Next week I teach a class here in building the lowback stick chair from “The Stick Chair Book” to a class of six students. Our lumberyard was low on straight-grained 8/4 red oak that was ideal for chairmaking, and I barely squeaked out enough material for six chairs.
I always build a chair during a class for two reasons. One, if a student commits a fatal error at any point, I can hand them my parts so they can continue. Also, if no disasters occur during the class, I have a chair to sell at the end of the class that can be less expensive (because I’ve already been paid for teaching the class).
But I didn’t find enough oak for me to build a chair. So I went to my cellar and pulled out a gorgeous board of old Honduran mahogany left over from my “Campaign Furniture” book.
I have a small fortune of mahogany down there, much of it from the 1950s to 1970s, that I purchased when Midwest Woodworking in Norwood, Ohio, closed its doors. Some of it is 20” wide. I love working with the stuff, and I know it will make one hell of a stick chair.
But I have misgivings about the material.
Yes, there are environmental problems with using rainforest woods. Plus, there are social ones that not everyone knows about. As someone who deals in wood every day and talks to people in many areas of the industry, I have little faith that all South American exotics are produced by free laborers.
You might be thinking: Wait, this wood was cut 50 years ago. It has done no recent environmental or labor harm. While that’s true, promoting the use of the wood by showing it here doesn’t help today’s situation. Someone might look at the chair and say: Damn. I definitely want to build my next chair out of mahogany. And so they buy some mahogany, which encourages the continued harvesting of it.
Mahogany is beautiful, beautiful stuff, so this is a logical reaction.
So I am telling you all this so you know the caveats I have with this material.
If you do want to make a stick chair using mahogany, I have a good suggestion. Buy sinker mahogany from a reputable seller such as Hearne Hardwoods. Sinker mahogany is stuff that sank in the rivers as it was being transported about 100 years ago or so. It survived underwater and has been recovered, cut and dried. It is gorgeous stuff – I’ve worked with it.
It can smell a little fishy when you cut it, but the smell dissipates quickly, and the finished piece does not smell like a tuna sandwich left out in the sun.
— Christopher Schwarz