It’s Cuban Mahogany – No Big Deal

mahogany_map
The idea that Cuban mahogany was used in the best English eighteenth-century furniture is a myth, propagated by earth twentieth-century authors such as Percy Macquoid and Herbert Cescinsky, and since established as “fact” by constant iteration. The statistical and other evidence housed in the Public Record office shows that no Cuban mahogany was imported either directly or indirectly into England before the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). This is confirmed by the Letter Books (of Gillow furniture company), which show not only that Cuban mahogany was an introduction of the 1760s, but that its quality fell far short of its modern reputation.

— “Gillow and the Use of Mahogany in the Eighteenth Century,” Adam Bowett, Regional Furniture, Volume XII, 1998

About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in the Works, Campaign Furniture. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to It’s Cuban Mahogany – No Big Deal

  1. eric mah says:

    Give the man a cigar.

  2. tsstahl says:

    I guess I’m too ignorant to participate in propagating the fallacy as I didn’t know of the Cuban wood reputation to begin with. :)

    Two decades ago, when I indulged in such things, I found Honduran cigars to be superior to Cuban.

  3. Sam I Am says:

    George Heppelwhite is a case in point, he was said to have produced his furniture, in the 1720′s out of cuban mahogany, however, no examples of his work exist. What he or possibly Alice Heppelwhite did was to introduce a popular style. Reproduction shield back chairs break apart, and there owners are appalled their original Heppelwhites have failed. Not a original Heppelwhite, not cuban mahogany.

    Cuban mahogany was however prevalent during the 1920′s in the U.S but just as quickly as it arrived in huge quantities of sizable logs, it was gone.

    Good post, good point.

    Sam

  4. Jose Santiago says:

    “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”
    Iago to Casio on Reputations, Shakespeare’s Othello

  5. John Cashman says:

    Deal. I get it.

  6. Ron Dennis says:

    Wow! After almost fifty years working wood, now you tell me I’ve been telling a lie all these years. Now you got me wondering what else ain’t exactly the Gospel truth! Of course, after the first few years of trying to find the board stretcher the old salts kept telling me about, I should have known.

  7. burbidge says:

    No, big deal didn’t come from Cuba…

  8. Xavier Mas says:

    And what about importation from Cuba through Menorca? I cannot tell about the best furniture, but English where occupying Menorca almost the whole XVIII century and in the island still remain a lot of English and English style mahogany made furniture. Menorquians still use the word “mahogin” to describe mahogany, instead the Spanish or Catalan “caoba”. Well, just a curiosity!

  9. David Pickett says:

    That’s an interesting one!

    Could it be that the best grade of mahogany-like timber was colloquilly referred to as ‘Cuban’ (wherever it was grown) during the nineteenth century, thus leading all and sundry to just assume that the best mahogany had always come from Cuba?

    • Xavier Mas says:

      Another option is that lumber traders, aka “pirates” in the Mediterraneum and other seas, labeled as “Cuban” no matter where it really comes from…
      We’re actually having a lot of fun when buying “Teka” and “African Teka” (Iroko)

  10. John Jarosz says:

    I use Cuban mahogany for solid body guitars. Gives a real nice solid tone. It’s sold by a company in Ithaca NY who has a ‘plantation’ in Guam or Samoa – I forget which. At least that’s what they say.

  11. Adam Weigand says:

    Reminds me of Patrick Edward’s recent post: http://wpatrickedwards.blogspot.com/2013/01/why-cuban-mahogany.html

    • Patrick says:

      Anybody on the fence about Roubo’s marquetry book because they aren’t really interested in marquetry ought to check out the banner pic on Mr. Edward’s blog..

  12. Tom Pier says:

    Who knows where the mahogany really came from during that time. Cuba was the administrative headquarters for the early Spanish New World territories, calling it “Cuban” could well have been a marketing ploy to not mention “Spain”. It could also be that Cuba was just a useful shorthand during a time when GPS mapping was unavailable. Or it was just a marketing ploy to drive up the price, “You like their rum? wait until you see their wood.”

  13. I completely agree; it isn’t a big deal from a construction perspective. In my rather limited experience, Cuban mahogany doesn’t work, finish, smell, or taste (What? Like you’ve never tasted lumber…) any different than Honduran mahogany. My backsaw doesn’t get all giddy over the Cuban stuff because it cuts differently.

    If I set them side by side, I generally can’t even tell the difference between the species, so I always label my Cuban mahogany to make sure it doesn’t get mixed in with the other stuff (yep, I segregate my mahoganies). I assume there is a difference on a cellular level, but I’ve never been interested enough to find out. I have no experience with resulting resonance and sound quality, so I cannot attest to any differences or similarities in that regards.

    I won’t go out of my way to obtain the Cuban stuff (or pay extra for it, for that matter), but if my supplier of Zanthoxylum flavum from Puerto Rico happens to have a few smaller pieces of Cuban mahogany lying around and he sticks them in a shipping box to fill it out… well, then, any box I make with that mahogany is going to be labeled as being made with “Cuban mahogany”.

    To be fair, that could be perpetrating the fallacy to some degree. But I don’t ever claim a quality difference with the woods I use; it is merely a description of the wood’s origination, which sometimes accounts for higher costs.

    • John Cashman says:

      I don’t know about recent mahogany from Cuba compared to other places. It’s not a difference between species. But the Cuban mahogany from two hundred years ago is vastly different from anything harvested today. Particularly when it is carved, and back then it was always carved. It is like comparing modern cherry and white pine.

      • Ahhh… carving is a mostly unexplored woodworking territory for me, John. I was planning on trying a bit this year. Maybe I will play around with the two species when I do that and see if I notice any difference. Thanks for the information!

  14. billlattpa says:

    I was and still am amazed at the lengths people went and still go to get lumber for woodworking.

  15. Tom Pier says:

    So where did the English furniture makers get their mahogany? The map pretty well shows that most of the mahogany range came from territory controlled by Spain, France, or Portugal, and I doubt that those territories were allowed to trade directly with England. I don’t think the English furniture makers really knew where their wood came from, they knew only where someone told them it came from.

    • I have been doing some research on this for my day job and there are some things that point to African species like Utile/Sipo as a strong source for a lot of this furniture. After all, The African continent was discovered before North and South America. Certainly as an alternate to genuine Mahogany, Utile is very valid. I actually prefer it now that I have had time to work with it.

  16. So why was it overharvested and all cut down? If not much was used for furniture, there must be a bunch laying around someplace.

    • James O says:

      Think really big boats with sails and a lot of cannon. IIRC the English Navy took a Spanish Prize, the HMS Gibraltar, which at the time was a 50 year old ship kept her in service for 50 more years then broke her up. It was commented that the timbers were all in such good shape that most of the Officer’s Mess Tables for the Royal Navy were made from her beams.

  17. Matthew in Ohio says:

    “propagated by earth twentieth-century authors such as Percy Macquoid” Not sure if this is a commenting faux pas or not but I believe I found a typo.

  18. Adam says:

    If interested in the history and use of the wood, one should take a gander at Mahogany by Jennifer L. Anderson. It’s a great read.

    By the way, Cuban Mahogany is just Swietenia mahagoni or rather West Indian Mahogany. It grows across the Caribbean and even into Florida. The English would have easily acquired mahogany from their colonies like Jamaica or the Bahamas.

  19. Michael king says:

    From my furniture making course(in England) I think we were told the wood in this period came from around the Caribbean, (San Domingo mahogany was especially very prized as it was very dark and dense and was great for fine details) that was until supplies dried up of course.

Comments are closed.