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Mahogany Wood: How To Identify & Use Types of Mahogany
Although mahogany is often used as a marketing label for wood furniture and fixtures, these pieces aren’t always made from genuine mahogany wood. More than a half-dozen common types of wood are often labeled as mahogany, even though they don’t come from the same type of tree. Understanding the various types of mahogany and the characteristic details of each species can help you separate the real deal from common alternatives.
1. Cuban Mahogany
This species was the original tree called mahogany by furniture makers and artisans. Because of overuse, however, the Cuban government outlawed exportation of mahogany in 1946. Since that time, close relatives of the Cuban mahogany tree are also considered genuine mahogany. The rare availability of this wood today usually comes from trees planted in the U.S. that have been damaged by storms.
2. Honduran Mahogany
Many industry experts consider Honduran mahogany the closest species to original Cuban mahogany. It shares most of the same qualities of its sought-after cousin and is often marketed as genuine mahogany, American mahogany or Brazilian mahogany.
3. South American Mahogany
This hardwood species, which has long been widely used for furniture and other accoutrements, is considered authentic mahogany. Although South American mahogany has been prized by furniture manufacturers for at least three centuries, trade restrictions were placed on this species in 2013 when it was labeled as endangered.
South American mahogany is still available, but prices have dramatically increased as supplies are limited. Manufacturers who continue to use this material are required to invest in stringent harvest and export permits to promote the long-term sustainability of this species.
This type of mahogany is renowned for its exceptional working characteristics and moderately open grain. It’s especially useful for cabinetry and furniture that requires precise sanding, shaping and turning. Real mahogany is extremely stable and rot-resistant.
4. African Mahogany
Since 2003, most mahogany items sold in the U.S. are derived from the African mahogany tree. African mahogany is currently the most common and affordably priced variety on the American market. Although it looks like South American mahogany, it’s actually a different wood species with similar properties and appearance.
K. invorensis is the African mahogany species that is most similar to South American mahogany. It is sold both alone and mixed with other species, including K. anthotheca , K. grandifoliola and K. senegalensis.
This African tree species is found from the Ivory Coast to Cameroon and from Uganda to Zaire. Because it is denser and features a finer grain than African mahogany, many experts tout its exceptional working properties and consider it poised to be the next popular substitute for South American mahogany. Sapele is heavier and darker in color than authentic mahogany, with more variegation in grain.
Although this African wood variety also makes an excellent alternative to traditional mahogany, it isn’t as abundant as Sapele. However, its popularity in Europe makes a good case for the increased use of this wood stateside. It’s slightly darker than regular mahogany but has similar working characteristics that make it a durable, high-quality selection.
This hardwood tree found in west and central Africa produces lumber that is as durable and heavy as authentic mahogany. It’s also much closer in color and grain than either sipo or sapele, which makes it an affordable mahogany alternative. However, because bosse is inconsistently available and often features interlocking that makes it more difficult to work with, it is typically relegated to use in small, decorative pieces.
This Central and South American wood is rarely used in the U.S., but provides a close comparison to authentic mahogany in color, grain, weight and workability. However, it is slightly less stable than the real thing. This wood is sometimes used for flooring under the name royal mahogany.
9. Spanish Cedar
Although Spanish cedar is a stable, workable lumber with a grain similar to that of mahogany, it’s much paler in color with a stronger aroma. Because it’s also much softer and more lightweight than real mahogany, it is usually not considered a suitable replacement for the prized wood.
10. Australian Red Cedar
This species, often marketed as Indian mahogany, is closely related to Spanish cedar. Like its cousin, it doesn’t serve as a workable replacement for the real thing because of its light, soft texture. However, its reddish hue does provide a close match for mahogany’s characteristic color.
The pale shade of this African wood has earned it the moniker white mahogany. Although it looks like a blonde version of African mahogany, it can be more difficult to work with because of its variable grain. It’s also not durable enough to stand up to the elements, so should be used only for indoor pieces.
Identifying Real Mahogany
In general, wood species considered authentic mahogany include Cuban, Honduran and South American mahogany, although some experts also place African mahogany in this category. When shopping for true mahogany, look for certification from the Rain Forest Alliance or the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that the lumber was responsibly and sustainably harvested.
The Mahogany Association operated in the U.S. throughout the first half of the 20th century. Antique mahogany from this era will have an identification decal issued by the organization.
According to This Old House, real mahogany averages about $28 a board foot, almost 10 times more expensive than comparable furniture-grade woods like cherry. However, its distinctive appearance, exceptional work-ability and gorgeous finish make the cost worthwhile for fans of this renowned material.