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What is mahogany? ... Are you sure?

            

Mahogany has been used as a tonewood for many years.

Apart from being wood, what is mahogany, and why should you be interested? You may be surprised. The modern use of the word "mahogany" may not necessarily mean what you think it means!

In guitar-making what we regard traditionally as "mahogany" is the timber of only one of 49 genera that belong to the botanical family Meleaceae (Mahogany family.) This genus is called Swietenia, native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. It has three species:

1. Swietenia mahagonitraded under the specific names Caribbean Mahogany, Cuban Mahogany, or West Indian Mahogany. It is native to southern Florida and the West Indies. It was the first species of mahogany used in the manufacturing of guitars until the 1950's. It has been commercially extinct since 1947.

2. Swietenia humilis, traded under the specific names Honduras Mahogany, Pacific Coast Mahogany or Mexican Mahogany. It is is native to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala and Mexico. There are very few populations left and it is used mainly in local carpentry.

3. Swietenia macrophylla, traded as Brazillian Mahogany, Genuine Mahogany, or in the carpentry trade as Big Leaf Mahogany.  It is native to the Atlantic side of Central America as well as much of South America. This species has been the one used for making guitars. However, since 2003 it has become commercially extinct with the exception of some limited supply from Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, under heavy restrictions.

Note. All three species are sometimes individually and collectively called American mahogany .

s.mahagoni         s.humilis         s.macrophylla
Swietenia mahagoni         Swietenia humilis         Swietenia macrophylla

What happened? In simplicity: overlogging and illegal trade over about 85 years has brought all species of Swietenia mahogany to near extinction. For example, Central American populations of Big Leaf Mahogany have declined by over 70% since 1950 due to this abuse.

Unfortunately it wasn't until the 1990's that the situation was taken seriously globally and effective measures then taken to try and save the resource from future extinction.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between nations to uniformly police threats to the survival of plants and wild life due to human abuse. It was passed in 1975 and there are currently 175 "contracting parties" (nations) on the list. Each party has their own legislation which aligns with the agreement. An example is the Lacey Act of the United States which exists to police and control illegal import and export of banned or restricted plants and substances and wild life, effective from 2008.

All three species of Swietenia have been CITES-listed; S. humilis in 1975, S. mahagoni in 1992 and S. macrophylla in 1995. Efforts to save the resource have become a major project of CITES. Throughout the 2000's there has been much work done to forward efforts to conserve the resource and to explore alternatives for reforestation and sustainability on a worldwide scale.

Unfortunately, efforts to repopulate the resource in it's native locations throughout the 2000's turned out to be largely unsuccessful. There were a number of major obstacles:

1. depleted and barren soil,

2. aggressive pests such as the mahogany shoot borer Hypsipyla grandella,

3. genetic loss,

4. erosion. 

Authorities were forced to look beyond it's native locations to find solutions to the problem.

It turned out that Asia and the South Pacific are the best places to grow Swietenia outside of its native locations. As a result, a number of Asian countries were consulted with and invested in to develop controlled, sustainable and renewable Swietenia mahogany plantations. This started mostly in the late 1990's.

In actual fact, some other countries had already been growing it successfully for a very long time! Fiji had Swietenia plantations since the 1950's using seeds originally from Honduras and Belize. Fiji is a major producer and international supplier of new American mahogany today having been corporatized since 1998. India has been growing Swietenia since 1865 using seeds from West Indies. Indonesia, the world's largest producer of plantation mahogany today, had Swietenia introduced in 1870 using seeds from India, as did Bangladesh in 1872. Mahogany was consciously planted as a plantation crop in Sri Lanka mostly in the 1950's but it wasn't until the 1990's that any real significant investment was undertaken to take control of the unmanaged plantations which had since become naturalized forests. The largest mahogany plantation in the Philippines which began in 1982 is now a major international exporter of Swietenia today.

More recent countries involved in developing sustainable mahogany plantations are Bangladesh (ca. 2000), India (ca. 1994), Malaysia (ca. 1998), Solomon Islands (ca. 1998), Philippines (ca. 1992) and Taiwan (ca. 2002). As mahogany has a 30-35 year rotation, quality harvesting from some of these countries is still many years away.

CITES restrictions do not apply to Asian-grown Swietenia mahogany as their plantations are sustainably managed and controlled. 

Despite international efforts, illegal logging is still taking place in some parts of South America today with 80% of this illegal timber being supplied to the USA by criminal operations. Some sources have even predicted that South American-grown Swietenia may become extinct by 2016 because of this. 

Mahogany other than Swietenia

In addition to Swietenia there are a number of  other genera in the Mahogany family that are also traded as "mahogany." The timber of these can be legitimately regarded as "mahogany" even though they are not specifically of the Swietenia genus. There are two terms in use to clarify this distinction:

1. Genuine Mahogany as a term applies to mahogany of the Swietenia genus only.

2. True Mahogany describes the timber of any Mahogany  family genus other than Swietenia. There are 49 genera with approximately 550 species in the Mahogany family. Those whose timber we use are often traded under a name that does not include the word mahogany in it's description.

Some of the non-Swietenia mahoganies in use are:   

KHAYA

khaya anthotheca         khaya grandifolia1         khaya ivorensis1         khaya senegalensis
   K. anthotheca           K. grandifoliola             K. ivorensis          K. senegalensis

Khaya is a Mahogany family tree native to temperate Africa and Madagascar. It has 7 species. All species are traded under the name African Mahogany. It is the most accepted Mahogany family timber other than Swietenia to be called mahogany without qualification and in some circles is even considered as Genuine Mahogany. Variations in it's general trade name are determined mainly by where it is grown or sourced, eg. Benin Mahogany (K. grandifoliola), Lagos Mahogany (K. ivorensis)Senegal Mahogany (K. senegalensis),etc. Additionally White Mahogany is a specific trade name sometimes used to describe K. anthotheca. All species are subject to habitat loss and are under inspection by CITES for recommending restrictions. "Serious genetic erosion" has been reported to have occurred in areas which have been exploited. All species are currently listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Coincidentally, as Genuine mahogany is becoming available again via plantations, there has been a general move away from Khaya in guitar manufacturing.

TOON

t.sinensis         t.ciliata         t.sureni         t.calantas
   Toona sinensis              Toona ciliata             Toona sureni            Toona calantas

Toonbotanical name Toona, is a Mahogany family tree native throughout eastern Europe, northern Asia, and South East Asia. It is probably the most sought after true mahogany in use today for higher quality factory-made guitars where mahogany is specified. As a tonewood it sounds and looks very much like Swietenia. There are four species, each with their own trade names :

1. Toona sinensis goes by the trade name Chinese Mahogany or Chinese Toon. It is native to eastern and south eastern Asia; stretching from eastern India, China, Nepal, North Korea, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, to western Indonesia. There are no restrictions on the use of this timber.

2. Toona ciliata goes by the trade name Indian Mahogany. It is native to Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Australia. This species is the most distributed internationally. The Australian species is also called Red Cedar. "Indian Mahogany" as a trade name should not be confused with plantation-grown Swietenia from India or Chukrasia which is another Mahogany family tree also called "Indian Mahogany" (see following.) There are no restrictions on the use of this timber.

3. Toona sureni goes by the trade names Indonesian MahoganyVietnamese Mahogany or Suren. It is native to much of southern and eastern Asia, including India, Nepal, southern China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. It is important to know that Indonesia is one of the largest world suppliers of plantation-grown Swietenia mahogany. It is therefore necessary to differentiate between the term "Indonesian Mahogany" as Toona and "Indonesian Mahogany" as Swietenia. There are no restrictions on the use of this timber.

4. Toona calantis goes by the name Kalantas or Philippine Mahogany. It is native to Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. Unfortunately this species has been listed as an Endangered Species since 2006 and is only available in limited amounts today.

IMPORTANT. "Philippine Mahogany" is also an outdated(?) generic term used in the USA carpentry trade to describe timbers from the Shorea species. Shorea is botanically unrelated to the Mahogany family and consists of 196 species, native to much of Asia, in the Dipterocarpaceae family. 148 of the 196 species are threatened with habitat loss and have varying degrees of trade restrictions. It is possible to confuse this term, being that Philippine Mahogany could be 1) a Shorea, 2) Philippine Toona, or 3) plantation Swietenia grown in the Philippines.  

SPANISH CEDAR

spanish_cedar

Spanish Cedar, botanical name: Cedrela odorata, is one of 69 species of Cedrela, a Mahogany family tree native to northern Mexico, central America, the Caribbean islands, and Brazil. Botanically it is the equivalent of Asian Toona except that it is native to the neo-tropics. Cedrela odorata was for a long time a very important Latin American timber, second to Swietenia. It was commonly used to make cigar boxes. It is used for necks, tops and sides of classical and flamenco guitars. Sometimes it has been used as a veneer or cap on electric guitars. Unfortunately this popular mahogany wood is following the same fate as Swietenia with Bolivian and Brazilian Cedrela being added to the CITES endangered list in 2010 and 2011 respectively. 

SAPELE

sapele       utile
E. cylindricum (Sapele)       E. utile (Sipo)

Sapele, botanical name Entandrophragma cylindricum, is one of 11 species of Entandrophragma, a Mahogany family tree native to west Africa. It comes mainly from Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast and Ghana. It is used for backs and sides of acoustic guitars and tops of electric guitars. It is identifiable by having sweeping, striped grain and varies in colour from reddish to purple-brown. It's sound properties are very close to Swietenia mahogany. Sapele is not listed in the CITES Appendices, but is now on the IUCN Red List. It is listed as "vulnerable" due to a population reduction of over 20% in the past three generations, caused by a decline in its natural range, and exploitation. Some countries have their own protected populations and felling restrictions in place. Another species, Entandrophragma utile is called Utile or Sipo Mahogany. It is also used in guitar manufacturing.

GUAREA

guarea cedrata         guarea_thompsonii         guarea_grandifolia
Guarea cedrata         Guarea thompsonii         Guarea grandifolia

Guarea is a Mahogany family tree with 21 species, three of which have timber uses: Guarea cedrata and Guarea thompsonii native to Africa; and Guarea grandifolia  native to Central America and Latin America. Their timber is mostly used for making furniture. It is also called Bosseor Pink Mahoganyin Africa and American Muskwood in South America. The African species are endangered. In America it is a widely accepted mahogany substitute and is used in the manufacturing of acoustic guitars.

INDIAN MAHOGANY

chuckrasia_tabularis 

Indian Mahogany, botanical name: Chukrasia tabularis, is also known as Chickrassy, Chittagong Wood, or White Cedar.This Mahogany family tree is native to India, Bangladesh, China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. It has also been introduced into Southern Africa and the Caribbean. It's timber is used for many construction and decorative uses as well as in high quality furniture and musical instruments such as pianos. Note that the term Indian Mahogany can also mean Toona ciliata or plantation-grown Swietenia from India. (see preceeding.)

NATAL MAHOGANY

natal mahogany

Trichilia is a Mahogany family tree with 42 species, 4 of which are native to southern, central and eastern Africa, and the rest native to South America and some parts of the Caribbean. Most of the South American species are endangered by habitat loss. Trichilia emetica is one species native to South Africa and is known as Natal Mahogany or Cape Mahogany. Timber uses include carvings, traditional African musical instruments, household implements, furniture, bats and canoes. The oil is used locally as a topical medicine. Trichilia dregeana is known in South Africa as Forest Mahogany. Neither of these African woods appear to be an export product (?)  

CHINABERRY  

chinaberry  

Chinaberry, botanical name: Melia azedarach, also known as Bead-Tree, Cape Lilac, Persian Lilac, and White Cedar is a Mahogany family tree native to Pakistan, India, South East Asia and Australia that yields a very high quality timber most used in furniture and flooring. It is one of 12 species of Melia. It's colour is brown to red. It's fruit are poisonous to humans and animals. It was introduced into the United States in 1830 as an ornamental tree and has since become invasive and ignored commercially. It is completely under-utilized yet has massive potential as a source of useable timber. It is an excellent choice for lower-cost slab body electric guitars.

ROYAL MAHOGANY

carapa

Royal Mahogany, botanic name: Carapa guianensis, is better known as Andiroba or Crabwood  and is a Mahogany family tree native to Central and South America. Its heartwood has colour varying from light salmon to reddish-brown that darkens with time to a medium to dark shade. It is an ideal timber for furniture, cabinetry, mouldings, windows and doors, joinery, paneling, and medium to light construction. There are two other species, one native to West Africa (called African Crabwood or Okoto) and the other native to Ecuador (called Tangare.) It is not a tonewood.

NEW ZEALAND MAHOGANY 

kohekohe

New Zealand Mahogany, botanic name: Dysoxylum spectibile is a Mahogany family species native to New Zealand. It's local name is Kohekohe. It grows mainly in North Island and northern parts of South Island. New Zealand mahogany is softer than other Mahogany family timbers and is used in general carpentry. It is not desirable as a tonewood. New Zealand Kohekohe should not be confused with the plant of the same name which is native to Hawaii.  

ROSE MAHOGANY 

dysoxylum_fraseranum

Rose Mahogany, botanical name: Dysoxylum fraserianum, is native to eastern Australia and is one of the 75 species of Dysoxylum, which is a Mahogany family timber native throughout Oceania and some parts of southern Asia. Usually called Red Bean, and Rosewood, it is popular in the Australian furniture trade. I have seen it used as a body wood in Australia-made guitars. Another eastern Australian variant Dysoxylum mollissimum subsp. molle, is known as Miva Mahogany and is used in cabinet making, carving, and boat building. 

Non Mahoganies traded as Mahogany

In addition to "genuine" and "true" Mahogany family timbers as mentioned above, there are other timbers which have no botanical relation to the Mahogany family, yet have a trade name that includes the word "mahogany." It is important to know these "fake mahogany" timbers so that one can make a distinction when or if required. These botanically unrelated timbers may share similar appearances or tonal qualities to genuine or true mahogany, but that is all. Often the so-called "mahogany" trade name is not the main or only trade name.  

Philippine Mahogany, from the point of view of the USA furniture industry is clearly defined by the Federal Trade Commission, Code of Federal Regulations Title 16, Section 250.3 Identity of Woods: "The following non mahogany timbers may legally be called 'Philippine mahogany' in the USA: Tanguile, LauanTiaong, Almon, Mayapis and Bagtikan. ..." As mentioned above these timbers are varies species of Shorea which are nativeto Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. Outside of the United States the term Philippine Mahogany applies to Lauan from Philippines, the various types of Meranti from Malaysia, Seraya from Indonesia, and Balau which is native to all. In Australia we also call them Pacific Maple. Thesetimbers range in colour from grey to dark reddish brown and are usually used as veneers or plywood. Visually they are a lot more grainier than real mahogany. Remember though that the term Philippine mahogany could also refer to native Philippine Toona, or plantation Swietenia grown in the Philippines.

balau   lauan   light-red-meranti   white meranti   dark red meranti
          Balau             Lauan    Light Red Meranti       White Meranti    Dark Red Meranti

Cherrry Mahogany. Scientific name: Tieghmella heckelli and Tieghmella africana is one of the trade names for Makore, aka African Cherry. It's main uses are for furniture, boatbuilding, and cabinetry as well as veneer. As a tonewood it is very similary to genuine mahogany and is used as a laminate for the tops of acoustic guitars and for electric guitar bodies. It is also used in making drums. Colour is pink to reddish-brown and sometimes it can have an attractive figure. It grows throughout western Africa.

Santos Mahogany. Scientific name: Myroxylon balsamum. Native to Mexico, central and southern America this timber is stronger and harder than mahogany but shares a similar appearance. It is used in furniture, flooring and heavy construction. It is too difficult to work with in making musical instruments.

Red Mahogany. Scientific name: Eucalyptus resinifera is a hardwood native to eastern Australia and used for furniture, flooring, panelling, boat building and general construction. It is also known as Red Stringybark. It has been introduced into Southern Africa, Italy and Portugal, and Hawaii as a plantation crop. It is not suitable for making musical instruments. Much of the 4500 hectares of red mahogany plantations in Queensland Australia were destroyed by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. This was a major blow to timber production from the area.   

East Indian Mahogany. Scientific name: Pterocarpus dalbergioides. Native to the Andaman Islands of India and some parts of mainland India, this timber is also traded under the name Andaman Padauk or Narra.  It is a major export timber from India and bears visual similarity to mahogany although much redder. It is used as a rosewood substitute in acoustic guitar making. There is an African equivalent as well, usually traded as African Padauk.

Eastern Mahogany. Scientific names: Palaquium andPayena are 2 of 65 genera in the Sapotaceae family that yield high quality hardwood. N ative to much of south east Asia and the Philippines it is also called Nato (Philippines), Nyatoh (Malaysia), Nyatuhin (Indonesia) and Masang (Thailand.) It ranges in colour from pink to red-brown. It varies wildly in weight and density and has recently found it's way as a mahogany replacement for many Asian-made musical instruments.

Borneo Mahogany. Scientific name: Calophyllum inophyllum is native to eastern Africa, Asia, the south Pacific and Australia. It is one of 187 species, most of which are found in Asia. No species exist in Europe. It goes by many names, some of the common ones being LaurelwoodRed Poon and Bitangor. The timber from this and other species in the genus are used for boat building, furniture, flooring and plywood. It is used for backs and fronts of cheap acoustic guitars.

White Mahogany. Scientific name: Eucalyptus acmenoides is another Australian Eucalypt with a mahogany trade name. It is abundant in Australia and used for construction and furniture. Local alternative names are Barayly and Yellow Stringybark. I am not aware of this timber being used as a tonewood. 

Asian Mahogany. Scientific name: Dipterocarpus is a South East Asian medium hardwood timber of about 70 species better known as Keruing. It is used for furniture and flooring only and is usually a reddish-brown across the species.  

Summary

1. There is only one genus in the Mahogany family that is considered to be "genuine" mahogany. This is Swietenia.

2. Natively grown Swietenia is almost extinct and what's left is heavily restricted.

3. "Genuine mahogany" as a term applies to Swietenia only.

4. "True mahogany" as a term applies to Mahogany family timbers in use that are not specifically Swietenia such as  Khaya, Cedrela, Toona, Carapa, ChukrasiaEntandrophragma, Guarea, Dysoxylum, Melia, and Trichilia. Not all true mahoganies are suited as tonewoods.

5. Fiji, Indonesia and Philippines are the major suppliers of plantation Swietenia mahogany today.   

6. At this time Swietenia cannot be regrown in it's native locations due to permanent damage to the environment and unsolvable problems with pests. 

7. There are other timbers that have no botanical relation to the Mahogany family but are traded as "mahogany" in name only. Often these have other trade names which are better known. 

8. You need to ask more questions when someone talks about "Indian mahogany", "Indonesian mahogany" or "Philippine mahogany" etc. It could be either native Toona or plantation-grown Swietenia. Or in the case of "Philippine Mahogany" it might be something that has no relation to real mahogany at all.

If someone tells you a guitar is made of "mahogany", using this guide may help you ascertain what it has actually been made of. I hope you can use these and be well informed!

More information:

http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/AD111E/AD111E02.htm

http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/Books/BKrisnawati1104.pdf

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/bigleaf_mahogany/

http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/unep181.doc.htm

http://www.cites.org/eng/prog/mwg.php

http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/SEA/Products/AFDbases/AF/asp/SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=1566

http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/programmes/en/lead/toolbox/Grazing/tDefores.pdf

http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y7204e/y7204e05.htm

http://www.itto.int/files/user/cites/brazil/Management%20of%20h-grandella_final_report.pdf

http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/Y7207E/y7207e06.htm

http://www.prota4u.org/protav8.asp?h=M12,M26,M27,M5&t=Caoba,caoba&p=Swietenia+macrophylla

http://aciar.gov.au/files/node/2239/pr97chapter4.pdf

Article last updated 18 February, 2014. Author: Kevin Gaskell

                        
     
 
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