We’ve been trying to answer the question, “What kind of wood is that furniture made from?” and in my last couple columns we talked about oak, maple and cherry. This week we’ll go on about the queens of woodworking, walnut and mahogany.
There was time when mahogany was synonymous with furniture. Everything was made from it, even the planks from Cortez’ ships. I’ve had furniture from Sears from the 1950’s that was all solid mahogany. The trees are enormous, it has a texture that is easy to cut and carve and it has excellent strength for its weight. It also tends to have fewer defects in the wood and so it was economical to use for timber. This is the wood of the classic furniture of Chippendale (no, Kim, not the dancers), Sheraton and Hepplewhite.
Confusingly, there are several different species of Switenia and so the characteristics of the wood may vary with the species. Originally, we got most of our mahogany from Cuba and by the time Castro took office, there was virtually none of the mahagoni species left. We then started importing the macrophylla species from British Honduras (now Belize). The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) now lists all Switenia species as endangered. The African genus Khaya is closely related and is now substituted for most contemporary mahogany.
In my experience, Cuban mahogany has distinct bands of light and dark, called ribbons, which I find particularly lovely, so the type of grain can be used to tell how long ago the piece of furniture was made (i.e. no Cuban mahogany after 1960). Because it was (and is) a pricey wood, and because the logs could be easily sliced thin, it made/makes a great veneer. Unfortunately, in some of the older pieces the finish was not particularly good leaving it little protection from scratches and water stains. This is rarely a problem with contemporary finishes but it does mean that if you have an older mahogany piece, you may want to give it a good paste wax to help protect it.
Perhaps the wood with the longest run of popularity in furniture has been walnut. The Persian walnut of eastern Europe (Juglans regia) used to be the wood of choice but it is quite rare now. The most popular walnut species for American furniture has been the black walnut, named not just because of the color of the nut shells but because the color of the wood itself can range from light brown to darker, almost purple, brown. It is harder than mahogany, although not as hard as oak, and because it shrinks less than other hardwoods it can survive myriad environments.
It also has a close grain and makes wonderful veneers. Another nice feature of walnut is that takes finish very well, so it has been given almost every known type of finish. Because there is so little walnut left in North America, it has become quite pricey. In my store I’ve seen about 7000 pieces of furniture and in that time I’ve only seen one piece made from solid walnut and that was a hand-crafted piece of furniture.
Strangely enough, although solid walnut furniture is extremely expensive and rare, the Trappist monks at the New Melleray Abbey (south of Dubuque, Iowa) make a solid walnut casket. It costs about $2000 and can be ordered direct from http://trappistcaskets.com. I understand most of the lumber is milled from trees grown on their own property.
These descriptions of furniture woods (oak, maple, cherry, mahogany and walnut) may be exhausting but they’re hardly exhaustive. Pecan and hickory, similar to oak, were once quite popular and birch has often been used as a replacement for maple (although it is a little lighter in color). I’ve even seen a dresser made from elm. But the vast majority of wood furniture is now made overseas (or made from presswood) so it will be increasingly rare to find furniture made from these woods. At least it gives me something else to write about. See you next time.