Many consumers today hold the perception that all of the mahogany furniture in their current possession, ever owned by their parents, or fit to be owned, is constructed of solid mahogany. Such a perception is, at best, highly unlikely.
As a point of fact, most manufactured mahogany case pieces (tables, sideboards, chests, etc.) whether new or old, are made of mahogany veneer — a process purposely used by the manufacturers. The purpose of this paper, then, is to provide the discriminating buyer a perspective on the issue such that a contentious decision can be reached regarding the type merchandise sought.
For one, mahogany is an expensive wood. As mahogany only grows in tropical environs, the cost of the wood escalates over the cost of domestic woods given the additive expenses of shipping and importing. Add to this the higher cost of the more exotic and desirable variants of the wood (“flame” or “crotch”, “tiger-stripe”, or “ribbon” mahogany) which may be found in as little as 5% of any given tree, and the final price of the wood can become exorbitant.
Of more importance than the cost factor is the stability of mahogany. It isn’t. While a very strong wood, mahogany has the highest rate of absorption of humidity from the air of any wood used in the construction of furniture. On a scale of 1.00, the 45 different species of mahogany are said to have an average .83 absorption factor – after it has been kiln dried!
As mahogany absorbs moisture over time, it expands, shrinks, warps, and cracks. In older furniture such as English Georgian case pieces from the 1800’s, this process commonly results in fissures along grain lines on tops, doors, or sides. In American pieces of the late 1800’s, flat boards are typically warp in a U-shape. And the process manifests itself in American case pieces of the first half of the 20th Century as warped doors, or splits in seams where two mahogany planks are butted and glued together.
The stability problem of mahogany most frequently affects the planed (flat) surfaces found in case pieces. It is less of a problem in turned pieces such as chairs.
Because of these factors, most mahogany case pieces are made of mahogany veneer.
The first use of veneers – thin pieces of wood or other materials glued over something else – has been attributed to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The use of veneer construction has expanded tremendously since then. Columbus’ ship is said to have had veneered pieces aboard (a fact which did not contribute to the ship’s sinking during its second voyage to the New World).
With respect to American mahogany furniture made during the first half of the 20th Century, manufacturers would place the mahogany veneer over a solid hardwood core constructed of a wood which did not have the stability problem to the degree of mahogany. Typical woods used for this purpose were fruitwood or gumwood and, to a lesser extent, poplar. At a higher cost, the better manufacturers, such as Landstrom, placed their veneer over a solid core of red oak – a wood with the least humidity absorption factor of all woods used.
So, given an unchecked stability factor alone, many consider veneered pieces by such manufacturers as Kittinger, Kindel, and the original Century Furniture Company – some of the highest quality furniture in the history of mankind – to be far superior to any solid mahogany furniture ever made.
Did the high cost and stability problem of solid mahogany have an impact on manufacturers? Absolutely. Of those manufacturers who specialized in all solid mahogany furniture during the first half of the 1900’s, not a single one is in existence today. Each and every one of them closed their doors and declared bankruptcy rather than convert to mahogany veneer construction.
Anyone who ever visited Grandmother’s house, a 1930’s bungalow, remembers that when it rained outside the humidity inside the house was near 100%. Developments in heating and air systems since the 1960’s have changed that situation. Today, heat pumps, gas pacs, and forced air systems regulate the humidity in the home to about 40% year-’round.
The good news here is that through these modern technological conveniences the stability problem of mahogany is checked. As long as your solid mahogany pieces are kept in environments where temperature and low humidity remain constant year-’round, they will not experience the warping, cracking, or splitting consequences of the stability problem. And older pieces which have already experienced some of these problems will experience no further degradation. However, if these pieces are ever removed from such a controlled environment, the stability issue will become a problem (again).
Unfortunately, the development of controlled environments has not changed the way mahogany furniture is made. Because of the historical problems associated with solid mahogany (not the least of which is the wood being more expensive than ever), there exists only one large scale manufacturer of solid mahogany furniture today: Henkel-Harris. Everyone else uses mahogany veneer on their case pieces.
New Versus Old
The issue facing the discriminating consumer purchasing mahogany furniture today, then, is not whether the furniture is mahogany veneer or solid mahogany. The issue is whether the furniture is new or old. Or more precisely, what is used as the core beneath a mahogany veneer surface.
In most cases, mahogany veneer furniture manufactured in the first half of the 1900’s will have a hardwood core of some type. (In a few instances, lesser quality manufacturers used plywood.)
This furniture has already lasted through 50 years or more of normal use; may be refinished any number of times; appreciates in value over time; and will still outlive our grandchildren.
Virtually all of today’s manufacturers place mahogany veneer over compressed particle board. (In a few instances, some use plywood.) It is extraordinarily difficult to ever refinish this furniture (particle board absorbs chemical strippers and permanently swells, while sand stripping runs a high risk of veneer damage); depreciates in value over time; and may not survive the next handling by movers without turning back into sawdust.
As a final note, no discussion of solid mahogany furniture is complete without mentioning imported furniture. Over the last 10 years, a tremendous market has unfolded in America for solid mahogany furniture manufactured in Indonesia. Given the natural growth of the wood in that country and an extremely low labor cost, this furniture can be acquired for a mere fraction of the cost of American-made mahogany-veneered particle board. However, in furniture as in any other commodity, one “gets what they pay for.”
An estimated 80% of the mahogany furniture manufactured in Indonesia has not been kiln-dried. As a result, this “green wood” shrinks, cracks, and splits as it dries over a period of three to 10 years. Even a controlled environment will not stop this process. Additionally, Indonesian solid mahogany furniture is popularly finished with a formaldehyde compound (illegal in America) which “burns” into the wood to give it a hand-rubbed appearance. These pieces cannot be refinished.
For the uneducated buyer, this process tends to disappoint and disillusion them on the quality of (well-made) mahogany furniture. While some educated consumers are willing to accept the knowledge that they are going to roast marshmallows with the furniture in a matter of time, with the intent of replacing it with the same merchandise inexpensively.
The success with which Indonesian mahogany has sold in America has prompted importers to pursue other foreign markets in recent years. While the verdict is still out on the quality of wood and construction of these products, it bears note to point out that mahogany does not grow in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, Turkey, or any Eastern Europe country.
Given this information, what conclusions can the discriminating consumer reach regarding mahogany furniture?
- If the buyer can ensure a controlled environment and afford the additional cost, solid mahogany furniture (old is less expensive than new) is clearly the selection to make.
- Should the consumer desire the “best buy for the money” with a product which will last beyond the current generation and appreciate in value, older pieces of mahogany veneer over hardwood cores is the best choice?
- If the most lavish and expensive furniture is sought, with no intention to pass it on, new mahogany veneer over particle board will fit the bill (just don’t move after the purchase.)
- And those who desire the most inexpensive furniture with no qualms about its survivability have a wide variety of Indonesian mahogany to select from.
Reference: Begun in 1995, Vintage House is a family-owned business which offers high quality antique and vintage furniture and refinishing services from its Eastside warehouse facility in Greer, SC.