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
36 thoughts on “A Stick Chair in Old Mahogany?”
I have 20” wide mahogany that I bought nearly 50 years ago for a grandfather clock I built. Still have some of it on hand. I also used some 2” thick mahogany for picture frames when I designed a moulding and had the knives machined to make it, and even used that same moulding on my living room mantel. Of course at the time almost no one thought about environmental or labor issues.
Right on Chris for making us think about where the wood comes from.
Beautiful wood and I love the mated hexagons. Any tips on ripping those so perfectly?
I don’t do anything special. I just lay out the 30° cut on the end of the stick. Set the blade and fence to make that cut. Sorry I don’t have any magic beans.
There’s something missing from the first photo…I can’t quite put my butt on it.
You can also get estate grown certified mahogany that is grown in an island off the coast of Honduras, which avoids all the environmental and labor issues. I have some left from a boat building project, and it has a nice brown-reddish color, with fairly fine grain.
Unfortunately many of the certification stamps are forged. This has been documented by independent journalists many times during the last decade.
In all honesty & though I can appreciate your sentiments on Mahogany, the best course of action was to probably not even mention that you were working with it in the first place. After all, knowing & viewing visual media of legacy miners with infants strapped to their backs, working in cobalt pits in third world countries, has only increased the desire for newer, wasteful iPhones & battery technology that makes petroleum products seem environmentally friendly.
Very responsible commentary. Yes, your mahogany is a done deal: but it can ‘pull’ additional demand, by admiring woodworkers.
Better you should have made yourself something nice with it, and never told
I pledge to remain on a mahogany-free woodworking diet.
I appreciate you clarifying your stance on this issue. It’s getting a little overwhelming as to how many products are now brought to us through the magic of “less than free” labor. By the way, I doubt I will ever again knowingly purchase anything with coco in it… Still trying to figure out how to make a difference with electronics, but I need to work that one out.
I would say that making beautiful objects from that pile of wood will honor the memory of the people who might have been forced to produce it. As someone else mentioned today we buy from estate grown lumber, in my experience its hard to buy exotic woods otherwise.
My main takeaway from this post is that I’m not the only one who enjoys stacking parts in various pleasing configurations when building things.
I might be weirder than just a person who lines up his pencils. I’ve always been a bit of an animist. And so I see this as training the wild tree to be more furniture-like.
That probably helps the sticks get used to being a chair. If they are forced to do it all of a sudden with no warning, they may get unruly and fight back.
Clocked screws by hatchet, axe and saw. Oddball music from word of mouth only musicians. Start a publishing company on the eve of the internet killing paper. Outsider art aficionado. Selflessly giving away a large amount of monetizable content.
Nope. Not weird at all.
Can I put a deposit for that chair?
This might not be salable when it’s complete. The hexagonal legs are a real wild card, and I’ve never used them in a low-back.
If it turns out OK, then I plan to sell it here on the blog in a drawing. If, however, it turns out spectacular, I might want to sell it via silent auction. My income has taken a significant hit since I have been working on “The American Peasant” book. I do appreciate your offer!
What happened with the mahogany chair?
I, too, have a hoard of mahogany of exactly that vintage. I bought out an estate sale. I’m not even an accomplished woodworker (yet). But I guess I’ll continue to hold onto it.
I did give a 5’ 8/4 x 6 gorgeous piece to a friend for two banjo necks. And some honey locust for the fingerboard. It’s a nice combination.
Mahogany is a fantastic tone wood for banjos! My 1928 Paramount Style “C” is all (decorative laminations excepted) mahogany — rim, dowel, neck and resonator — which gives a warm, deep tone I’ve heard from no other wood commonly used for banjos. So in my book at least, your friend is lucky to have you for a generous friend!
Retoration of mahogany furniture needs proper mahogany. Maybe it is an idea to leave what is now left for restorationpurposes? One nice stickchair with hexagonal legs is alowed. :-). Hope you show us the result.
I have made my peace with never using any wood that is not from Northern Europe or Northern America. Woodworking is a hobby for me, but I am a biologist working for the Natural Resources Institute of a Nordic country and cannot get over the icky feeling I get from wood that does not come from properly managed forests. My wood work will never be life changing for anyone, so it’s not great loss it’s mostly pine.
With reference to your moral caveats: in my opinion you have done all you reasonably can do in pointing out the history of the wood i.e. you did not buy it while being aware that there might have been ethical questions to be addressed and now that you have pointed out that there are reservations to be had these days, it is up to your readers to decide whether or not to buy mahogany of which they are not 100% sure or whether they just don’t care and will do as they wish.
Unless we are knowingly engaging in criminal activity, we are all answerable to our own consciences. So you can rest easy and the rest of us will act according to our consciences. For what it’s worth, I have a 50 y.o. piece of utile from which I hope one day to make a chair but I suspect I will be buying no more tropical hard words.
That’s the thing about freedom of action: we are measured by what we choose to do.
I have two leaves out of an antique – by now at least – drop leaf table of such roaring bad design that it was unuseable unless you either had room for it with the leaves extended, or detached the leaves entirely. I was given the leaves decades ago, and years later the rest of the table. The leaves are still off, and won’t go back. I keep thinking that I should use them, but they are mahogany and deserve proper, just treatment.
The cutouts on the arms/hands made me curious. Are they purely a design element or do they serve a purpose, maybe as handholds for carrying the chair?
Greetings from Germany.
It’s a traditional shape found on many stick chairs. It’s a nice place to grab the chair as you pull yourself up out of the chair. I can’t recall grabbing the hands as I move the chairs, but I’ll give it some thought.
I had a similar struggle recently obtaining a little cumaru decking. Did my homework and hopefully the sustainable certification is legit, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn it’s not. Regarding mahogany, I have fallen into the habit of using it in thin strips and edge profiles as accent or protection along with north American woods. I get mine from the resale shops and salvage lumber Restore, usually it’s old baseboard, railing or the like so you have to be creative in milling it to work into your design. In this way a little goes a long way and I’ve never purchased it retail, which eases my mind quite a bit.
I’m worried about the student who winds up with a mahogany leg on their stick chair.
I was going to include the same sentiment in my synopsis & I’m glad someone else did. There’s a reason structural elements aren’t made from “inflexable” species aside from price.
I recently was gifted with some old growth pine witch had been cut back in the early 20’s that had been in an old warehouse .the owner said that he was going to throw it out if I did not want it. Boards 14 -28 in.wide. Wood that size you do not see anymore . If you look at that board it will tell you what to make . So that all of them special boards that you have stashed away take a nother look at them they will tell you use it or lose it
Chris; As a former pothead coworker once told me, (Doug) Chris, you think too much. Or as my kitchen cabinet builder told me when we chose cherry for our cabinets, ” they are still making trees.” doug
Wow, that’s going to be a nice looking chair! You better hide it from your students…
How I’d like to get some of your Honduras Mahogany and Brazilian Rosewood for my guitars. Nothing like these in acoustic guitars. Alternate species just aren’t as good.
If labor conditions in the tropical forestry industry bothers you I would advise you to not delve to deeply into how the microchips and battery in your digital device that you wrote this post on is produced.
I wouldn’t sweat it too much. Mahogany is entirely too expensive for most hobbyists to use for furniture.
It’s all troubling. And I do wrestle with all these issues.
Chris, just a quick ask, did you plane the hexagon legs in the image in this article by hand ? Great if you did, I now know how much I need to improve my planing skills. I must try harder.