In our ongoing tour of the Mahogany species, we are heading across the Atlantic to Africa. African Mahogany is a tough wood to get a handle on because it is conglomerate product. Many different species are labeled and sold as “African Mahogany.” The problem is that each one of these species has a different density, color, hardness, and working properties. When someone buys African Mahogany it is highly possible you are going to get several different woods all bundled into the same pack. This makes it tough to get a good color match and the working properties shift constantly making it a frustrating wood to work. All of this has given African Mahogany a bit of a bad reputation, or at best it is relegated to a paint grade exterior wood.
For the purposes of this article, I will discuss only the Khaya genus. Some lumber yards sell Sapele and Utile/Sipo as African Mahogany, and while these species are both African in origin, they are decidedly NOT African Mahogany. With a little awareness and understanding of the various characteristics, I think you will find African Mahogany can be a great and highly affordable Genuine Mahogany alternative.
Khaya ranges across Central and Western Africa spanning about 19 countries. The tree is hearty and tolerates dry and wet climates as well as a variety of soil compositions. It grows up to 120′ with 50-60″ diameter boles. In other words, the tree grows just about anywhere and grows big. Herein lies the myriad of species variation.
Khaya senegalensis, ivorensis, anthotheca, grandifoliola are the most prominent species but there are also just as many other species that will show up. Each region has different climates and different soil chemistry that can dramatically change the density and silica content of the wood. In my experience the ivorensis species has the best mixture of working properties and color consistency, but even then you will find variation within this single species.
Put another way, when African Mahogany is good, expect the following:
- light red-brown color with pink overtones
- darker brown ribbon stripes that undulate from one end to the other
- interlocking yet tight grain pattern that won’t fuzz with hand or power planing
- hardness of around 1300 Janka (1.5 times that of Genuine Mahogany, a little softer than Hard Maple)
- open yet tight pores with very few pin knots
- finishes beautifully with a lot of character from the striping
- holds carved and routed details very well without brittle edges
On the converse, the bad stuff comes from areas of high silica soil, intense sunlight exposure, and great variation throughout the growing year of wet and dry weather. Here you will find:
- pale pink color with brown flecking from large pores
- some ribbon striping
- interlocking grain with very soft areas that will tear and fuzz in the planer
- hardness around 1200-1400 Janka but brittle
- lots of pin knots, and unpredictable grain
- using drum sanders is the only way to get a smooth finish
- mostly paint grade material
It is this later set of characteristics that has given African Mahogany a bad name. More importantly, the inconsistency that comes from finding a good board or two in your stack, getting used to how it works, then turning that on it’s head when the bad board comes up.
The key is to recognize the bad stuff when you are at the lumber yard. Ask your dealer what species of Khaya they have in stock. The good dealers will have some idea, but it will be rare for anyone to know the species of every stick in stock.
So hit the racks and look for dark colored Khaya. The light pink stuff will have a very low density, and that is what causes the fuzzy material. Look at the end grain closely and try to pick out the denser boards. This is an exotic wood, and it should be heavy. If you pick it up, and it feels lighter than Maple, don’t buy it.
Pin knots are a fact of life but more than a few per board indicates a plantation species that will have many more problems. All African Mahogany has silica in it, but some species have a lot more than others (like anthotheca), and it will have a shimmer to it when hit with a low angle light. This is hard on your planer blades and knives and should be avoided unless you have a drum sander.
**there are some boards where you will see many many pin knots and this is actually similar to birds eye figure. This is difficult wood to work but often stunningly beautiful and worth the effort**
Pay close attention to check on the end of the board and especially in the middle of the board. African Mahogany has a long and arduous trip from Africa to North America, and it gets exposed to many different temperatures and humidity levels. A board that will warp and check on you will already be starting to show signs after that long trip across the Atlantic.
Finally, check the moisture content. African species are dried abroad to European standards at around 12-15% moisture. When they arrive in North America, the boards have to be re-dried down to our 6-8% levels. Some importers will air dry first then put in the kiln, and this is the safest way that causes the least stress on the wood. Many times the dealer you are buying from did not import it directly, so they may not know how it was dried. Looking for checks and warping is the only way to tell if there may be problems waiting for you. Usually if a board is cupped or warped at the lumberyard, that deformation will want to come back even after you joint and plane the board.
I wish I could give everyone a tried and true method to identify which species you have, then pair that with a “buy only these species” list. Unfortunately, there is just too much variety in where Khaya is grown, how it is sawn, dried, and transported to be able to confidently say that one species will out perform consistently. Be aware of the problems and how to identify them at the lumberyard. Ask questions about the origin and drying process. A good dealer should know these things. Good African Mahogany is a pleasure to work with. It has a lot more character than Genuine Mahogany, is harder, and has great weather resistance. Don’t be afraid to buy it, just know what to look for.
Hopefully it goes without saying but I only buy “the good stuff” for my own stocks, so you can feel pretty confident that the African Mahogany listed for sale in our store has been through the same vetting process I detail above