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 (aka "Mahogany family.") This genus is called Swietenia, native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. It has three species:
1. Swietenia mahagoni, traded 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.
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,
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 early 2000'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 (and is the main producer and international supplier of new American mahogany today.) India has been growing Swietenia since 1865 using seeds from West Indies. Indonesia 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.
Newer countries involved in developing proper mahogany plantations are Bangladesh, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Taiwan, and Philippines. As mahogany has a 30-35 year rotation, 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 is native to temperate Africa and Madagascar. There are seven species. It is 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 trade name are determined only by where it is grown, eg. Senegal Mahogany, Lagos Mahogany, Benin Mahogany, etc. Khaya is subject to habitat loss and is under inspection by CITES at the moment (2012) for recommending restrictions.
Toona is probably the most sought after true mahogany in use today for higher quality factory-made guitars where mahogany is specified. As a tone wood it gives an excellent "mahogany sound" in addition to being very close in appearance to Swietenia. There are five species which grow natively throughout eastern Europe, northern Asia, and South East Asia. They are:
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.
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 and Vietnam. This species is the most distributed internationally. Indian Mahogany as a trade name should not be confused with plantation-grown Swietenia from India.
3. Toona sureni goes by the name Indonesian Mahogany, Suren and Red Cedar. It is native to much of south east Asia, including Nepal, India, southern China, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is important to know that Indonesia is also one of the largest world suppliers of plantation-grown Swietenia mahogany. It is therefore important to differentiate between Indonesian Mahogany as Toona and Indonesian mahogany as Swietenia.
4. Toona febrifuga is known as Vietnam Mahogany, from Vietnam. Despite being the largest exporter of finished timber furniture in Asia, most of Vietnam's raw material is imported. Vietnamese domestic timber exports (of any kind) are insignificant at this time.
5. 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 a 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 under CITES. It is possible to confuse this term, being that Philippine Mahogany could be 1) a Shorea, 2) native Toona, or 3) plantation Swietenia grown in the Philippines.
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 was for a long time a very important Latin American timber, second to Swietenia. It is used in making cigar boxes and can be used as a body wood or for tops on 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.
EAST INDIAN MAHOGANY
East Indian Mahogany, botanical name: Chukrasia tabularis, is also known as Chickrassy, Chittagong, or White Cedar. This Mahogany family wood 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. This wood is often used in pianos. It is used for many construction and decorative uses.
Sapele, botanical name Entandrophragma cylindricum, is one of 11 species of Entandrophragma, a Mahogany family tree native to west Africa. It is used in acoustic and electric guitar manufacturing. 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 SIPO MAHOGANY.
AUSTRALIAN ROSE MAHOGANY
Australian 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. Also called Red Bean, and Rosewood, it is popular in the Australian furniture trade. Another eastern Australian variant Dysoxylum mollissimum subsp. molle, is known as Miva Mahogany used in cabinet making, carving, and boat building.
NEW ZEALAND MAHOGANY
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. New Zealand Kohekohe should not be confused with Hawaiian Kohekohe which is an unrelated species of plant found in Hawaii.
Royal Mahogany, botanic name: Carapa guianensis, is better known as Carapa, Andiroba or Crabwood outside of the USA and is a Mahogany family genus native to both Africa 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.
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'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 usable timber, even if not for guitar making!
Guarea, botanical names: Guarea cedrata and Guarea thompsonii - native to Africa, and Guarea grandifolia - native to Central America and Latin America, are Mahogany family timbers used mostly for making furniture. There are actually 21 species but these three are the commonly known ones. It is also called Bosse or Pink Mahogany in Africa and American Muskwood in South America. The African species are endangered. In America it is a widely accepted mahogany substitute. It is used in making acoustic guitars.
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, Lauan, Tiaong, Almon, Mayapis and Bagtikan. ..." As mentioned above these timbers are varies species of Shorea native to 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. These timbers 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.
Cherrry Mahogany. Scientific name: Tieghmella heckelli and Tieghmella africana is one of the trade names for Makore, aka African Cherry. Like Philippine mahogany it is also used as veneer but it's main uses are for for furniture, boatbuilding, and cabinetry. It can be used for musical instruments, particularly drums. It is pink to reddish-brown and grows throughout western Africa. It is considered "exotic."
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. There are about 700 species of Eucalyptus, with 99% of them native to Australia.
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, ideal for backs and sides. There is an African equivalent as well.
Eastern Mahogany. Scientific names: Palaquium and Payena are 2 of 65 genera in the Sapotaceae family that yield high quality hardwood. Native 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.
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.
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 all other Mahogany family timbers in use that are not Swietenia, ie. Khaya (Africa), Cedrela (Americas), Toona (Asia & Australia), Carapa (Africa & South America), Chukrasia (Asia), Entandrophragma (Africa), Guarea (Africa & Americas), Melia (Asia & Australia), and Dysoxylum (Australia & NZ). Not all true mahoganies are suited as tonewoods.
5. Fiji, India and Indonesia are the major suppliers of plantation Swietenia mahogany today.
6. 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. Usually 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!
Article last updated 22 January, 2013. (corrections 30/10/13) Author: Kevin Gaskell