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First time working with Mahogany ... not impressed


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#1 Bobby Slack

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 08:42 PM

I am more in a Cherry and Walnut mood right now. I had a project to build a bunch of small boxes in mahogany and I was not that impressed. The customer wanted me to stain it ... I know that my taste will change. Mahogany just did not look interesting for some reason.
Some of you guys will get mad at me.

#2 flairwoodworks

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 10:03 PM

I am more in a Cherry and Walnut mood right now. I had a project to build a bunch of small boxes in mahogany and I was not that impressed. The customer wanted me to stain it ... I know that my taste will change. Mahogany just did not look interesting for some reason.
Some of you guys will get mad at me.


Mahogany works well, but it typically doesn't have the visual appeal (uniqueness, character) that I see in yew, maple, and other domestics I normally work with. My experience with mahogany is very limited.

I'm never impressed when a customer asks me to stain a nice-looking piece of wood... "yes, I think that would look very nice."

#3 Marty

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 10:40 PM

Yeah, but it's straight grained and stable and it's REALLY easy to work with hand tools. You have to be patient with mahogany to get to its true beauty. Aged mahogany has a deep, rich reddish brown color that I really like IMHO.
You didn't mention the one big negative, it costs too damn much, at least at my lumber yard. It's almost twice as much per bf as quarter sawn white oak.

#4 flairwoodworks

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 10:57 PM

You didn't mention the one big negative, it costs too damn much, at least at my lumber yard. It's almost twice as much per bf as quarter sawn white oak.

There was an article in Fine Woodworking a year or so ago about cheaper, lesser-known mahoganies. I think this is the ARTICLE, from issue #207. Do a search for sipo and khaya. And check out this PAGE and scroll down about half-way to read about Khaya and sapele (which I learned is pronounced SAH-PEE-LEE, not SAH-PAL).

#5 Gregory Paolini

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 03:18 AM

Plain Mahogany is pretty bland - That's part of why it was used in Greene & Greene design: So it wouldn't take away from all of the detail of the piece.

However, talk to Handtool woodworkers, and hybrid woodworkers, and that's when you get the praises of Mahogany.. It works so nice with a sharp chisel or plane. I rank it right up there with walnut & butternut for workability.

#6 Allen in Ohio

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 05:38 AM

I just worked with Mahogany for the first time on a small jewelry box for my wife's birthday. I found it pleasant to work with and the stuff I bought, for $5.99/BF, had some really nice ribbon figure and color. Pics below. The "accent strip" on the lid is maple. No stain, just 4 coats of Armor Seal.

Posted Image

Posted Image

#7 Bobby Slack

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 06:31 AM

Wow! This is what I like about this forum. You guys understood that my intention was not to offend anybody and understood my search for figure. Then you throw back this article. Thank you very much for this. I am impressed with the quality of the replies and their content. You guys for sure did not act like jerks ... :lol:

There was an article in Fine Woodworking a year or so ago about cheaper, lesser-known mahoganies. I think this is the ARTICLE, from issue #207. Do a search for sipo and khaya. And check out this PAGE and scroll down about half-way to read about Khaya and sapele (which I learned is pronounced SAH-PEE-LEE, not SAH-PAL).



#8 Bobby Slack

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 06:47 AM

Marty, when you say you have to be patient, do you mean that we should wait for the piece to age after finishing a few ... years ... so the true character of the wood comes out?

Yeah, but it's straight grained and stable and it's REALLY easy to work with hand tools. You have to be patient with mahogany to get to its true beauty. Aged mahogany has a deep, rich reddish brown color that I really like IMHO.
You didn't mention the one big negative, it costs too damn much, at least at my lumber yard. It's almost twice as much per bf as quarter sawn white oak.



#9 Bobby Slack

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 06:52 AM

Gregory.
Thanks for your post and I hear what you say about workability. I think that I also left room in my comment for the ability of changing my mind. It might be the case where I come up with an idea of using the stiles and rails of a piece made of mahogany and using the center panels of figured walnut ... I have no idea what the future will bring.
Also what you said about the bland features of the mahogany may help me in another piece to display ... something ... form of the shape of the piece and the mahogany does not get in the way (like G&G) and may be a piece of inlay or figured wood or something.
I don't want to sound like an "absolutist" if that word exists because in this career, and in design ... everything is relative.
Thanks.

Plain Mahogany is pretty bland - That's part of why it was used in Greene & Greene design: So it wouldn't take away from all of the detail of the piece.

However, talk to Handtool woodworkers, and hybrid woodworkers, and that's when you get the praises of Mahogany.. It works so nice with a sharp chisel or plane. I rank it right up there with walnut & butternut for workability.



#10 Bobby Slack

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 06:53 AM

That is a great looking box. Thanks for the pictures.

I just worked with Mahogany for the first time on a small jewelry box for my wife's birthday. I found it pleasant to work with and the stuff I bought, for $5.99/BF, had some really nice ribbon figure and color. Pics below. The "accent strip" on the lid is maple. No stain, just 4 coats of Armor Seal.

Posted Image

Posted Image



#11 Marty

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 08:03 AM

Marty, when you say you have to be patient, do you mean that we should wait for the piece to age after finishing a few ... years ... so the true character of the wood comes out?

Exactly. When I made my chessboard in Jr. High wood shop class, Mr. Bergstrom talked me out of walnut for the dark squares and suggested mahogany. He said it would look fantastic in 5 years and just get better over time. He was right. It looks so good right now that my parents won't give it back to me, and they don't even play chess. :)

#12 Tom Buhl

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 08:11 AM

You can find Mahogany with character, but it takes some work. Figure tends to need some room to display, so maybe not great for small boxes. Attached are some pix. Dresser is store-bought H Mahogany. Nice figure on top and sides, rest pretty basic. Even "plain" material can make for a good background to allow highlight and/or contrast elements stand out. As Greg said it is easy to work with using hand tools (and power), but his mention of sharp is truly important. Mahogany has reversing grain which means it readily tears out. At a recent L-N Roadshow, I brought an off cut of old-growth plank. Their demo guy spent over an hour getting a 12x14 inch plank end smooth. Several trips to sharpening station. But he did it. Beautiful.

Other attached pix are from a stool and hall table using old-growth, river-salvaged Mahogany. Perhaps 150-180 years old. Even the straight-grained material has nice, though subtle, detailing. Naturally it is expensive, relative to domestics or basic H Mahogany.

I can't imagine staining Mahogany, but I am sure there are some artists that can prove the limits of my imagination. But I'd say you'd only do it if you have a very specific plan and reason.

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#13 RenaissanceWW

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 08:28 AM

There was an article in Fine Woodworking a year or so ago about cheaper, lesser-known mahoganies. I think this is the ARTICLE, from issue #207. Do a search for sipo and khaya. And check out this PAGE and scroll down about half-way to read about Khaya and sapele (which I learned is pronounced SAH-PEE-LEE, not SAH-PAL).


It's true there are plenty of alternatives to genuine Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) that may add more interest if that is what you need. The key to Mahogany is it is so easy to work and doesn't have much character so the design can do the talking. These alternative are all in the Meliceae family like Mahogany but the African variants: Khaya, Sapele, Utile/Sipo are all going to be much more difficult to work with. The hardness is substantially higher and the interlocking grain and increased silica content is tough with hand tools. Both Sapele and Utile show pretty ribbon stripe when quarter sawn and faint striping when flat sawn but those stripes can be a pain to smooth out and often end up a little fuzzy. African Mahogany (Khaya ivorensis, senegalensis) is really the bottom of the barrel as far as workability but it is still quite stable. You have to be careful with this species though as there are so many variants and poor qualities that you can get absolute junk. I used to hate African Mahogany until I found some really nice stuff and now I enjoy working with it more. It is half the price usually of the Genuine stuff but it still will not work as cleanly and easily.

Utile/Sipo (Entodrophragma utile) is the most like Genuine in appearance and grain, but it is still 1260 hardness as compared to Genuine's 801. Utile's cost is maybe 2/3 of Genuine so it really is a great alternative.

Finally, Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata, huberi, or fissilis) is quickly becoming a favorite alternate for me. Most people think of it as cigar wood because it is used in humidors so much, but I find the carving and planing characteristics to be very similar to Genuine. The color and grain can be very easily mistaken for Utile although it is much lighter in weight. Good quality Spanish Cedar is getting tougher to find because of export regulations in South America and the bad stuff will be very resinous. A proper mill will set the sap in the kiln and get a very stable end product. Hardness is 560 so it is much easier to work and similar to something like Poplar but very very strong. I see this used a lot in exterior timber framed applications because of the strength and exterior durability.

#14 Bobby Slack

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 09:59 AM

Shannon!!!!!!
That is a great big Wow.
I love you guys (in a very manly way :lol: )
What a great idea I had on discussing mahogany. I will file this info and print it as an addition to my book "World Woods in Color".
Thank you all ... or y'all depending where are you located ... or fellers.

It's true there are plenty of alternatives to genuine Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) that may add more interest if that is what you need. The key to Mahogany is it is so easy to work and doesn't have much character so the design can do the talking. These alternative are all in the Meliceae family like Mahogany but the African variants: Khaya, Sapele, Utile/Sipo are all going to be much more difficult to work with. The hardness is substantially higher and the interlocking grain and increased silica content is tough with hand tools. Both Sapele and Utile show pretty ribbon stripe when quarter sawn and faint striping when flat sawn but those stripes can be a pain to smooth out and often end up a little fuzzy. African Mahogany (Khaya ivorensis, senegalensis) is really the bottom of the barrel as far as workability but it is still quite stable. You have to be careful with this species though as there are so many variants and poor qualities that you can get absolute junk. I used to hate African Mahogany until I found some really nice stuff and now I enjoy working with it more. It is half the price usually of the Genuine stuff but it still will not work as cleanly and easily.

Utile/Sipo (Entodrophragma utile) is the most like Genuine in appearance and grain, but it is still 1260 hardness as compared to Genuine's 801. Utile's cost is maybe 2/3 of Genuine so it really is a great alternative.

Finally, Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata, huberi, or fissilis) is quickly becoming a favorite alternate for me. Most people think of it as cigar wood because it is used in humidors so much, but I find the carving and planing characteristics to be very similar to Genuine. The color and grain can be very easily mistaken for Utile although it is much lighter in weight. Good quality Spanish Cedar is getting tougher to find because of export regulations in South America and the bad stuff will be very resinous. A proper mill will set the sap in the kiln and get a very stable end product. Hardness is 560 so it is much easier to work and similar to something like Poplar but very very strong. I see this used a lot in exterior timber framed applications because of the strength and exterior durability.



#15 Gregory Paolini

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Posted 17 March 2011 - 03:21 AM

I don't know how, but I managed to leave a couple cool Mahogany things out:

Weather resistance: Cuban and Honduran varieties are very weather resisitant. I'm not sure about the african variants

And Stability: Again, the South American variants are so stable, they were often used for Veneer substrate, as well as for patterns for foundry work, where their minimal expansion/contraction rates would not affect the casting created from them...

OH - It smells pretty good too

- Gotta run now: In search of more coffee!!!

#16 Bob Rozaieski

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Posted 17 March 2011 - 04:37 AM

I'm with Shannon. I think there is a big difference in the working properties of African mahogany (which I really wish they would stop calling mahogany) and genuine (South American, Honduran, Cuban, etc.) mahogany. The genuine stuff planes nicer, and beats the pants off the African stuff for carving. I've tried to carve several pieces of the African and have given up on it. It's terrible carving wood. Genuine on the other hand is a dream to carve.

Not that it makes the box pictured above any less stunning, but at $5.99/bd. ft., I'd almost bet my shop that you are working with the African variety (of course I could be completely wrong too). Most genuine that I've seen is much pricier than that for 4/4, never mind the thicker stuff.

One thing to keep in mind about genuine mahogany though is that historically it was chosen because it was relatively boring with regard to grain figure. If you've ever tried hand planing a piece of highly figured mahogany, cherry or walnut, you know why. With regard to carving and hand planing moldings, you want the most boring, straightest grained stuff you can get your hands on. You want the carving or the molding to speak, not the figure in the wood. Figure competes with the carving and makes carved elements look too busy. I've got some B&C feet I'm carving now in walnut and I ran into some figure in a couple of the blanks at the foot. The figured carvings have too much going on and look very chaotic. The legs with the straight boring grain look much better when carved. So in the heydays of mahogany, straight grained and boring was the good stuff because of all the carving and shaping and molding (not to mention being easier to work by hand).

Where we see highly figured stuff is in the veneered work, and large flat surfaces. In these areas (case sides, tops, drawer fronts, etc.) it's not uncommon to see the use of crotch figured stuff or pieces with a lot of flame or curl. As with any species, when working with mahogany, it's important to choose your stock carefully for the application you intend to use it for; straight and boring for carvings, moldings, drawer blades, feet, etc., and gnarly and figured for the showy parts like flat drawer fronts, case sides, table tops, etc. The project actually needs to start at the lumber yard with lumber selection. This is one of the reasons I don't buy a whole bunch of lumber to keep on hand. I pick and choose my boards for each project based on which parts I intend to use the lumber from a particular board for. That way I can intentionally choose a boring straight grained board or an exciting figured board depending upon the needs of the piece.

#17 Bobby Slack

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Posted 17 March 2011 - 09:41 AM

Thanks Bob for taking the time to write this. I have been buying a lot of walnut lately do do some projects and find after joining and plaining that some pieces have an amazing figure ... so I set them aside and wait for the right project come along.

So far, I have not done any carving and I totally agree with choosing the pieces for the right application. And that highly figured wood will compete with the carving or molding you are going for.


I'm with Shannon. I think there is a big difference in the working properties of African mahogany (which I really wish they would stop calling mahogany) and genuine (South American, Honduran, Cuban, etc.) mahogany. The genuine stuff planes nicer, and beats the pants off the African stuff for carving. I've tried to carve several pieces of the African and have given up on it. It's terrible carving wood. Genuine on the other hand is a dream to carve.

Not that it makes the box pictured above any less stunning, but at $5.99/bd. ft., I'd almost bet my shop that you are working with the African variety (of course I could be completely wrong too). Most genuine that I've seen is much pricier than that for 4/4, never mind the thicker stuff.

One thing to keep in mind about genuine mahogany though is that historically it was chosen because it was relatively boring with regard to grain figure. If you've ever tried hand planing a piece of highly figured mahogany, cherry or walnut, you know why. With regard to carving and hand planing moldings, you want the most boring, straightest grained stuff you can get your hands on. You want the carving or the molding to speak, not the figure in the wood. Figure competes with the carving and makes carved elements look too busy. I've got some B&C feet I'm carving now in walnut and I ran into some figure in a couple of the blanks at the foot. The figured carvings have too much going on and look very chaotic. The legs with the straight boring grain look much better when carved. So in the heydays of mahogany, straight grained and boring was the good stuff because of all the carving and shaping and molding (not to mention being easier to work by hand).

Where we see highly figured stuff is in the veneered work, and large flat surfaces. In these areas (case sides, tops, drawer fronts, etc.) it's not uncommon to see the use of crotch figured stuff or pieces with a lot of flame or curl. As with any species, when working with mahogany, it's important to choose your stock carefully for the application you intend to use it for; straight and boring for carvings, moldings, drawer blades, feet, etc., and gnarly and figured for the showy parts like flat drawer fronts, case sides, table tops, etc. The project actually needs to start at the lumber yard with lumber selection. This is one of the reasons I don't buy a whole bunch of lumber to keep on hand. I pick and choose my boards for each project based on which parts I intend to use the lumber from a particular board for. That way I can intentionally choose a boring straight grained board or an exciting figured board depending upon the needs of the piece.







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