Mahogany: Hand Tool Chocolate

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the hand tool devil woods, hard maple. Well, if hard maple is the over cooked steak of hand tool woods, mahogany is the chocolate. It’s rich, smooth, and sweet to work. If I had to choose only a single species of wood that I could work with for the rest of my days, it would be mahogany.

If you’ve never worked with it before, the genuine South American stuff I mean, not the African species that sometimes gets passed off for the good stuff, you really owe it to yourself to do so. Is it pricey? Maybe a little. But good mahogany is worth every penny, and then some. Try it for yourself and I’m sure you’ll agree. But prepare yourself. Once you’ve used a bit of the good stuff, it’s tough to settle for anything less. Don’t say I didn’t warn you :-).

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More in a few days.

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18 thoughts on “Mahogany: Hand Tool Chocolate

  1. Not had the pleasure with hand tools but it’s sure sweet with power tools. Looking forward to it. Honduran is what we are looking for yes?

    • Yep. I don’t think it’s all coming from Honduras these days though. I think they might be getting it from Brazil and Peru as well, but I’m not 100% on that. Shannon should have some input on that.

      • “Honduran Mahogany” is more marketing than reality these days. Honduras isn’t really producing Swietenia macrophylla (Genuine Mahogany) anymore Most of us are trying to push the “genuine Mahogany” term more than anything. Truthfully it grows over a very wide area: Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, and even Fiji. Plus all the areas in between. We are buying it from just about all these areas and each has its own character. I hear a lot that Mahogany isn’t what it used to be and I think that is a reflection of the same product coming from so many different places with different soil chemistry and local climate. They are all handled differently and more often than not the way they are sawn and dried locally will vary from one mill to another. To the consumer, it breeds a lot of inconsistency from one board to another. That being said, even bad Mahogany is a pretty great wood to work. The biggest issue we face now are large monopolies that exist in the Mahogany market that are pushing a lower grade and higher price.

  2. You guys in the states are so fortunate to have so many different species available to you and compared to our prices in Australia yours is so much cheaper. We have one lumber yard that’s 100km from us that sell exotic timber like your cherry, fijian mahogany, american oak etc but it’s hugely over expensive how expensive a 2 foot board and I don’t remember the species after seeing the price I quickly forgot it $380 a piiece. One guy ended up buying 4 of them, I asked what’s he going to do with it he said make boxes and then give them away as gifts. He get’s someone else to do the milling, cuts and joinery for him he just glues them together. Geeez what a waste.

  3. Coincidentally, I used it for the first time last week. I am making some decorative boxes out of an old mahogany extension table. Everything I have done with it has been easy a predictable. The only surprise I have had with it was that it has been a little softer than I thought.

  4. Great post. I’ll have to try Mahogany with my hand tools. I feel your pain regarding hard maple. I made a few projects by hand with it and then gave up and sold the rest of the maple I had on hand.

    PS – Great article in the current issue of Popular Woodworking. I live in a 400 sf cabin that also includes my shop, so your storage ideas were very helpful.

    • I typically get my lumber from Groff & Groff or Hearne Hardwoods. They’re both driving distance for me and both carry local species as well as genuine mahogany (plus tons of other imported species). I believe both will ship as well. Irion lumber is another place that will ship it to you. There are others as well. You should be able to find them with a google search.

  5. Hi Bob,

    Well, it’s not all sweetness for me. I find SA (big leaf) mahogany friendly on the flat sawn surface but rowey quartersawn surfaces can be brittle and tend to tear out when planing. Depends on the board, of course. The scraper conquers all though.

    Also, I find ash pretty friendly, and with hard maple, it depends very much on the figure, if any, but it can be pretty tame when un-figured. Still, my favorite maple is big leaf (A. macrophyllum). It’s softer than sugar maple and I like the ropy curl that big leaf can exhibit.

    All personal preference, of course. I feel technique cannot be entirely separated from the species and even the board of wood one is working on.

    Rob

    • Thanks for chiming in Rob. You’re right of course. QS ribbon striped mahogany like what I’m working with in the picture can be tough to plane without tearing out. In fact these boards have quite a bit of shallow tearout at the moment. But that will be fixed in the next step, and I’m not totally opposed to small amounts of tearout in a finished piece. It’s common to find it in period furniture and to me it’s subtle evidence of hand work.

      I will agree with you that ash and unfigured maple are really nice in this regard, maple especially. Smooth planed unfigured maple comes out like glass. I do use quite a bit of ash as well for tool making (not as much for furniture making) and I like it for that. Smoothing both of these woods is actually quite a pleasure because their grain is so well behaved as you mention. Getting to the smoothing, however, is another matter all together. Both ash and maple are a bear to rip with a hand saw. I ripped two 5′ lengths of 8/4 mahogany and a 2′ length of 5/4 hard maple yesterday. The mahogany took about half as long as the maple even though it was about twice as thick and 2-1/2 times as long. Then there’s the matter of planing rough sawn stock to get it ready for joinery/smoothing. If you have to remove any amount of thickness from an ash or maple board by hand, you’re in for quite a long workout. By contrast, I planed a good 1/4″ off the thickness of the 5′ mahogany boards and it took just a few minutes per board was quite enjoyable work. Of course if you’re doing the majority of the heavy work with machines, and just the joinery and smoothing work by hand then this isn’t a big deal. But when you have to rip all of your boards and plane all of your rough lumber by hand, maple and ash aren’t so much fun any more. As you mention, work methods and techniques make quite a difference. Personally I’d rather deal with mahogany’s squirrelly grain than rip significant lengths of hard maple by hand.

      Soft maple, well, that’s another story.

      • Yes, my experiences with mahogany were from recycled material.

        So far in my meager attempt with all hand tools, my arch enemy has be air dried red oak posts. Tough as nails. But it should make dandy bench legs!

  6. Hello Bob. Great Blog and Great Videos!! I’m in a situation where the only woods available to me are pine (maybe Ponderosa or Jeffrey?) cedar (maybe Western Red?) and true mahogany all air dried and all the same price per foot. Obviously not in the US. I’ve been considering some project designs that would benefit from steam bending and wonder if you can comment on the steam bendability of mahogany. Or would it be safer to make glued up laminations? I’m thinking its inadvisable to steam bend pine or cedar, right? Thanks for any bending tips particular to mahogany, if any.

    Also, I notice that the hand tool generated dust from the mahogany seems to stain my white T-shirts reddish and wonder if I need to take greater health precautions with this species than a respirator with p-100 filters and a shop-vac with a non-HEPA filter for clean up.

    And! What do you use for filling the little black colored bug holes? Can you please also comment on pore filling. I’ve been using water diluted Timbermate “mahogany” color with handsome results, but some guitar makers seem to use black Timbermate. Do you prefer old school pumice and rotten stone (or chocolate heh-heh)?

    • I can’t comment on how well mahogany steam bends as I’ve never tried it myself. I seem to recall seeing it done at one time or another, but I can’t be 100% sure of that. I think if it was really straight grained then maybe it might take a mild steam bend. But I don’t know how much it will tolerate. The way it grows, it’s not typically straight grained enough to rive, and the grain tends to reverse within the tree, so it may be somewhat troublesome to steam bend a thick section of it (like for a chair say). At the same time, it’s frequently used in the sides of acoustic guitars where it is heat bent into some pretty tight radii. However, these are very thin pieces. I think for a thick piece, I’d lean toward a glued lamination, but for something thin enough, I’d try steam bending. Pine and cedar don’t bend well. They just aren’t strong enough.

      I don’t think the dust from mahogany is particularly harmful unless you are sensitive to it. Most hand tool dust is fairly coarse and falls to the floor. The lighter stuff that is capable of suspending in the air is still pretty large relative to the fine sanding dust from power sanders that is the most dangerous. I’m thinking you’re probably fine with the respirator you’re using, but I’m not a doctor so I can’t really give you a good recommendation in those terms. I would certainly recommend that you use whatever level of protection you feel necessary to make you comfortable.

      As for filling the bug holes, I don’t. I leave them alone. They’re part of the character of the tree and if I can’t cut around them, I leave them be. In terms of pore filling, I don’t really stress about it too much. All finishes are pore filling. If you put on enough coats, the finish will eventually fill the pores. I like a somewhat organic and natural finish to my pieces, so I don’t typically use anything special to fill the pores and I limit the number of coats of whatever finish I use. I typically like the open pored look. It’s more natural.

      Honestly, pore filling is really not necessary unless you want a very high gloss, highly reflective finish. The pores need to be filled and leveled to the surface in order to get a high gloss finish because the surface must be very flat in order to reflect so much light. Any imperfection in the surface will refract the light and make the surface appear dull, so for that mirror like high gloss, you need to fill the pores and level the finish as much as possible. I’m really not a fan of those super high gloss finishes, even on a guitar where they are very common. So I don’t use commercial pore fillers. If you do want to use one, think about how you want the finished piece to look. A light pore filler will give the piece an overall lighter finished appearance thatn a dark pore filler, even with the same color coats and top coats. I always recommend experimenting on scrap before you commit to the finihed piece. One nice way to “naturally” fill the pores is to wet sand the surface with linseed oil. I’ve done this with walnut several times and I really like how it darkens and richens the look. I use either raw or boiled linseed oil and wet sand the oil in with P320 or P400 grit. The oil mixes with the sanding dust and forms a slurry that fills the pores nicely. If you wipe the excess away carefully, you’ll leave the pores filled with the natural oil & dust slurry and it will dry there, filling the pores. It takes longer to dry than a commercial pore filler, but the effect is really nice, and looks very natural. The side benefit is that you don’t get a ton of dust in the air during the process because the oil on the surface catches it all. Kind of a win/win.

      • Thanks Bob, for all the information. I will definitely try pore filling with BLO and 320 grit paper on a small mahogany bookcase that I am just finishing. I’ve liked the way that BLO looks on other woods, particularly bloodwood, cocobolo, and as you said, walnut. I had been using garnet shellac over the mahogany and will test that over the BLO pore filler to see if its too dark, and adjust from there. Been using a lot of shellac here because for one thing high proof potable ethanol is plentiful and cheap here in sugar cane growing country. Cheers!!

  7. Hi Bob, I love Mahogany as well. I picked up a piece in a cut-off bin, and to your point, it was a pleasure to work with. Really spoils you that is for sure. The genuine Mahogany at M.L. Condon, who sells domestic and Exotic woods is about $10 – $11/bf, so as you mentioned it is a bit pricey. The African Mahogany is about half that price. At least you know you are getting a some premium wood for the price. Look forward to your posts in 2014! Thanks for the great site and blogs.

    Scott

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