True mahogany

Q: What is mahogany? How can you tell the difference between African, Honduras and Philippine mahogany? What is true mahogany?

A: The original mahogany wood used for furniture and cabinets was from the American West Indies and was used by Europeans in the 1600s, and later, by the European settlers here in America, and by people throughout the world for the past two centuries. This wood is from the trees that are in the Swietenia species group. Today we call this wood true mahogany, Honduras mahogany or American mahogany. The wood is an excellent wood; it machines well, dries well, shrinks very little and has beautiful grain patterns.

In Africa, there was a plentiful species, Khaya, which looks very close to Honduras mahogany. It became a substitute for real mahogany. Today, we call this wood African mahogany. It is not quite as good as Honduras mahogany, due to the interlocked grain (more warp and harder to machine) and due to variability in properties, but it is very close.

In the Philippines there is a species called Shorea (or sometimes Luan or Meranti), which is commonly imported into the United States. This is also called Philippine mahogany, but it is often softer, lighter and browner in color, coarser grained and harder to machine and finish than true mahogany. Actually, there are over 100 species in this group, so properties vary considerably.

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Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.