmed from the woodworking equivalent of comparing apples to oranges.
Un-jumbling the Mahogany mess
Hypothetical situation: So you’ve just stumbled across some sort of “mahogany” wood, and you’re wondering if you have the real deal. After all, there are currently over a half dozen types of mahogany listed on The Wood Database. Much like cedar, the “mahogany” label gets tossed around with relative liberality—and not always with regard to the botanical designation of the wood in question. Ultimately, the ambiguous term mahogany remains somewhat subjective. But regardless of where anyone happens to draw the line on what is and is not true mahogany, certain facts and scientific classifications of the trees remain constant, and a general consensus can at least be made on the objective facts surrounding these woods.
But before we sort everything out, it would be helpful to ask a needed question: why? Why bother trying to sort things out? If it looks like mahogany, what’s the difference anyhow? A lot, it turns out. Beyond simply being worth more in terms of dollars per board-foot, there are practical implications to using true mahogany. Listed below are the ideal characteristics (hopefully) found in the wood: chances are most non-mahoganies will lack at least one (or more) of these characteristics.
What makes mahogany so great
“Rosewood.” “Teak.” “Satinwood.” Each well-known wood has along with it a set of expectations. Mahogany is no different. From the top-notch mahogany of yesterday, one would expect to encounter the following characteristics of the wood:
- Excellent workability. Mahogany is known for its cooperative nature and easy sanding and machining, with a Goldilocks-esque balance of density thats just hard enough but not too hard. When the grain is straight and consistent, there’s not much that can go wrong.
- Excellent stability. As much as it’s known for its workability, mahogany is equally known for its superb dimensional stability. Flat pieces will remain flat. Joints and glue-ups will remain intact. In the midst of seasonal changes in humidity, mahogany exhibits minimal shrinkage and swelling.
- Decent rot resistance. Perhaps not to the same level as Teak or other exotic tropical timbers, but certainly respectable. Though younger plantation-grown trees aren’t quite as durable as the older wild-grown trees of centuries past.
- Beautiful grain. Mahogany can sometimes be rather plain and almost utilitarian, but on other pieces, it ascends to the heights of sophistication. What antique bombe chest would be complete without exquisite crotch mahogany veneer drawer fronts?
- Large, clear lumber. Mahogany trees get huge. They’re both tall and stout, yielding long, wide, knot and defect-free boards.
The Inner Circle: Swietenia
By even the strictest standards, woods in the Swietenia genus comprise what is sometimes known as “genuine mahogany.”
Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia mahogani)This is the original mahogany. Historically, these huge trees yielded exceptional lumber, but over-harvesting and just plain wastefulness (logs as large as twelve inches in diameter were used as firewood) led to this species’ depletion. In 1946, Cuba banned all exporting of the wood due to over-harvesting and high demand; it has also been in scarce supply from other sources in the Caribbean as well. Today, the lumber has become so obscure that the term “genuine mahogany” now applies almost exclusively to its close relative, Honduran Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). Small boards and pieces are intermittently available: these are usually from storm-damaged trees grown locally (i.e., within the United States).
Honduran Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)Following closely in Cuban Mahogany’s footsteps, Honduran Mahogany is from the same genus (Swietenia), and it’s closely related in nearly all characteristics. All species within the genus are listed on CITES appendix II, and nowadays a fair amount of this wood is grown on plantations. It’s sold under a variety of common names, including American Mahogany, Genuine Mahogany, Big-Leaf Mahogany, and Brazilian Mahogany. Despite the abundance of common names, they usually all refer to just one species—when in doubt, verify the scientific name: Swietenia macrophylla. It’s every bit a true mahogany as the original Cuban species that became commercially exhausted in the mid-20th century.
Identification: Swietenia species can be very hard to tell from one another, but they can usually be distinguished from other species listed as mahogany (see following species further on in this article). All Swietenia species will have marginal parenchyma when viewed on the endgrain (see 10x endgrain scan). What this means is that there will be rows of light brown cells at the border of every growth ring—somewhat mimicking the annual growth rings found in temperate ring-porous woods. While other lookalikes such as African Mahogany (Khaya spp.) will generally not have these marginal parenchyma bands (though the color of the wood itself may change from light to dark simulating growth rings as well, the tight parenchyma rows will usually be lacking). Presence of marginal parenchyma strongly suggests a Swieteniaspecies, though in rare circumstances, Khaya species can also display these cells as well.
In finished pieces: Another trick to tell Swieteniaspecies from Khaya species, especially if you do not have access to the endgrain, is to look for ripple marks on a flatsawn surface of the wood. Basically, on many pieces of Swietenia-genus mahogany, the rays (small reddish brown slits) will collectively be arranged in neat little rows (called storied rays), which appear as minute little ripple marks that are seen clearest on flatsawn portions (see accompanying scan—you will more than likely have to view the full-size image to make out these small details). These ripple marks are sometimes (but not always) seen in Swietenia species (as well as Sapele—see further down this article), but almost never in the African Khaya species. An absence of ripple marks is ambiguous (could be either genera), while the presence of ripple marks strongly points to a Swietenia species.
How not to tell them apart: By color or weight. Swietenia species of mahogany, depending on the growing conditions and age of the tree, can vary widely in color and density. It’s all over the map. Some can be darker red and with dark streaks, others can be much paler and lighter in weight. Just viewing the facegrain of a wood sample and using your gut instinct to differentiate the two is unreliable.
Mexican Mahogany: It should be noted that a third Swietenia species is sometimes encountered: Mexican Mahogany (Swietenia humilis). This tree is much smaller than the other two species listed above, and as a result, it usually yields lumber of poorer quality due to the inherent problems of smaller trees (that is, knots and irregular grain is usually present, as well as much smaller available lumber). But from a practical standpoint, wood from all Swietenia species should be evaluated objectively irrespective of the actual species. It is the author’s opinion that the primary reason that Cuban Mahogany has been held in such high regard is because the wood was originally collected from very large wild trees which yielded excellent lumber compared to today’s plantation grown mahogany—it’s all based on growing conditions and tree age, and all other things being equal, Swietenia species wood is virtually identical.
The Outer Rim: Khaya
Depending on who you talk to, African Mahogany in the Khaya genus may or not be considered the real deal. For most, it’s close enough in appearance and characteristics to carry the mahogany label without controversy, but purists will be quick to draw a distinction between the mahoganies of the New World and those from Africa.
African Mahogany is comprised of a handful of species in the Khaya genus, such as K. anthotheca, K. grandifoliola, K. ivorensis, and K. senegalensis. While these species are from an entirely different genus (and continent) than the wood classed as “genuine mahogany,” taking a step up the botanical ladder from genus to family, both fall into the Meliaceae family, so the two, while not directly related, aren’t far off in the family tree. And the family likeness is apparent in the wood as well. Appearance-wise, most people do a double take and aren’t sure if they’re looking at Khaya or Swietenia mahogany. Both types also come from very large trees, so quality lumber in very large sizes and widths is common. African Mahogany also works well, though it tends to have a more interlocked grain than Swietenia species, so tearout and fuzzy surfaces (during planing or carving) can be an issue, but overall it’s still tolerable to machine.
Identification: As mentioned previously, the wood of African Mahogany features an endgrain that is, for the most part, absent of any discernible annual or seasonal growth rings. Though the color of the wood can gradually change color through different seasons, Khaya species usually (rare exceptions do exist) lack the marginal parenchyma that are so common in Swietenia species (see the endgrain scan of African Mahogany to contrast the relatively bland endgrain with the clearly delineated growth boundaries of the Honduran Mahogany endgrain sample shown further up).
Interlocked grain: In addition to the lack of ripple marks (explained above under Swietenia species), Khaya species also tend to have a more interlocked grain, and will exhibit more pronounced ribbon-stripe patterns, especially when quartersawn. However, as with nearly all characteristics differentiating the two genera, there are outlyers and exceptions to the rule. But taken collectively, when considering the marginal parenchyma, ripple marks, and interlocked grain, an increasingly confident identification may be made of an unknown or questionable sample.
The Periphery: Meliaceae
Along the outermost fringes of what most consider to be called mahogany, there are a handful of other genera and species that are technically related to mahogany: much like the African Mahogany species in the Khaya genus, this somewhat eclectic group of hardwoods are all members of the Meliaceae family.
Similar to mahogany: Sometimes called Sipo, or even Sipo Mahogany, this wood has similar mechanical and working properties to genuine mahogany, and the overall appearance, while generally a bit darker in color, isn’t too far off either.
Different from mahogany: Spotty availability coupled with its overall obscurity has probably kept this wood out of the limelight. It lacks the exceptional dimensional stability of genuine mahogany, though it is by no means an unstable wood.
Similar to mahogany: Very large trees yield clear quality lumber that resembles genuine mahogany in both appearance and mechanical properties.
Different from mahogany: Sapele is a star in its own right, and has its own unique characteristics. It’s darker in color, heavier, and exhibits more varieties of figured grain (pommele, ribbon-stripe, etc.). Its interlocked grain also mean it’s a bit more challenging to work with than genuine mahogany.
Identifying Sapele and Utile: These two species are both in the Entandrophragma genus and are very closely related. They may be separated from Swietenia and Khaya mahogany on the basis of their endgrain. Both Sapele and Utile have banded parenchyma (visible as horizontal lines in the accompanying scan) that occur consistently throughout the wood—not just at the annual growth boundaries. Additionally, the two woods tend to be heavier and darker than Honduran or African mahoganies, and both have a pleasing cedar-like scent when being worked. Sapele can usually be separated from Utile on the flatsawn surface by checking for storied rays. Sapele will have ripple marks (formed by the storied rays) evident on the flatsawn surface, while Utile lacks this feature. If the woods are quartersawn, Sapele has narrower, tighter, and more uniform ribbon stripes, while Utile’s are wider and more erratic.
Similar to mahogany: Bosse is closer in color and grain to genuine mahogany than the two previous species, and its the weight, stability, and mechanical characteristics are also comparable too.
Different from mahogany: The grain of this species is all over the map: sometimes it’s straight, sometimes it’s interlocked or highly figured. The inconsistent availability and figured grain have primarily limited this wood to decorative wood veneer applications.
Similar to mahogany: Grain can be somewhat similar to genuine mahogany, though color is much paler. Good stability and workability.
Different from mahogany: Considerably lighter in both color and weight. Much softer. Very aromatic. Not a practical mahogany replacement in most instances.
Similar to mahogany: Sometimes referred to as Indian Mahogany, this wood is known to woodworkers in North America as Australian Red Cedar. It was once placed in the Cedrela genus alongside Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata), and the two are very similar in most respects. The color can be a bit more reddish than Spanish Cedar, but still not quite the same shade as true mahoganies.
Different from mahogany: Still lighter in both color and weight, and softer. Very aromatic. May be a practical mahogany replacement in some instances.
Similar to mahogany: Sometimes sold under the name “Royal Mahogany” by flooring dealers, the overall appearance, weight, and mechanical properties are very similar to genuine mahogany.
Different from mahogany: Slightly more difficult to work, and not quite as stable, but still an underrated and obscure species.
Similar to mahogany: Sometimes called White Mahogany, Avodire fits the description well. It has similar grain, weight, and mechanical properties—it looks like a blonde version of African Mahogany in the Khaya genus.
Different from mahogany: Besides the obviously color difference, Avodire has poor outdoor longevity, which restricts its use to interior/protected applications. Also, irregular or interlocked grain present can make working and machining troublesome at times.
Similar to mahogany: Despite its common name, African Walnut is not closely related to the true walnuts in the Juglans genus. The grain and density can closely mimic genuine mahogany on some pieces, and its mechanical properties and stability are comparable to mahogany as well.
Different from mahogany: Color is much more variegated and streaked, and is generally darker and redder than most mahogany. Also, the interlocked grain can make working this lumber less pleasant than Swietenia species.
Similar to mahogany: Botanically, it’s in the Meliaceae along with the rest of the woods listed from here on up. Also, it’s weight, strength, and workability properties are similar to genuine mahogany.
Different from mahogany: Being a ring-porous hardwood, the grain isn’t really too similar to mahogany, and its dimensional stability isn’t quite up to standards either—at least not in comparison to mahogany. In terms of appearance, it’s probably the least likely to be confused for mahogany of all the woods on this entire list.
Outliers: Not in the Family
Despite any superficial resemblance to genuine mahogany, there are still a number of wood species that are completely unrelated to any of the mahoganies in the Meliaceae family. You have to trace pretty far up the hierarchal tree to find any sort of botanical commonality between any of these woods. Basically, about all you can say that they have in common is that they are all hardwoods (angiosperms).
Sometimes called Lauan, this wood is frequently made into plywood. Of all the various trees that are outside of the the Meliaceae family, perhaps the many species within the Shorea genus come the closest to genuine mahogany in terms of overall appearance and working properties. Unfortunately, there’s a great variation within the Shoreagenus—even more of a window of variation than that found in the Swietenia or Khaya genera. Also, the rot resistance of most Shorea species is much poorer than most types of mahogany. This wood is (thankfully) being called by more honest terms as of late—it goes by the common name Meranti.
Of all the woods with “mahogany” in their common name, this one perhaps is the one most likely to be a sales gimmick to help sell more wood (which figures, since it’s primarily used for flooring—an industry rife with imaginary and flattering names). Although this wood may have a superficial likeness to true mahoganies in terms of grain pattern, it’s much heavier, and quite difficult to work—a far cry from the ideal that one would expect of a wood bearing the name “mahogany.”
If the naming of Santos Mahogany (Myroxylon balsamum) seemed to push the limits in terms of comparative density with genuine mahogany, then Mountain Mahogany is completely over the top. It is actually one of the densest and hardest woods in the United States—the dried wood is heavy enough to sink in water. To its credit, the wood’s color and overall appearance are vaguely reminiscent of mahogany, and it does have good stability, but that’s about where the similarities end. But the ambitious naming is much more forgivable as this wood is not commercially harvested, and was not done with the motive of increasing sales.
Despite its common name, this “mahogany” is actually a full-blooded member of the Eucalyptus genus—one of the botanical trademarks of Australia. Even though Australia is considered its own continent, in the world of trees it could almost be considered its own world. Australia has its own version of nearly every type of wood common to outsiders: they have their own maple, walnut, ash, beech, and so forth. However, just because the common name sounds similar doesn’t mean that the wood itself is a close match. In the case of Swamp Mahogany, the wood is slightly more dense and difficult to work, and the dimensional stability is much worse.