As most fans of mahogany know, the wood considered by many to be the most famous of the fine furniture mahoganies is Swietenia mahagoni, also known as Cuban mahogany. Cuban mahogany is prized for its characteristics - it is hard, heavy, and extremely durable. The close-grained wood works well and can be finished beautifully.
About the only thing wrong with Cuban mahogany is that you cannot easily purchase it. The export of the species from Cuba was banned in 1946 and supplies are very scarce.
Thankfully for lovers of mahogany, there are many alternatives on the market. One popular, affordable choice is African mahogany.
Curtis Zdunski of Randolph Dimension Corp. in Randolph, NY, said his firm had been a producer of South American dimension lumber for the past 25 years, but he is now buying and selling more African mahogany. "With the restrictions on logging in Brazil, I have had to find good quality alternatives," he explains. Zdunski likes the availability of the wood and finds it works and looks similar to South American mahogany.
Zdunski said at one time, his company used 10,000 to 22,000 feet of South American mahogany every four to six weeks, but they use that much now annually. His customers purchase African mahogany for high-end uses. "Most want glued up blanks, or turning squares. Some use it for carving but all of it is used for quality work."
A Worthy Alternative
The heartwood is a light pink-brown that darkens when cut to a reddish brown. It has a medium to coarse texture and a straight to interlocked grain, which can yield a striped or roe figure. The wood finishes well and has a lustrous quality. Of the three species generally called African mahogany, Khaya anthotheca is reportedly the only one suitable for steam bending.
African mahogany is used for furniture and cabinetry, paneling, boat building, veneer, office and shop fixtures, interior joinery, staircase banisters, handrails and domestic flooring.
In his book Know Your Woods, Albert Constantine described a means of logging sometimes used for African mahogany. "After felling, the logs are frequently squared using adzes in order to avoid transporting unnecessary amounts of useless timber for long distances and to remove sapwood to prevent the attacks of ambrosia beetles, which cause pinholes."
'Mahogany' Often Misused
The Encyclopedia of Wood says the term African mahogany "covers all trees of the Khaya species," with the bulk of commercial timber coming from Khaya ivorensis, which occurs in the coastal rain forests of West Africa from the Ivory Coast to the Cameroons and Gabon. Khaya anthotheca and Khaya nyasica grow in Uganda and Tanzania.
Larry Frye, in the Fine Hardwoods Selectorama, writes that "mahogany" is an "often misused name, applied to many woods not from the mahogany family. The three authentic commercial species of mahogany are Swietenia mahagni, Swietenia macrophylla and Khaya ivorensis."
Two related species that are sometimes called African mahogany or heavy African mahogany are Khaya grandifoliola and Khaya senegalensis. These woods have many of the same uses, but generally have a density of 42 to 50 pounds per cubic foot, while the average density of true African mahogany is 32 to 34 pounds per cubic foot.
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