Mahogany Versus Sapele for an Outdoor Structure

A long discussion about different flavors of Mahogany, their sources and qualities, and how they compare with Sapele for durability and quality. March 26, 2010

I want to build an ornate garden house with as light an appearance and framing as possible. Engineer says sapele for strength and stability. I wonder about Honduran for rot resistance. How do I compare attributes of each?

(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor X:
How do you know if what is being sold as Honduras mahogany is really that? I'm under the impression that true Honduras mahogany is commercially endangered, and what is being sold may be poached (according to HPVA).

From contributor C:
The characteristics of both of these will work well with a good finish, based on the end use, etc. The Honduran is very recognizable and is not as tightly controlled as one might think. The loggers need the income, the lumber grows in more than one country, and it is somewhat regulated by its price. Pattern grade Honduras mahogany (of the proper genus and specie) is available and is still very nice to work with, and is adaptable to a wide range of applications from the finest of every aspect of woodworking. My favorite type of sapele is a toss up between pommelle grain and ribbon striped. Straight grain is best for framing and glazing.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Sapele will work very well and is equal to Honduras mahogany, except for lower price and less environmental damage.

From contributor J:
I've used SA mahogany on several jobs and find it to be a great wood to work with in just about every way. I did a job about a year ago with sapele, mostly 5/4 and 6/4 stock, and found that it liked to move... a lot! I don't know if I just got a bad batch or what, but it looked like a pile of 2x4s at Home Depot... Not a straight board to be found. It sounds like others have had better success with it. But that one job certainly left a bad taste in my mouth for sapele.

From contributor K:
Gene, on what basis do you believe that harvesting sapele is less environmentally damaging than Honduras mahogany?

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Honduras mahogany grows often on steep slopes in Central American countries (although some is plantation grown). Harvesting is done without concern for reforesting; the land is put into crops, but without adequate soil erosion control, the soil loss is huge, especially in heavy rainfall. (My son worked in soil conservation in Honduras; hence, I know this from him and my visits with him.)

From contributor A:
Over ten years ago we exclusively used SA mahogany (Honduras is not correct). Every year the price went up and the quality went down. Pattern grade now looks like FAS and FAS looks like D and better. We will buy from only one distributor. They get theirs from one mill.

We switched to sapele about five years ago and haven't wanted to buy SA since then. Sapele is one of my favorite woods. It machines perfectly, with little to no tearout. Excellent 3D (ribbon stripping).

The idea of "green" harvesting is sketchy at best.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Saying what is correct and incorrect with regard to English names of wood and lumber is not a good idea. The marketplace dictates the name. There is not one authoritative source, unless you consider the US Forest Service to be most accurate within the USA.

The NHLA uses the name tropical American mahogany. The text "A Guide to Useful Woods of the World" uses the name bigleaf mahogany, followed by the statement "although commonly called Honduras mahogany..." Other common names in the trade given in this book are true mahogany, American mahogany, genuine mahogany. South American mahogany or SA mahogany is not given, probably because the species goes from Mexico southward into Brazil. We do find Honduras mahogany used in the 18th Century in a few cases.

From contributor A:
Gene, when I call up a lumber distributor, they sell me SA mahogany. They do not sell Honduras, Mexican or Martian. Perhaps they should call it big leaf or genuine, but they don't... so I won't.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
I have no doubt that your supplier is selling a product that they are calling SA mahogany. I have no problem if that is the English name that they want to use. I do have problems with your statement that Honduras mahogany is not correct. In my experience, the majority of suppliers of genuine mahogany call it Honduras mahogany, as that is the traditional name for many of the past decades, along with true mahogany and genuine mahogany.

Thompson Mahogany, which is one of the oldest and largest suppliers of mahogany, uses the name "genuine mahogany." They also today use totally certified wood and they make an effort to assure that the wood is indeed properly certified.

From contributor B:
Sapele is almost identical to African mahogany in appearance. It's cheaper than African mahogany and machines very well. Honduras mahogany is also referred to as genuine mahogany.

I've never known either sapele or any mahogany to resemble 2 x 4's at Home Depot. It usually does not move too much at all.

From contributor R:
I have worked with mahogany many years and found Honduras the most commonly used term with genuine a close second when referring to the species, and have often found the two terms used in conjunction. If we are going to throw out commonly accepted terms on a technicality, there will be a long list to work through.

On another note, Gene mentioned sapele as an equal to mahogany. Would that include resistance to decay as well?

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:

Sapele does have good decay resistance, but not as good as the excellent resistance of genuine mahogany.

I talked to one supplier of tropical woods and he stated that SA mahogany often is not of the same genus and species as genuine. It is a look-alike that some suppliers sell as the price is low and the customer does not know the difference. He said that sometimes it is the same, but that SA mahogany is a seldom used name by most suppliers selling the genuine stuff.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the post about excellent rot resistance versus good rot resistance, but where can somebody find authoritative data that talks about that? All I can ever find are descriptions like excellent, or good, but that doesn't say much. And does it matter if it's painted?

From contributor B:
Why would you want to paint mahogany? Use poplar if you're going to paint it.

From contributor P:
Wow, some of you guys know too much. If you are going to build a greenhouse in the dirt or on concrete, you might consider using a different material that touches the ground. Either wood will rot if you don't take that into consideration. Next, how do you plan on protecting the finished product? I think your climate will determine that. Then I would decide on what kind of wood to use. In some areas wood might not be a good choice.

From contributor I:
Is African mahogany really from Africa? Is Honduran mahogany exclusively from Honduras? I have an old book that mentions Spanish mahogany or Cuban mahogany. More local names I assume? What happened to ribbon stripe Philippine mahogany? I don't see that anymore. Can we talk about teak sometime?

From contributor X:
African mahogany is from Africa - the tropics. Honduras mahogany is from Honduras - and South America, Mexico, the rest of Central America - the tropics. Cuban and Spanish mahogany are generally considered to be the same - limited commercial availability in the US. Philippine mahogany is really lauan. I think most of the ribbon-striped stuff is actually African. My sources - HPVA Species Guide, and Paxton Beautiful Woods. Yes, open up a teak discussion in a new thread.

From Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Contributor X is correct except as noted below for Cuban mahogany.

Cuban Mahogany, Swietenia mahogani (genus and species names), the Wood of Kings, has been among the most prized and valuable timbers since the late 16th century. This mahogany species is the wood that planked the ships of the Spanish Armada. Famous furniture builders Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Chippendale, and Duncan Phyfe chose Cuban mahogany for their fine furniture. In fact, as the reputation and demand for Cuban mahogany grew, the supply of wood shrank. By 1629, supplies in Cuba and surrounding islands dwindled so much that the Spanish began moving their shipyards to Mexico where trees were still available.

As timber harvest methods became more sophisticated, even the “inaccessible” trees became lumber. By the mid 1700’s, Cuban mahogany was becoming quite scarce. By the mid 1800's, good lumber was becoming rare. By the late 1800's, the species had been logged into genetic impoverishment and commercial extinction. Today there are still a few trees, but they are extremely rare and should not be used as such usage will encourage harvesting and the ultimate end of this species.

Other historic common names for Cuban mahogany are Caribbean mahogany, West Indian mahogany and Santo Domingo mahogany.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Some other English names for genuine mahogany (and the countries that principally use the name) include Honduras mahogany; American mahogany, baywood; Belize mahogany, Brazilian mahogany, British Honduras mahogany (USA); broad leaf mahogany (Virgin Islands); broad-leaved mahogany; broken ridge mahogany (Belize); Central American mahogany (Virgin Islands); Colombian mahogany, Costa Rica mahogany, Costa Rican mahogany, Guatemalan mahogany, genuine mahogany (India, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, USA); mahogany (Belize, India, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, USA); mahogany tree, Mexican mahogany, Nicaraguan mahogany, Panama mahogany, Peruvian mahogany, South American mahogany, Tabasco mahogany, true mahogany and Venezuelan mahogany (Jamaica, Puerto Rico, USA).

African mahogany is in the Khaya genus. It grows in central Africa from the western coast, eastward in a broad band. The two commercial lumber species are Khaya ivorensis and K. anthotheca. Two other species that are not commercially important are K. senegalensis and K. grandfoliola. All these species have many local names. Harvesting over the past centuries has again limited the supplies of this species for the future. When quartersawn or rift sawn, the face of the resulting lumber has a ribbon stripe appearance; often such lumber is sold as ribbon-stripe mahogany.

From contributor X:

Thanks, Gene. As I re-read my source, I noticed that the Cuban mahogany is limited commercially - but only in Cuba. It's no longer available anywhere else in the world. So, what would be your view as to a suitable mahogany for Greene and Greene type furniture?