Today and in the next coming days, we will be exploring the most commonly used woods in fine furniture. From dark to light woods, these posts will offer useful information on the origins, purposes, and characteristics of the woods used in fine furniture. So, let’s begin.
Perhaps the most widely known wood for furniture, mahogany is our starting point. Even if you don’t know much about wood furniture, chances are you’ve at least heard of mahogany. As previously blogged about, mahogany is part of the dark-coloured hardwood category of woods. True mahoganies belong to the genus Swietenia which are found in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. Mahogany also, however, can originate in Africa in which they belong to the genus Khaya.
Its tale is fascinating and is historically more than just a wood, but an object entrenched in human history forever linked to colonialism and deforestation. According to tradition, Sir Walter Raleigh returned to England in 1597 after his exploratory voyages in the West Indies. He came back with reddish brown planks of wood used in repairs in his ships. Upon visiting the ships when they returned to England, Queen Elizabeth commented on the strange brown wood used in the ships. Immediately, the planks were removed and sent to a furniture craftsman who converted them to a table, which was given to the Queen. Now part of the royal line of furniture, this strange wood from the ‘New World’ soon became the preferred wood to use in fine furniture. From this point on, mahogany remained a hallmark of fine furniture and woodworking due to its beautiful grain, durability, and construction. Many of the finest pieces in the world have been made from mahogany.
The history of mahogany is also linked to deforestation in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. The inevitable centuries of logging for mahogany after its discovery and the subsequent high demand in Europe in the 1500s to today, has made it part of the endangered species list of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Flaura and Fauna, or CITES. In short, any state trading in mahogany needs to ensure that the mahogany came from legal and sustainable logging grounds.
Today, mahogany plantations in Asia (India, Fiji, Indonesia notably) supply most of the world’s genuine mahogany due to the deforestation in the Caribbean and the Americas.
Texture & Colour
Mahogany can take on various colours and have different patterns of grain and range from soft to very hard. Cuban mahogany is the heaviest and hardest and also yields the richest grain. Raw mahogany takes on different natural colours from a light almost red-pinkish brown tinge to very dark browns. Contrary to popular belief and like other woods, the unique grain and figure of mahogany has nothing to do with the way the tree is cut but rather from a microscopic process that takes place within the tree itself. This process results in the ‘figure’ of the wood. Not to be confused with grain, figure is produced by wood fibres interlocking together. These fibres twist and turn with another to form various patterns in the wood. Crotch or flamed mahogany is the result of the fibres struggling with one another to follow their own paths to the branches they will eventually support to grow. They cross and twist so much that they form swirls which results in crotch or flamed mahogany. Other figures include fiddleback, mottoe, raindrop, etc.
Mahogany is generally a very hard wood, it is durable, and is immune to warping. For all these reasons, it is a favourite for woodworkers and cabinet makers. It is also used for trimming on fine boats, pianos and other instruments, sculpting, joinery, turnery, veneer, interior trim, and carving.