Since the early 18th century, mahogany has been the most important wood in the furniture trade. Growing in Central and South America and in Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola, it almost completely supplanted walnut as the primary wood in English furniture. True mahogany comes primarily from two species, Swietenia mahagoni and Swietenia macrophylla. While both species are found in antiques, S. mahagoni— known commonly as Cuban or St. Domingo mahogany, became the premiere wood for making Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture in England and the United States.
There is no wonder to anyone who has seen or worked this mahogany why it became the rage in the 18th century. Swietenia mahagoni is an outstanding furniture wood. It planes easily, is strong, dimensional stable, and resists rot. It is also among the most beautiful woods ever known. At its best it is dark and figured and, in certain cuts, exhibits rowing where the wood appears to have streaks of dark and light that change as you change your angle to it. As important, the wood came in great widths. Tea table tops 36” in diameter could be made from a single piece of wood. In the wood trade, these large boards would be designated “table wood.” But by the end of the 19th century, Swietenia mahagoni was almost completely harvested and Honduras mahogany (S. macrophylla) became more widely used. It too came in wide boards but just as with S. mahagoni, it has been over-harvested. Though both species are now protected in their natural habitat by CITES treaties in an attempt to preserve the tropical rainforest, illegal logging is still an ongoing problem.
The mahogany boards available today come from a few different genera, some from different families altogether, and what is being harvested from the true mahoganies is light and pulpy. African mahogany, sapele and okoume as well as Philippine mahogany, while not true mahoganies, are now important substitutes. None of them come close to the exquisite qualities of Swietenia mahagoni. Much in the way of stain and finishing techniques are needed to make these other woods look like what we expect of mahogany.
Between the poor quality available and the rainforest destruction, I never suggest mahogany as an option for making furniture. Our native walnut is an outstanding wood, is harvested sustainably, and can be finished without stain with very pleasing results. And with a bit of red dye, walnut will make a convincing “mahogany” as many American cabinetmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries well knew.
In restoration, finding just the right piece of wood with the right color and grain makes the difference between an ok repair and an outstanding one. Since such a large percentage of furniture was made from mahogany, much of my work requires mahogany for repair. To this end, I save every scrap and board of true mahogany that I can find, salvaging mahogany from old furniture that is being thrown away.