Friday, January 4, 2013

Why Cuban Mahogany?

I have a lot of books.  I have always found the money for books.  I buy books instead of food.

I have several old editions, large format, which document the history of English furniture by wood.  One set, in four volumes, was published in 1906 by Percy Macquoid, and includes lavish illustrations of important examples of each type and period:  The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany, and the Age of Satinwood.

When I started out collecting antiques, I instinctively followed this method of analysis, instead of the historical terms for the periods.  After all, as a young man, it is more difficult to think of Queen Anne and Chippendale, when trying to decide between a walnut chair and a mahogany chair, then to just look at the wood and pick the best example.

As I began my teaching career in Decorative Arts, of course I studied the historical periods and used them to discuss the different styles.  Always, in my mind, there was a clear evolution from domestic woods to imported woods, over time, culminating in the exotic selection of imported woods used in marquetry surfaces, which I found fascinating to look at.

As a collector, my budget determined what I could acquire.  During the 1970's I made a lot of money buying American Oak and refinishing it for the local market.  It was everywhere.  Oak is durable and plentiful.  There are different styles and many different forms, from Golden Oak to Mission Oak and from dining room sets to bedroom sets.  Quarter sawn or flat sawn, carved, turned and veneered.

At one point, I had a 6' diameter round oak table in my dining room with a dozen chairs around.  Many parties were enjoyed around that table, and it survived in good form.  It is now taken apart and stored in the back room of my shop, just because I couldn't get rid of it.

At some point, in the 80's, I started to buy walnut furniture.  That meant that, instead of furnishings from the 1880's to 1900, I was bringing home Victorian Renaissance furniture from the Civil War era.  Soon the oak was gone and the dark walnut was everywhere, accented by white marble tops and black teardrop pulls.

After that, I enjoyed a brief period of rosewood furniture, but it was scarce and expensive and I couldn't furnish the entire house with it.

That is when I discovered mahogany.  Amazing Cuban mahogany.  The true royal wood.  Huge solid slabs of wood, highly figured and rich in color, with a finish that you can fall into.  The perfect wood for furniture, whether veneered, turned or deeply carved.  Overnight the walnut and rosewood was out and the place was filled with mahogany.  Still is.  Can't get enough of it.  Even my 10' tall canopy bed.

See if you can find a book, published in 1926, edited by William Farquhar Payson, called "Mahogany, Antique and Modern."  It is the best and most complete book I have seen on the history of this wood.
As late as 1926, lumber dealers in the East Coast still were able to buy and sell enormous quantities of this wood, as seen in this illustration from the book:

Yes, that is a man standing there next to the pile of logs.  The caption says: "The supply of this mahogany is rather scarce, and the logs are obtainable now in comparatively small sizes only."  I suppose you can complain when you only get 20 foot logs that are nearly 3 feet in diameter. Just imagine the size of the logs that were used a century earlier!

Within 10 years from the publication of this book, the supply was gone, for all practical economic purposes, and the furniture industry began a coordinated effort to justify using African species of the wood.  I have a book published by the Mahogany Association, Inc., which actively promotes African woods as equal to Cuban in all aspects.   It includes a map of the regions where mahogany grows and states: "The map below indicates the only natural habitats of Mahogany trees.  Woods alleged to be Mahogany but coming from other than the regions indicated, are not mahogany.  Woods purporting to be some kind of Mahogany but not from the regions listed above, should not be accepted as Mahogany."

Remember these words when you visit your local lumber yard and try to buy mahogany today.

One of the reasons it matters, what type of mahogany you have to work with, is that Cuban mahogany is much more dense and has a much greater strength than Honduras or African woods.  Most of the Cuban trees were ancient inhabitants of the tropical forest, some as old as 400 years when they were cut down by European invaders and their slaves, some 200 years ago.  That means that the wood in my Empire table started growing some 600 years ago.  I would be surprised to know that any "mahogany" being sold these days was more than 50 years old!

As an example, last week a client brought in a Hepplewhite shield back chair from his dining room set which was nicely carved and well designed.  He had the idea that it was from 1800, but, as soon as I saw it, I complimented him on the quality of his "reproduction."  He was a little surprised and more than a little disappointed to learn that, but I patiently pointed out the various features that clearly indicated it was a reproduction.

Most of all, I said that, if it were made of Cuban mahogany, it probably would have not broken.  By making a true shield back design in Honduras mahogany, it was inevitable that it would break.  The wood does not have the strength to support the normal use that a chair sustains.

Not only was it badly broken, but it had been repaired with a combination of super glue, "the strongest glue on planet Earth," and putty.  None of that worked.  Repairing a shield back chair is one of the most challenging repairs, as the design violates all the normal strength elements of wood.  Add to that problem the difficulty of removing synthetic glues and putty and it becomes an interesting project.

It is hard to see, from the photo above, but I used elastic bands, tape, wood clamps, bar clamps, "C" clamps, and my imagination to reconstruct the chair back.  First I cleaned off all the broken surfaces, using a toothing plane and small chisels.  Then I went through the sequence of assembly, without glue, so that I clearly understood where to start.  Then I cut and attached blocks of pine where I needed to put the clamps (see my post on Vector Clamping).  Then I warmed up the room and glue and started to put it together.  Of course I used Old Brown Glue.

This project took 2 hours of preparation and nearly 30 minutes of actual assembly.

By the way, in 1976 I was quoted a price in Paris for Cuban mahogany elements of antique furniture at $6000 for a cubic meter.  That is one of the reasons I started buying the stuff.  When everything else fails, I can still break up all my furniture and sell it for scrap!


Chuck said...

Wow! That is some job of clamping, Patrick. Thank you for the fine lesson in understanding wood. having no Cuban mahogany samples in my stash, I cannot envision the growth and pore structures. Are there any woods available today that could be used with such a fragile structural form?


W. Patrick Edwards said...


That is a good question, which exactly illustrates the point of this post. Without the supply of high quality Cuban mahogany, much of the exotic designs of Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite would never have been made.

As I know you follow my blog, you know I talk about the workmanship of risk, which derives from using hand tools. You need to consider the material in that process, as it affects the results.

For example, when ebony was introduced, European woodworkers treated it as they would local woods, like cherry, oak and walnut. It did not work, so they adapted their process to use it as a veneer, creating a new trade, the "ebeniste."

With the introduction of mahogany, around the mid-18th century, workers found that its size and strength allowed them to push the designs much further than previously possible with walnut or oak.

Thus, Chippendale and others published amazing design books showing forms that had not been possible just decades before.

I know of no other wood species that would work for many of these designs, and hypothesize that the shield back chair is a direct result of the availability of Cuban mahogany.

John Cashman said...

Understanding the difference in an academic sense is one thing, but there is no substitute for touch and feel. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to take a carving class with Al Breed. We were working with blanks of what were very good pieces of Honduran mahogany, and he passed around a sample of old Cuban mahogany he had found for a particular commission. The difference was absolutely stunning. The weight, density, and color were astounding. It didn't seem proper to call them the same thing.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Years ago I attended the wood analysis class at Amherst taught each year by Bruce Hoadley. I was excited to learn from him, as I had enjoyed all his books.

The first day, as I sat in the front row with my arm waving in the air, he called on me. I asked, "How can you tell the difference between Cuban and Honduras mahogany?"

To my surprise, he said, simply, "You can't. Next question."

I realized that, from a strictly academic position, since the features of both woods overlapped in many aspects, that there was always some "reasonable doubt." Difficult to prove in court.

However, after decades of sanding, cutting, carving and turning antique mahogany furniture, I was sure I could tell the difference. I am also sure that a cabinetmaker or lumber dealer working in the early 19th century could also tell the difference.

So much for book "learning."

John Cashman said...

Thanks for replying. There may be no difference in the taxonomical designation between South American mahogany species, I don't know. I can't recall if it was Payson or Daniel Finamore in his nice article on mahogany in the 2008 issue of Amerixan Furniture, but the location, soil condition and climate seemed to have more to do with the quality of the lumber. The biggest difference is likely the distinction between old and new growth timber.

As another example, I was always somewhat amused that the Chapins and other rural New England furnituremakers "mahoganized" cherry. I mean, who would have difficulty telling yhe difference between cherry and mahogany, right? But the cherry available in 1780 was nothing at all like the cherry we have today. It really could imitate mahogany.

I love your work.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

You just made the most important point. Old growth or new growth.

Imagine the quality of timber available in the virgin forests of the Americas, as the Europeans arrived. Trees growing undisturbed for many centuries.

Not only that, but the timber men had real knowledge of the timber stock, and carefully selected trees with the policy of letting younger trees grow up and only taking older trees, managing the forest intelligently.

Remember, this was two centuries before the chain saw and clear cutting policies served to destroy the environment.

Also, I have seen period New England furniture made of cherry heartwood, 1" thick and over 20" wide, dark and rich, as dense as some mahogany.

You make some good points. Thanks for commenting.

Chuck said...

I have been studying and pondering the issue of the mahogany (Swietenia spp.) since the original post and recent comments all point to the same conclusion. Dr. Hoadley's comment is appropriate for him as a wood anatomist, that "there is no difference". Yet we know from personal observation that there is a difference in each piece of wood that we handle. I have not had the privilege of touching or feeling a piece of old growth mahogany but I can almost imagine what it might be like. Heavier, darker, closed grain look, pore features not easily distinguished without magnification and so on.

In the book "Directory of the Historic Cabinet Woods" by F. Lewis Hinckley published 1960, one reads in the section on mahogany: "Hardness and weight, affected by rapidity of growth, form a principal difference between Cuban and Honduran timbers. The harder and heavier Cuban wood is produced by trees that reach a diameter of twenty-four inches after a full century of growth, while Honduran trees that attain an equal diameter in seventy-five years yield wood that is softer and lighter in weight. Variations in weight now range from 28 to 48 pounds per cubic foot, while timbers from giant slow-growing island trees might weigh considerably more than this higher figure.
In view of the variances and parallels that are found in mahogany timbers it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate island and mainland species. According to American governmental authority, "if the place of origin is not known, it can not be determined from an examination of the wood.""

This brings us to George Hepplewhite and his shield back chair design. Whether Hepplewhite himself ever actually made one of these chairs is apparently not known, at least to me. The design appears in his book "The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide" published by his widow in 1788 (John T. Kirk, American Furniture, 2000). This design has provided a challenge to chair builders ever since. A look at the design tells us that it would be extremely difficult to execute in any wood and subject to easy breakage. The curves of the shield and the other elements are not consistent with stability of woods. Was it successful in old growth Cuban mahogany? Possible because of the density and strength of the wood coupled with an interlocked grain. But I'll bet that if examples exist, there might be evidence of repairs. Besides, it looks dashed uncomfortable to me with the straight back and design elements poking the back etc.

I shall have to hit my friends up in the IWCS to let me look at a piece.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Excellent comment, Chuck. I am pleased and a little surprised at the number of comments and depth of discussion this post has generated.

Back to Chuck's original question: what wood would you use to make this chair, if not mahogany? I recall a period English Hepplewhite triple shield back settee that I restored many years ago. It was made of satinwood, and the wood was very hard and dense. So old growth satinwood from Ceylon would be a good alternative.

However, I restored this settee as it had indeed sustained some critical breaks in the back structure. So, go figure...

And, yes, it is not designed for comfort. Kind of like high heeled shoes!

Tom said...

Are there any plans for regrowing Cuban Mahog ?? Are there any saplings or seeds left anywhere to re-forrest ?? It would've been nice if someone 50 yrs. ago would have tried to regrow some of this golden wood.

W. Patrick Edwards said...


There are still a few mahogany trees of this species which stand in Florida in parks, in Cuba and perhaps even in Central America. They are protected by law.

I know that many decades ago some seeds from these trees were planted in Australia, I believe. There was an attempt to harvest and sell the wood from this plantation at very high prices, but the wood was of very poor quality.

I actually have some seed pods from a Cuban mahogany tree. They are very large and shaped like an avocado.

The tree only grows in specific regions on Earth, and takes centuries to mature. I do not see much chance for anyone alive today to see the return of this material to the market place. The only wood left is in the form of early antique furniture, which should increase in value as more and more people realize how beautiful it really is.

W. Patrick Edwards said...


There are still a few mahogany trees of this species which stand in Florida in parks, in Cuba and perhaps even in Central America. They are protected by law.

I know that many decades ago some seeds from these trees were planted in Australia, I believe. There was an attempt to harvest and sell the wood from this plantation at very high prices, but the wood was of very poor quality.

I actually have some seed pods from a Cuban mahogany tree. They are very large and shaped like an avocado.

The tree only grows in specific regions on Earth, and takes centuries to mature. I do not see much chance for anyone alive today to see the return of this material to the market place. The only wood left is in the form of early antique furniture, which should increase in value as more and more people realize how beautiful it really is.

Tom said...

Well Mr. Edwards, I took your advice & found the book "Mahogany, Antique and Modern", on ABE Books.
Thank you for recommending it ! I too have been garnishing a collection of woodworking books since 1977. At least 18 on marquetry alone !! In all those years, I have not seen or heard of this book. You would think that F.W.W. or the S.A.P.F.M., would say something about it. (maybe they did & I missed it). Astonishing photos, (would be asking too much if they were in color though), & a great first 2 paragraphs on pg. 15. Sums up my feelings on furniture in the last 40 yrs. A must for all who love the "King of Wood".

W. Patrick Edwards said...

One of the first things I did when I got online was put "book search engine" in quotes in Google search. That gave me a list of search engines to find books.

As long as you know the title or author, you can find books somewhere in the world.

It is not the same as driving around the country, walking through old used book stores day after day, but it is much more efficient.

Unfortunately, most of the used book stores are now closed, but fortunately for us dinosaurs you can find their inventory using these search engines.
And the wonderful books arrive in the snail mail.

wclaspy said...

You may be interested in a new book- one published in 2012 entitled Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America, written by Jennifer L. Anderson (Harvard University Press, I've not read the whole thing, but it is an interesting look at the history and economics of mahogany and the furniture trade.

jonas baker said...

A local cabinet maker was closing recently, and he had enormous planks of cuban mahogany, that he was selling for $30 a board foot. The planks had very large iron spike holes in them, and it was surmised that they came from an old wooden ship of some sort. This cabinet maker had discovered this wood sitting in a barn in the 70's. I still lament not buying as much as I could. I bought a smaller piece, and it is beautiful wood, far nicer than honduran mahogany. He ended up selling it all to a small wood seller, and when I called to ask about it, he wanted a vastly large sum for the whole lot. Missed my chance!!!


W. Patrick Edwards said...

I noticed the review in the New York Times about the 2012 book on the mahogany trade. I want to read it but I am not anxious to learn more about the horrible conditions and brutal slavery that accompanied that trade. I suppose I need to face reality.

As to the lumber with the large spike holes, I have heard personal stories about the American military occupation of Cuba, where large ship docks were constructed from local Cuban mahogany trees. Just think of tanks and other vehicles driving on these docks, tearing up the wood.

These same people I talked to mentioned that some of the docks were just torn up and burned when they were no longer needed. Perhaps this lumber with the large iron spike holes is from there?

By the way, the price of #30 a board foot is standard.

Mike Mc said...

Why cuban mahogany.
Its hard to put into words. Yes, it is more dimensionally stable than "genuine(I don't know who gave that label to sweitenia macrophylla)' or "african". It is generally more beautifully figured. It usually polishes to finer luster and exhibits greater chatoyance. It works even better than the "genuine". Why, I think when I work a piece, I am certain there is a creator and he intended this to be the finest for woodwork.