Mahogany Shamogany

Thursday, April 23, 2015

" Mahogany has a straight, fine, and even grain, and is relatively free of voids and pockets. Its reddish-brown color darkens over time, and displays a reddish sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable. Historically, the tree's girth allowed for wide boards from traditional mahogany species. These properties make it a favorable wood for crafting cabinets and furniture ...... Mahogany is still widely used for fine furniture; however, the rarity of Cuban mahogany and over harvesting of Honduras and Brazilian mahogany has diminished their use."

Mahogany was heavily used for furniture manufacture from around the mid 1700s and through the 1800s. The volumes used declined in the early 1900s. It was primarily imported from the West Indies and the raw timber commanded high to premium prices during most of the period. I have always understood that antique mahogany furniture was just that, mahogany. However during the time I have spent refurbishing antique furniture at The Fettling Fairies, I have become more and more aware that, shock horror, a lot of it isn't mahogany! I'm becoming increasingly convinced that a lot of antique dealers are unaware of this.

Let me say now that I don't believe any deliberate fraud has taken place either in the past when the item of furniture was originally sold, or currently by dealers. The latter is only through ignorance.

Due to the high cost of raw mahogany, I believe cabinet makers frequently bought another hardwood timber which was available in wide, stable boards - but less expensive. This wood wasn't as attractive to look at, but had the advantage that it could be easily stained to look like what the public wanted - mahogany. May I introduce Poplar (aka Tulipwood - 'Liriodendron' )

"The wood of the North American species (called poplar or tulipwood) is fine grained and stable. It is easy to work and commonly used for cabinet and furniture framing, i.e. internal structural members and subsurfaces for veneering. Additionally, much inexpensive furniture, described for (US) sales purposes simply as "hardwood", is in fact primarily stained poplar."

I have done some research, but the imports of North American poplar into the UK are not well documented. I now firmly believe that its used was very common in the UK during the 1800s and into the 1900s. Virtually every day I come across poplar stained to look like mahogany. We recently bought a lovely Victorian extending table. At some point it had lost its middle leaf, so someone had a replacement made. The replacement is mahogany, however the two original tops are actually poplar! The picture shows the sanded mahogany top in between the two sanded poplar pieces. Isn't the poplar lovely! Normally we leave the poplar unstained on these tables. However, to make this one look right, we've had to - you've guessed it - stain all the leaves a darker mahogany colour.

Return to news item list
Back to Top