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What is Mahogany Lumber?

By Heather Phillips
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mahogany lumber is a highly sought-after hardwood that has been used to make furniture, boats, and pianos, as well as in other woodworking endeavors for at least five centuries. It is often named for the geographical area where it originated. Varieties include West Indies, Honduras, and African.

Mahogany lumber is so desired due to its characteristic hardness and durability. It resists rot, which makes it a favorite of boat-builders. It also tends to produce warm tones when used in making musical instruments, such as pianos and guitars. It also has a rich, deep color that furniture crafters value.

Mahogany lumber dries somewhat rapidly. Once it is seasoned, it has fairly good stability, neither swelling nor shrinking much. Working with mahogany can be tough on woodworkers’ cutting tools, however. Since it is so hard and dense, it tends to dull tool edges rapidly.

Originally, the variety of mahogany lumber that was most commonly used was Swietenia mahagoni. This kind of wood was prevalent throughout the Caribbean, but was lumbered almost to extinction by the 1950s. It is currently planted as an ornamental tree in its native habitats, which include southern Florida, in addition to the Caribbean.

Another selection currently used for mahogany lumber is Swietenia macrophylla, also known as Honduras mahogany. This is a very desirable inland variety, similar in characteristics to Swietenia mahagoni. Historically, it was commonly found in the tropical forests of South and Central America, but is becoming more rare there, due to a higher demand than availability.

In addition to wood that comes from the Swietenia genus, another source of mahogany lumber comes from the Khaya genus, which grows in Africa and is sold as African mahogany. This is noted for its interlocked grain, and, due to this, it can have a tendency to tear or chip as it is being cut. Thus, care must be taken with the cutting angle in relation to the wood edge when a woodworker uses this type of lumber.

As genuine mahogany lumber has become more rare, and similar wood is desired for its traditional uses, other types of wood are sometimes marketed as mahogany. One such type is sapele. Sapele wood is good for many projects for which mahogany was traditionally used. It has characteristics similar to African mahogany, but it can tend to warp as it is drying. It also has a different grain pattern, which can look ribbon-like or wooly.

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