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History of Mahogany Wood 

 

As soon as the first Spanish explorers reached the West Indies they began to examine the timber resources of their New World.  They needed wood to repair their ships, battered by the long Atlantic crossing, and they also sought something valuable to load into their holds as a return cargo.  They soon discovered the wonderful red-brown timber that they called ‘caoba’, which we know as ‘Mahogany’.   As early as 1514, it was being used in the island of Santo Domingo.  Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, used it for shipbuilding.  By 1584 Philip II of Spain was employing it to decorate the Escorial Palace in Madrid.  In England, the first recorded use was at Nottingham Castle in 1680.  From 1715 onwards, regular shipments took place and it was widely adopted for high-class tables, chairs, chests, bedsteads and furniture generally.

            At that time it was easy to get the large planks the cabinet-makers preferred from Cuba, Jamaica and other West Indian islands.  As large trees were cut out, the loggers turned to Honduras, on the Central American mainland, which now gives its name to all Mahogany cut in this region.  During the present century shortages in Central America have made exporters look to South America for supplies, and much Mahogany, of this or closely allied species, is now felled in Colombia, Venezuela and along the upper reaches of the River Amazon in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.  Plantations have been established in Trinidad, India and British Honduras.  

            Mahogany is one of the largest trees of the tropical American rain forest.  It frequently exceeds 100 feet in height and its stout bole may measure 40 feet round, above the large basal buttresses.  It is usually felled from platforms built 6 feet above the ground, so that the timber men can clear these swellings.  It is an evergreen, composed of three to four pairs of leaflets.  Each leaflet is an extended oval, with a long point, and a sickle-shaped curved outline, the main vein being set off-centre.  The flowers, which open in the rainy season, form loose clusters in the angles of the twigs; they are greenish white in color, on the true Honduras Mahogany tree, but reddish yellow on related kinds.   

            Each flower ripens, by the dry season, into a large oval fruit, from two to six inches long.  This has a woody outer coat and a leathery inner pulp.  The fruit-pod splits into five leaves, revealing below each of them two rows of large seeds.  The seed is about one inch long, slender and square in cross-section with ribs at the angles, and bears an oblong wing.  

            When freshly felled the heartwood of Mahogany is bright pink, with a thin zone of colorless sapwood.  On exposure to the sunlight, the heartwood rapidly darkens to the rich coppery-red shade that we know so well.  Mahogany is rather a light timber and also quite soft.  Its great virtues are ease of working and stability; once shaped it does not shrink or warp.  It is naturally durable, and has long been favored by shipbuilders, from the Amazonian Indians, who carved it into canoes, to the modern designers of luxury yachts.

            Mahogany finds its main employment in the furniture trade, where it is valued for color, workability, general stability, and the fact that it is available in large sizes.  It is also used for high-grade Exterior Mahogany Doors. Mahogany is readily polished to highly lustrous surfaces. Though fashions change, it has held its place as the leading furniture wood for four centuries.

            Central American Mahogany shows no marked structural features.  It is an even deep coppery-brown color, with obscure rings and only slight grain, but its rays can be seen clearly on radial-cut surfaces as smooth plates which reflect the light.  The pores, usually stained or discolored darker, are large and evenly spread through the wood.

 




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