With its deep, rich red-brown tones and smooth, wispy graining, mahogany woodwork boasts of luxury and romance. From Victorian elegance to the now-trendy Pottery Barn style of décor, classic style often relies heavily on mahogany. However, it’s not just the color and the grain of mahogany that make it so desirable.
Genuine mahogany lumber has long been known for its ease of use and durability. Due to its density, this wood performs remarkably well in response to machined cutting as well as carving, making it a favorite among furniture makers. It also dries well and responds easily to finishing techniques. Its resistance to rot makes it an excellent choice for outdoor use such as door and window frames. As a tonewood, mahogany has been used widely in guitar-making, as well.
Even with its workability and ruggedness, many who like the look of genuine mahogany settle for imitations. While faux mahogany finishes on cheaper soft woods may look nice for a while, they won’t have the enduring quality of genuine mahogany lumber has to offer. Two main reasons for this include the related issues of limited supply and increased prices.
Genuine mahogany lumber is still available, but its supply is limited. By definition, genuine mahogany hails from Central and South America. Historically, most genuine mahogany has been harvested from Indian reservations in Brazil, which are currently illegal to log. The changes began in 2003, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora (CITES) listed genuine mahogany on its list, requiring special export permits for it. Now, even areas that can be legally harvested are cost-prohibitive for loggers, due to governmental red tape; as a result, many of them have turned to farming, quitting logging altogether.
One issue that led to the current restrictions is the sometimes-abusive logging practices during the first part of the twentieth century. New growth mahogany forests can be found in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, but the amount of lumber ready to be harvested is marginal, at best. Now, the greatest potential for legally logged mahogany is found in Peru, where major mahogany logging has taken place only since the 1990s.
Because importing of genuine mahogany lumber all but stopped, at one point, and — due to the classic economic principle of supply-and-demand — saw an enormous spike in price, many manufacturers started using more available and lower priced Sapele and African mahogany, instead. Though inferior in quality, these woods are similar enough to genuine mahogany, that some skeptics think its demand will never resurrect.
Sadly, many suppliers have responded to these changes in the market by no longer handling genuine mahogany lumber, at all. J. Gibson McIlvain is a notable exception, still carrying an impressive variety of genuine mahogany boards.
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