What’s In a Name?
Some years ago, as I have mentioned several times already, I purchased a set of pen blanks marketed by Woodcraft as “African Pen Blanks.” There were 32 pieces of 16 different types of wood. Two of them were labelled as “African Mahogany.” Most everyone, especially woodworkers, have heard of “Mahogany” but I doubt that most are aware of the full complexity associated with that term, its “true” meaning and its many misuses and abuses, depending, I suppose, on your perspective. I have seen and worked with the “real deal” as I was once fortunate enough to own a home constructed in the late 1920s that still had the original floor and crown moldings, as well as window frames, that in at least some rooms, was all solid genuine Mahogany from a time when the wood was common, high-end, yes, but commonly available, completely unlike today.
The thing that I didn’t know when I first started wood turning, but which I quickly learned, is that anytime I see a wood with a modifier, in this case “African” modifying Mahogany, I know to be suspect. Retailers all too commonly do this when they are trying to pass off a lower grade material as something better than it actually is. But, not always is this the case, and perhaps in the case of African Mahogany, as opposed to Philippine Mahogany, the name simply refers to similar characteristics shared between two excellent woods.
When wood workers speak nostalgically of “genuine” or “real” Mahogany, they are usually referring to Cuban, or West Indies, Mahogany, botanically known as Swietenia mahogani. The genus Swietenia is the one to which anything that can be considered “real” Mahogany should belong. Cuban Mahogany hasn’t been widely available for decades, having been banned from export by the Cubans in 1946 due to massive overexploitation that has practically driven the species into extinction. It was harvested and used for everything from extremely high end furniture to firewood and you simply won’t find pieces of it today outside of an antique store, so the odds that a wood turner or other woodworker will have the chance to use it are vanishingly small. You can view samples of Cuban Mahogany here.
Today, most all wood marketed as “true” or “real” Mahogany is actually Honduran Mahogany, botanically known as Swietenia macrophylla. In this case, at least the genus is the same and given the status of the Cuban variety, the Honduran version is as good as it gets. In the wild, Honduran Mahogany has been overharvested and it is protected, at least officially. Fortunately for woodworkers and for the wild stocks that remain, Honduran Mahogany is widely grown on plantations for the lumber trade so it is possible to obtain and use this wood without compromising an endangered species. There are MANY other common names for Honduran Mahogany, including but most certainly not likely to be limited to: Honduras Mahogany, American Mahogany, Genuine Mahogany, Big-Leaf Mahogany, and Brazilian Mahogany.
There are certainly other woods that incorporate the term “mahogany,” but these are invariably NOT of, or even related to, the true Swietenia genus. Examples include: Mountain Mahogany, Philippine Mahogany, Santos Mahogany, Swamp Mahogany, and the one of most interest here, ultimately, African Mahogany. Some of these “imposters” are excellent and even hard to fine woods in their own right, such as the “Mountain Mahogany,” an extremely dense hardwood from western North America that only the most determined hobbyists with extremely sharp chainsaws will ever have the chance to work with. On the other end of the scale, is the “trash” wood sold as “Philippine Mahogany” that can actually be one of any of at least five different woods, all of them common and not of great quality that mostly end up in the cheap plywood trade.
In the case of Mahogany especially, names and knowing what those names actually mean is pretty keenly important to help keep from getting burned by vendors passing off trash as something special. The depths of the Mahogany naming morass continue on and for those truly interested, an excellent explication with probably hundreds of synonyms can be found here.
Finally, I know I have rambled, but I personally find this stuff interesting, we arrive at the wood in question, African Mahogany, which is properly of the genus Khaya. Now, even within that, there are variants. USUALLY, African Mahogany refers specifically to K. ivorensis and some vendors will specifically call this out in their retail postings. I can’t speak to how they know for CERTAIN to the species level what they are selling, but it is their business and perhaps they do, and perhaps sometimes they don’t. The other common species of Khaya that MIGHT be sold as African Mahogany include, but may not be limited to as there are six other species possible, K. anthotheca, K. grandifoliola, and K. senegalensis. And yes, it can matter. For example, if one is using African Mahogany for flooring, pieces sold as the same thing but which come from different species may not match well at all in terms of color, grain, or figure. And while this could happen within a species, it is much more likely to be a problem across species. All I can suggest when purchasing material sold as “African Mahogany” for a project large enough to require multiple pieces of lumber is to, if at all possible based on where you live, PERSONALLY inspect the pieces for match before purchase, and if that isn’t possible, INSIST upon clear good quality photos of EXACTLY the pieces you are buying. Reputable vendors with nothing to hide will provide this service. Beware of the “stock” photo which could have been taken at most any time in most any place of most any piece of wood, but most assuredly not the piece you will receive.
As the common name implies, African Mahogany is an African wood. The tree from which it is harvested grows in western Africa, in lowland tropical rainforest, stretching across the modern nations of Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Liberia. Smaller stocks may exist in countries in between those listed, such as Benin or Togo, but import stock primarily comes from those countries listed previously. This assumes that the wood truly is K. ivorensis; other species may have slightly different growing zones, including as far afield from western Africa as the eastern coast and even the island of Madagascar.
The African Mahogany tree can be quite huge, up to 130 feet tall with trunk diameters up to 5 feet. Trees this size are often buttressed with outgrowths at the base. The wood is moderately dense and hard, measuring slightly less on the Janka Hardness Scale than does either Red or White Oak.
The color of the heartwood of the African Mahogany is variable. It can range from a very pale pink to deep reddish brown, occasionally streaked with contrasting color variations of medium to reddish brown. As is common in many tropical hardwoods that are colored, the color will tend to darken over time with age. There is no certain way to prevent this color change, but the use of ultraviolet light inhibiting finishes, as well as keeping finished pieces out of direct natural or artificial light will help slow the process, although it will not prevent it completely regardless of what marketing efforts by some product vendors may claim.
Occasionally, quarter sawn surfaces will exhibit a ribbon-like stripe appearance.
The grain of African Mahogany is typically straight, although instances of interlocked grain have been known to occur. The texture is medium to coarse.
African Mahogany often has a good natural luster without the use of artificial finishes. On occasion, a naturally occurring light-refracting optical phenomenon known as “chatoyancy” will occur. This is also known as the “cat’s eye” effect and is usually seen and referred to in gem stones, although it can, clearly, occur in some woods. The best way to understand the effect is to see it in video format which is available here.
The end grain of African Mahogany tends to be diffuse and porous with large to very large pores being present. On occasion, orange to brown deposits may be present.
Multiple photos of African Mahogany are viewable here.
Although it probably won’t matter for most of the uses to which African Mahogany is put to in the western world, it is rated as moderately durable against rot but is only moderately to poorly resistant to insect and borer attack.
In addition to having a lovely appearance, African Mahogany is a dream to work with and this greatly increases its appeal to wood workers. It works quite easily with both hand and power tools. It will glue well, take a finish easily and it also an excellent turning wood. The only potential problem is if there is any interlocked grain. If there is, tear out may occur during surfacing operations such as planing, but this is true of any interlocked grain in any wood and is not particular to African Mahogany. When such grain is present, it may be helpful to set planer blades to an angle between 15 and 20 degrees to help prevent tear out but I have not personally tested this advice and only repeat it here from other authorities.
Finally, African Walnut is reported to have a clean and cedar-like scent when freshly cut or worked.
African Mahogany tends to be widely available in the United States and is priced in the low to moderate range for a tropical hardwood. As examples, Bell Forest Products, a vendor I personally recommend, is selling rather large 6”x6”x3” turning blanks for only $17.75. West Penn Hardwoods, another personally recommended vendor, sells African Mahogany is a wide range of sizes including turning stock, lumber, thin dimensional lumber, and guitar sets for various reasonable prices. Hearne Hardwoods is selling African Mahogany lumber, 4/4 through 8/4 in various grades from $5.25 through $22.00 (for highly figured and or/crotch wood) per board foot. Finally, Rare Woods USA of Mexico, Maine is offering African Mahogany 4/4 to 8/4 for $6.40 per board foot
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for African Mahogany, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
As is common with tropical hardwoods, African Mahogany finds its most common use in veneer form. Other potential uses include, but are probably not limited to: plywood (high end veneered material for cabinetry, not cheap chipboard products), turned items, furniture, boat building, and interior trim.
In its native regions, the Khaya sp. trees are used for various medical purposes. The bark, which has a bitter taste, is often used as a medicine for common colds, coughs and whooping cough. It may also be used against stomach complaints, including diarrhea and dysentery, as well as against headaches, back pain and rheumatism. The oil from the seeds can also be rubbed into a person’s scalp to rid of insects and lice as well as for other dermatological complaints including rashes and superficial wounds.
While such traditional “folk medicines” are of questionable value or efficacy, they may be the only resources available to poor communities without access to, or the ability to afford, western medicines. But occasionally, these traditional remedies are discovered to be more efficacious than might be commonly believed in the west. For example, different parts of trees from the Khaya species have been used to treat malaria and malarial fevers as part of traditional medicine and it turns out that there is basis in scientific fact to support this use, as such extracts fight against Plasmodium falciparum parasite, one of the parasite species responsible for malaria.
In addition, crude water extracts of K. grandifoliola have been shown to have therapeutic effectiveness on mice. A study was designed to show the effects of the extract on the red blood cells and bone of mice for 3 weeks and 7 days. The results of the experiment indicated that K. grandifoliola had a positive effect on red blood cell production but no real effect on bone mineral contents at therapeutic doses. Studies have shown that the optimum therapeutic dose size is about 5.5 g/kg body weight.
African Mahogany is not listed with the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices but it is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as being vulnerable due to population losses of over 20% in the last three generations due to both loss of habitat range and over-exploitation.
Personally, I believe that regardless whether a species is listed by conservation agencies or not, conservation and good forestry practices should be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species.
I confess that I was not aware of the vulnerable status of African Mahogany at the time I purchased my pen blank sized pieces. If I had known its status, I very well might have chosen not to purchase that particular collection. As long as wood workers are willing to purchase woods from endangered species, loggers will continue to harvest and vendors will continue to sell.
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchased any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine. You simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered!
Several different Khaya species are now commonly grown on plantations and hopefully this sustainable source of the wood will help to meet demand without unsustainable impact on wild stocks. However, the land for wood plantations was supporting other life before it was cleared to make way for plantations, so while plantation wood can help reduce pressure on some species, it may conversely place pressure on others. Ultimately, the ethics of lumber harvest are complicated by many competing factors and individual wood workers have the responsibility to establish and maintain their own ethical fences.
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, African Mahogany has been reported as a sensitizer. The most common reactions include simple eye and skin irritation. Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, exotic wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. However, given the potential uncertainty about identification, it is possible that one sample might be quite different from another even if labeled the same, and caution is almost always rewarded.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of African Mahogany that came as part of the African Woods collection.
My Personal Experiences
My experience with African Mahogany was limited, as noted, to two pen blank sized pieces. However, with those pieces I found the wood to be quite dark yet lightweight. My samples had a closed grain with minimal pores. The wood cut easily, sanded nicely, and was quite easy to finish. My pieces lived up to the reputation for African Mahogany being an easy wood to work with from start to finish. Given the ease of working with the wood and because it was attractive in coloration as well, I might have been inclined to work with the wood again, but now that I am aware of its threatened status, I might have to think twice about that. If I was reasonably confident that the wood was plantation grown, that would go a long way towards inducing me to use the wood again, but given the number of available woods, both domestic and exotic, that are not under pressure, I would most likely choose to use more sustainable materials in my personal wood working practice. The choice is an individual one and I wouldn’t personally condemn anyone for choosing to work with African Mahogany even if I might choose not to. Whatever wood you choose to work with today, have a good turn!