Types of Mahogany & How to Finish

Types of Mahogany & How to Finish

Information on mahogany wood and how to finish and stain it.

Craftsman Style

¶ The history of mahogany is long and fascinating, too much so to be more than touched upon in the limited space of this chapter. In 1597 Sir Walter Raleigh returned to England after one of his wandering voyages at sea. In the decks of his ships were reddish brown planks which had been used to make repairs to the ships after long weeks of battle with the sea. The repairs were made in the West Indies where Raleigh had made a stop for rest and repairs. The natives had suggested the use of this wood which was strange to the civilized world. On visiting these ships when they returned to England, Queen Elizabeth commented upon the strange brown wood in the decks of the ships, whereupon Raleigh had the planks removed, and sent to skilled furniture craftsmen who made a table from them. The table was presented to the Queen. Its great beauty and royal patronage soon placed mahogany in a preferential position as a fine cabinet wood, where it has remained ever since. It has always been associated with quality of furniture and, of course, has always been imitated in every conceivable way. A great many of the finest pieces of furniture made by such master designers and cabinet craftsmen as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and others were made of mahogany and these masters worked almost entirely with mahogany because of its sound qualities in construction and its great beauty.

¶ A small number of mahogany trees grow in the United States, in the Florida everglades, but they are not accessible. Genuine mahogany grows in tropical sections. The wood is imported from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and other Central American States. It comes, too, from South America, the Nigerian, Gold and Ivory coasts of West Africa. The West Indies, principally Cuba and Santo Domingo supply some of the best mahogany. There are woods which are sold as mahogany, called Hawaiian, Philippine and East Indian mahogany, which are not related to genuine mahogany in any way. They, however, have qualities and beauties of their own.

¶ Prima Vera is another wood called mahogany, or white mahogany. It comes from Mexico and Central America. It is very similar in grain and figure to genuine mahogany. Its color is a light, golden yellow. It, too, is open-grain and makes a beautiful finish in stains.

¶ Spanish cedar from Mexico, Cuba and the West Indies is called mahogany. It resembles mahogany in grain and figure but is more porous of texture. This wood is much used for cigar boxes because of its porous structure which assists the seasoning process supposed to improve cigars. It is sold for and used as mahogany in furniture and wood trim.

¶ Butternut, called white walnut, is another wood which resembles genuine mahogany in many respects when stained. It is not difficult for one who is familiar with real mahogany to detect the difference, however.

¶ Because mahogany has always been associated with quality and richness of surroundings it is generally considered a very expensive wood, yet the actual figures of cost when using it for interior wood trim of the better buildings shows that it costs but a few dollars more than oak, birch and some other woods. About 50,000,000 board feet of mahogany are imported into the United States each year for furniture and interior building trim and panels.

¶ In characteristics mahogany ranges from soft to very hard. The Cuban mahogany is the heaviest and hardest, but produces the richest grain and figure beauties. Mahogany is an open-grain wood of great strength. It does not shrink and warp and for that reason was so quickly favored by cabinet workers. In color it is varied from light pinkish browns to dark browns. Its surface takes a polish with a depth of lustre which is unequalled and with age it takes on a marvelous color depth and quality which is illusive to describe in words, being like the deep red of old wine with yellow light showing through it. The red commonly associated with mahogany is not the natural color of the wood, but a stained color which has been superceded lately by brown stain. Natural finished mahogany, called toona mahogany, is light pinkish brown in color.

¶ The grain character and figure of mahogany is not due to various ways of sawing the wood, as is true with oak and others. It comes in two grades called plain and figured. An explanation of the figure is well presented by the Mahogany Association, Inc., New York, N. Y., as follows:

¶ Considerable confusion exists as to what is meant by the word Figure. Figure has nothing to do with grain. The grain of wood is produced, partially, by the size and character of its pores and fibres, but more by the lines of demarcation between periods of growth, known in temperate zone woods as annular growth rings. While mahogany is a tropical tree and grows practically continuously, it has these latter grain markings to some extent. Furthermore, they show on both plain and figured surfaces.
¶ Figure, on the other hand, is produced in mahogany by the interlocking and interlacing of the wood fibres. In other words, the fibres of the tree twist and curl sc that, when manufactured into lumber or veneers, some are seen from one angle and some from another, producing that play of light and shade known as figure. It can readily be seen that these growth convolutions which, by the way, usually extend through several periods of growth could never be twice alike and, therefore, that every piece of figured mahogany is individual.
¶ Notwithstanding this diversity there are certain characteristics of figure that enable those in the trade to establish types, or names under which figured mahogany is sold. These number over twenty, of which a few typical examples will be described.
¶ "Plain" has no surface markings except those produced by the tree's growth and known as grain as above explained.
¶ "Stripy Figure" means that the surface is broken into ribbon-like stripes of fairly uniform width, lengthwise with the grain.
¶ "Broken Stripe" means that the irregular stripes twist and tumble, come to the surface and disappear, in a play of light and shade that produces a satisfying individuality.
¶ "Mottle" in its various forms, means that the surface of the wood looks as though the tree had met with some cataclysm of nature that boldly forced the fibres into great confusion, pushing them sidewise and producing countless splashes of light and shade that mingle in a kaleidoscopic riot of figure effect.
¶ "Rain-drop" in some ways is similar to a combination of Mottle and Broken Stripe. The interruptions in the Broken Stripe figure are sudden and positive, giving the effect of rain splashes driven by a high wind.
¶ "Fiddle-back" is named from the fine, curly, rippling figure seen on the backs of rare, old violins. It is like the effect of a gentle summer breeze on a placid pond where one tiny wavelet follows another in a procession of ripples. Fiddleback is a typical, well-named and distinctive variety of figured mahogany.
¶ "Crotch". High up in the air, in the trunk of a mahogany tree, a silent but intense struggle takes place among the fibres in the attempt of each to follow its own inclination in determining to which of the great branches overhead it shall pledge its allegiance and support. Consequently the fibres cross, twist and tumble in a swirl that, when manufactured into veneer, produces the most highly figured mahogany of all the"Crotch" figure so well known and so long used.

¶ It was not until about one hundred and fifty years after Sir Walter Raleigh introduced mahogany into England that it became a product of commerce. It was used much at first for building ships and still is used for the smaller pleasure craft because of its enduring and strong qualities. From the beginning it has been used both in solid and veneered forms for the construction of furniture and cabinets. Today its greatest use is for furniture, cabinets and panels for interior walls and doors.

¶ In the matter of finish mahogany has had an eventful career. The early masters of furniture design and construction knew that the least possible finish and the most transparent finish was best for this wood. Many of the pieces were finished simply by rubbing into the wood coat after coat of oil, wiping it and letting it dry before the next coat. The most beautiful and durable French polish finishes amounted to about the same thing, using oil and very thin shellac, much time and much labor. When first finished these fine old pieces which are worth fabulous sums of money today were quite light in color, but as the play of sunlight and the natural aging of the wood progressed the finishes developed marvelous depths of color variety and richness. Noting these beauties people who devote their lives to pretending they are or have something of great value were not satisfied with the genuine mahogany finish when new. They ordered the furniture craftsmen to doctor the finishes to make them look like the artistic beauties of the mellowed-with-age pieces of mahogany furniture. So no matter how it went against the artistic natures of craftsmen who worked for bread they were compelled to stain the new mahogany to look like the old. They succeeded well, but their imitators soon produced stains and finishes which had none of the transparent nature of the masters' finishes. The red color which the average person calls mahogany soon developed, devoid of any depth of finish and beauty such as is possessed by the aged mahogany. Prom this point it was only a step or two down to the practice of staining other woods with the same red color and calling it mahogany, purposely making the stain with a lack of transparency so that the real character of the wood would be obscured.

¶ Real mahogany finish is neither a flaring red nor a nearly black brown, but a color in between which is too illusive to describe. It is well that today there is a well-defined movement on foot to stop obscuring the natural beauty of mahogany, walnut and in fact all woods with finishing coats which are too thick and which lack the transparency of quality finishes. Each of the cabinet woods has beauties all its own. Nature has not made two woods alike and those which are fit for finishing in their natural color and with really transparent stains which simply preserve and enhance the wood grain should be finished for their own value, not as imitations of something they are not. Pretensions are of no value among woods any more than they are among people. Many of the troubles with fine finished woods, such as murky, cloudy, mottled defects which developed in use are afflictions which have been thrust upon the wood by the use of finishes which are not artistic and not practical for the service to which the furniture and trim woods are put.

¶ The open grain of mahogany is best filled for period and conventional finishes with silex (silica) filler of very fine and fairly thin character. It is usually colored very dark with drop black and Vandyke brown ground in oil tinting colors. The wiping of the stain must be done with exceptional care to avoid clouding the very fine grain.

¶ For the finest of finishes no filler is used. The wood is carefully matched as to grain and figure and is filled with a coat or two of very thin orange shellac which is rubbed close, resulting in the removal of all shellac except what lodges in the pores of the wood. White shellac ought never to be used on mahogany because in time it clouds the finish with a white mottled effect. Sometimes white and orange shellac are mixed for this filling. The slow hand-rubbed oil and French polish finishes require no filler of the paste type. As a matter of fact about all these finishing methods do is to fill the grain of the wood with oil, shellac or both by thin coats; they saturate the wood to considerable depth and that is why they are both beautiful and very durable, while at the same time allowing the natural markings of the wood to remain unobscured.

¶ The best stains for making mahogany darker are the water aniline and the chemical water stains which are the most transparent. They simply dye the wood fibre and do not fill or obscure any of the natural color shadings and figure markings.

¶ The final finish on most mahogany wood used for furniture and building panels and trim is pale gloss varnish which may be hand polished to a high lustre in the case of furniture and cabinets and dull rubbed by hand for wall panels and other large surfaces which do not look well with a high gloss.

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