When it comes to buying furniture, getting the right materials is a very big piece of the puzzle. Just like the designs themselves, some furniture materials are beautiful, some are trendy, and some are classic. Classic materials have a natural advantage because they have a track record of being highly desired over time. Classic wood furniture pieces are generally worth the time, expense, and energy to restore them, and they might just go up in value as time goes on.
Mahogany is one of those furniture materials that is undeniably classic. This durable hardwood has long been used to make some of the finest furniture in the world, which means that it is also among some of the more expensive furniture to buy. So if you have budget limits (and don't we all?) it's a good idea to be thoughtful when selecting mahogany furniture pieces.
The Characteristics of Mahogany
The term mahogany is slightly confusing since it is today used to refer both to genuine South American mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) as well as an African species (Khaha spp.) that has been widely substituted for South American mahogany. Since 2003, when CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed South American mahogany on its list of endangered species, African mahogany has been the most widely used substitute. Today, it is the African mahogany that is most often sold and used, but older furniture pieces often feature genuine South American mahogany. The distinction is not particularly important when buying lumber for woodworking, as both types of mahogany have similar features and are worked the same way. However, you should be aware that there is still a troubling worldwide trade in South American mahogany logged illegally from rain forests, and when buying new furniture, it's a good idea to verify that the wood used comes from approved sources.
Whatever species is used, mahogany is known for having a pleasing straight, fine grade and is fairly free of defects and knots. Mahogany's reddish-brown color tends to darken over time, and when polished, it produces a very attractive reddish shine. The wood is very durable and has good workability. Because the trees are large, the boards used in woodworking can be very wide. All these properties make mahogany a favorite wood species for all manner of woodworking and furniture-making. High-end commercial cabinetmakers such as Chippendale and Sheraton now use mahogany in replacement for rarer walnut in many furniture pieces.
Why Buy Mahogany Furniture?
Because of the timeless character of mahogany, furniture made from this wood tends to look traditional. This makes it an excellent choice for classic, traditional room designs, where the timeless beauty of the wood lends an air of elegance and sophistication. But as an accent piece, a touch of mahogany here and there can also add a measure of warmth, life, and depth to a contemporary room designed in cool neutrals. Best of all, mahogany furniture is extremely durable. Chairs, tables and other home furnishings crafted with mahogany will last a lifetime and should be considered an investment.
Consider adding a few mahogany accent pieces, such as a sofa table or nightstands in mahogany if you have a limited budget or if the rooms of your home are decorated in different styles. Dining room tables and armoires made of mahogany are excellent investments since these large pieces draw immediate attention. Any furniture piece with ornate carvings will add instant interest and drama.
What to Look For
There is controversy surrounding the harvesting of mahogany for purposes of crafting furniture. Over-harvesting and illegal logging in parts of the Peruvian Amazon and elsewhere plague the industry. Some furniture manufacturers, such as IKEA, have chosen not to sell furniture made from mahogany for this very reason. Some furniture is made with mahogany veneers rather than solid mahogany in an effort to limit the use of mahogany. Or, rather than using South American mahogany, many furniture makers have turned to other species with similar properties. Among the woods marketed as mahogany are sapele, utile, Spanish cedar, and, most commonly, Khaya (African mahogany). African mahogany is a different species entirely, but it has a very similar appearance and working properties, and it is not an endangered species. When in doubt, ask the salesperson if the wood used is restricted South American mahogany or if it is African mahogany or another species.
Be aware that any furniture or lumber marketed as "Philippine mahogany" is not true mahogany, but rather lauan—a material derived from a different family of plants, not hardwood mahogany trees.
Not all South American mahogany is harvested illegally, and you can ethically buy genuine South American mahogany pieces if you look for evidence that renewable harvesting practices were used. For example, the Rainforest Alliance organization offers timber companies a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal if the lumber is harvested using responsible, renewable practices. Other certification programs also exist from other members of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
If you are buying antique furniture and want to make sure you are getting real South American mahogany, look for a decal that denotes “genuine mahogany” issued by the Mahogany Association. The Association, which operated in the early- to mid-20th century, was created to help buyers distinguish between solid mahogany pieces and other woods stained to look like mahogany. Even the antique furniture market, though, is subject to criticism, as some people will argue that the high demand for antique mahogany furniture helps fuel the illegal harvest of endangered rainforest mahogany.
In the end, your own conscience must guide you on how comfortable you are owning furniture made from rainforest wood. If this is a moral issue for you, there are options, such as making sure your furniture uses African mahogany or South American mahogany that is FSC certified.
Getting a Good Price
Mahogany furniture is very expensive. Consider purchasing it second-hand from an estate sale, antique show, or vintage flea market. Large estates will often auction off the furniture and will advertise the auction in the newspaper or online notifications. If you cannot find furniture at an auction, pay attention to whether there are businesses buying whole estates—you may be able to strike a side deal with them on the mahogany furniture you like. Large antique shows or flea markets, like the Brimfield Market held annually in Connecticut, are excellent places to search for discounts, bargains, and sales.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate on price. Flea markets are one place where you don’t always have to pay sticker price. Haggling is skill, and to the victor goes the best furniture.