It’s easy to recall the parlor of my Irish grandparents’ home. Just inside the entrance to the house and to the right, you entered a room that was stuck in an earlier time: mahogany furniture, upholstered, lace curtains on the windows, darkness, and heaviness hanging in the air. The banister of the stairway was also mahogany – dark, rich, warm color. It, too, was just inside the front door and entry, so company would see it, too.
The rest of the house was shanty, but the parlor, where company was received, was lace curtain, and it was genuine mahogany. The Irish among you understand.
That mahogany, though, was just beautiful, and the memory has stayed with me. I love the wood, although I don’t work with it much. My budget and tastes are much more modest and simple today, and I prefer a lighter touch and other types of wood.
Let’s talk about mahogany, though, and see what we can learn about hardwoods and softwoods and find out where mahogany stands among them.
Hardwoods For Woodworkers
We woodworkers know there are hardwoods and softwoods, and we have an understanding of the differences between them. We know, for instance, the classification of each is not about how hard or soft the wood itself is; rather, it has to do with the type of tree the wood comes from.
Confusion comes sometimes from two examples:
- Yew, for instance, is a softwood that is actually quite hard; and,
- Balsa is actually a hardwood that is softer than any softwood (yes, the wood we used as kids to make model planes that would glide)
Thus, not all hardwoods are hard, and not all softwoods are soft.
Hardwoods come from angiosperm trees (trees that flower and have enclosed seeds), like oak, ash, teak, hickory, beech, and maple. Under a microscope, hardwoods will display vessels (like our own blood vessels) that carry water throughout the tree. They appear as pores.
Hardwoods are the choice of woodworkers for high-end furniture and flooring, and basically, anything that needs to last for a very long time. Those mahogany pieces in my Irish grandparent’s house may very well still be around somewhere.
Hardwood trees have a longer growing time to maturity and, as a result, tend to be more expensive than softwoods.
Softwoods For Woodworkers
Softwoods come from gymnosperm trees, evergreen conifers that make cones and needles, and have exposed seeds rather than flowers and enclosed seeds. Under microscopic examination, softwoods will present tracheids rather than pores, cells that conduct water and distribute it throughout the tree.
Softwoods represent about 80% of the lumber available for use today. It is used in a wide variety of applications, including windows and doors, MDF, pressure-treated lumber, lighter furniture, and paper.
Softwoods grow more rapidly than hardwoods and are less expensive. Softwoods include pine, cedar, juniper, spruce, redwoods, and the previously mentioned yew.
More Differences Between Hardwoods and Softwoods
Hardwood trees are deciduous trees. Their broad leaves drop to the ground in the fall and are replaced by new buds that appear in the spring. Softwoods, as stated earlier, are evergreen and tend to display needles and cones.
It is the pores in hardwoods that present the beautiful grains that make them so desirable in showpiece use, such as high-end furniture and flooring. Softwoods, on the other hand, have no pores, and their grains are much softer.
Each has its own appealing qualities, and it is more the density of wood and the types of wood that determine which one we will use in a particular project. Price may also play a part in the choice, as hardwoods are more expensive than softwoods generally.
Hardwood trees are more plentiful around the world than softwood trees, but they take longer to grow and develop a wood that is worth using. The lower price point of softwoods does make them an attractive choice for the woodworking hobbyist, and softwoods are generally easier to work with than hardwoods.
Hardwoods are generally more fire-resistant than softwoods. Softwoods will have more air pockets in them, and a less dense fiber, making them more conducive to burn easily. However, that being said, once they do catch fire, they will burn longer and hotter than softwoods.
Janka Hardness of Mahogany
The Janka scale is the measure of a wood’s hardness/density. It was developed by Gabriel Janka and is relied upon to give an accurate assessment. The test is actually quite simple.
A hydraulic press is used to push a half-inch steel ball into the wood being tested, and the force required to embed it in the wood provides the hardness measurement. Obviously, the harder and denser the wood, the greater the pressure needed to embed the steel ball.
How does mahogany stack up against commonly used woods? How about among mahogany woods generally?
As you can see from the Janka Scale, mahogany is a hardwood, harder than the softwoods of aspen, white pine, and Douglas fir. It also is a hardwood, although not as hard a wood as cedar, walnut, its cousin African mahogany, birch, or red oak. A little wordplay there, but you get the idea.
We included lignum vitae, Latin for “tree of life,” simply to show the wood considered to be the hardest and heaviest of the traded woods and where mahogany and other woods compare to it. It is rare to find, though, due to overharvesting.
We also included aspen wood in the chart and would refer you to an earlier piece we wrote about aspen being a hardwood on the softer side of the scale. As you can see, it is considerably less hard than mahogany.
Interestingly, the hardest wood commercially available that you can buy now for your shop is hickory, followed by pecan (a variety of hickory, actually), hard maple, and white oak. These woods will come at a premium price, but any project you use them for will last a long time. They are hardwoods and very hard woods and are durable, sturdy, and long-lasting in furniture and flooring.
Mahogany As A Hardwood
Mahogany has a dark reddish brown color that presents as warm and beautiful in appearance. It has a very dense and strong fiber structure, but that does not get in the way of its ease of use. It cuts, screws, and nails relatively easily as compared with other hardwoods with a higher Janka scale rating.
You will still want to make sure your cutting tools are very sharp when you are working with mahogany to avoid chipping. If you have paid good money for that piece of mahogany, you don’t want to abuse it.
It sands and finishes well and easily, too. It can take any stain or finish, although you probably don’t want to paint it – it’s too beautiful to hide under a coat of paint. A varnish or any wood oil finish will show it the respect it deserves.
It also has some moisture resistance because of its dense fiber structure. It’s not waterproof, though, so if you are using it for an exterior purpose, perhaps a showcase front door, or for big bucks, a lovely garage door, you do want to waterproof it.
Something like a Thompson’s WaterSeal Waterproofing Stain is a good choice for that. We wrote a piece about exterior mahogany use and how to protect it from the elements here.
Here’s a helpful video about generally finishing mahogany for any project. You’ll see just how beautiful the wood is and how beautiful it can become with a good finish.
Mahogany is a wonderful wood to work with and can produce a piece of furniture for you that will last for many years. It’s also a showcase wood for an impact statement front door on your house. Save up your pennies and work with it sometime. Make that showpiece furniture project that will become the talk of the room or the showcase front door, and show off your skills.