mahogany

mahogany

[muh-hog-uh-nee]
mahogany, common name for the Meliaceae, a widely distributed family of chiefly tropical shrubs and trees, often having scented wood. The valuable hardwood called mahogany is obtained from many members of the family; in America and Europe it is imported for cabinetmaking and similar uses. According to tradition it was first introduced to England from the West Indies when Sir Walter Raleigh had a mahogany table made for Queen Elizabeth I; the popularity of the wood increased steadily in the 18th cent. The different mahoganies vary in color from golden to deep red brown; most are close-grained and resistant to termites. The principal sources are the tropical American genus Swietenia (especially S. macrophylla, bigleaf mahogany, the present main source, and S. mahogani, West Indian mahogany, the historic main source) and the W African genus Khaya (especially K. ivorensis).

Another important member of the family is the West Indian cedar, or cigar-box tree (Cedrela odorata), whose scented, insect-repellent wood is commonly used for cigar boxes. The wood of the chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach) of Asia, introduced to (and now naturalized in) the S United States, Africa, and the Mediterranean as an ornamental, is also used for lumber. The name mahogany is also given to numerous unrelated tropical trees that provide similar lumber.

The mahogany family is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Sapindales.

The name mahogany is used when referring to numerous varieties of dark-colored wood, originally the wood of the species Swietenia mahagoni, known as West Indian or Cuban Mahogany. It was later used also for the wood of Swietenia macrophylla, which is closely related, and known as Honduras Mahogany. Today, all species of Swietenia are listed by CITES, and are therefore protected. Species of Swietenia cross readily when they grow in proximity, the hybrid between S. mahagoni and S. macrophylla is widely planted. Mahogany is also the national tree of Dominican Republic. It is also part of the national seal of Belize which was known as British Honduras before independence.

The name "mahogany" is also commonly used to refer to the African genus Khaya (closely related to Swietenia), hence the term African Mahogany.

"Mahoganies" may refer to the largest group of all the timbers yielded by the fifteen related generals Swietenia, Khaya and Entandrophragma. The timbers of Entandrophragma are sold under their individual names, sometimes with "mahogany" attached as a suffix, for example "sipo" may be referred to as "sipo mahogany".

In addition, the timber trade deals with various FTC defined "mahoganies", under a variety of different names, most notably "Philippine mahogany".

Uses

Mahogany has a generally straight grain and is usually free of voids and pockets. It has a reddish-brown colour, which darkens over time, and displays a beautiful reddish sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable. The size of the trees meant that large boards were readily available (and still are of the non-endangered varieties). These properties make it a favourable wood for crafting furniture.

Much of the furniture made in the United States in the mid 1700s, when the wood first became available to American furniture makers, was made of mahogany. Mahogany is widely used for fine furniture; the rarity of Cuban mahogany restricts its use (likewise Honduran mahogany). Mahogany resists wood rot, which makes it suitable for boat construction. It is also often used for musical instruments, particularly the backs of guitars. Mahogany is used for drum making, because of its integrity and capability to produce a very dark, warm tone (as compared to other more common wood types like maple or birch). The famous Beatles sound of the 60s was made with Ludwig Drums in mahogany shells. Today, several drum manufacturers have rediscovered the features of mahogany shells, resulting in several high end series offering shells made in this wood.

A wide variety of electric guitars are also made from mahogany, like Gibson's Les Paul line and most of the PRS guitars among others. It is noted, again, for its dark properties, as well as its weight (Gibson Les Pauls may weigh as much as 12 pounds), the combination of which produces a warm, rounded tone with huge sustain, for which the guitar is famous.

Mahogany is also commonly used in acoustic guitars. The wood is most often used to make the back, sides, or neck of a guitar, but it is sometimes used to make the top (soundboard) as well. Guitars with mahogany soundboards tend to have a softer, darker tone than those made from spruce.

Mahogany is now being used for the bodies of high-end stereo phonographic record cartridges and for stereo headphones, where it is noted for “warm” or “musical” sound.

References

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