TNAG Connoisseur, Tonewoods

Tonewood Tours: Mahogany

Tonewood Tours is a six-part series in the Connoisseur, where we explore the most popular woods and worthwhile alternatives used in acoustic guitar making.

With behind-the-scenes information provided by some of the finest American and European luthiers working today, Dave Hunter discussed one of the most versatile of all woods: Mahogany.

This article comes from V1E3 of the Connoisseur.

One of the woods most common to both acoustic and electric guitars, mahogany is also traditionally used for more individual parts of the structure than any other popular hardwood. Yet it retains an arguably unfair reputation as a second-class tonewood where high-end acoustics are concerned. This situation comes largely from the traditional comparisons between mahogany and rosewood, both in fine furniture and instrument making, where the latter has generally been prized for its beauty while the former presents a plainer, less luxurious appearance.

“When we first started out as builders I’d been building on my own,” says Richard Hoover of California’s Santa Cruz Guitar Company, “and I wanted to make guitars out of mahogany, but you know the stigma: ‘Mahogany’s on the cheaper instruments, mahogany’s on the less-fancy guitars.’ And that goes back to way before Martin.  

“Both woods came out of South America, and the rosewood even then was rare, because to get a really pretty piece you’re pulling a log out of the bush and cutting into it and finding out if it’s pretty or not. The mahogany just grew like a big piece of pound cake; you cut into it and it’s good in every direction, it’s super workable, it’s super stable, it was a woodworker’s dream.  

“So mahogany furniture, pianos, office paneling, was the lesser prize, and you put the rosewood on the expensive stuff. That carried on to instruments, and to this day, where people equate plain with mahogany and fancy with rosewood. But when it comes to tonality, it’s like if you couldn’t see it you wouldn’t have that distinction of quality, it would just be quantity.” 

Varieties and Origins

The mahogany genus (Swietenia) includes three species that are considered ‘genuine mahogany,’ while other similar species are referred to as ‘true mahogany.’ It’s a situation that can clearly lead to some confusion where tonewood acquisition is concerned, but which has also yielded a relatively wide variety of woods that can all be used to make excellent guitars. The most revered traditional form of the wood for guitar making is Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). Despite the name it’s actually found throughout several regions of Central America as well as, most prominently, Brazil and Peru in South America, and parts of the Caribbean, where it’s often referred to as Cuban mahogany, even if it’s harvested from a different island.  

The high demand for genuine mahogany from the furniture and building trades in particular has led to a scarcity on the market today, and its listing on CITES Appendix II in 2003. In short, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily considered endangered with extinction, but that some controls are needed to help ensure its survival—mainly evoked in the form of additional permits required for its harvesting and exportation. Unsurprisingly, one of the main results of these protections is a decreasing availability of genuine mahogany, alongside increasing costs. 

The most popular alternative, and the wood you’ll more often encounter in any quantity today, is African mahogany (Khaya), which includes five species found largely in the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria. The two species of trees—Honduran and African mahogany—are not actually related, but the wood they yield has enough in common for the industry to consider them both mahoganies, though the former ‘genuine’ and the latter ‘true’. These characteristics include a good strength-to-weight ratio and relatively easy workability, a subtle and relatively straight grain, and an appealing reddish-brown hue.

Other African woods used as stand-ins for mahogany include Sapele and Okoume (also sometimes known as Gabon), the latter often labeled ‘Okoume mahogany’ in recent years to strengthen its associations with the traditional tonewood, though it is in no way related as a species. From Central and South America and parts of the Caribbean, Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata, or Cedro)—neither a true cedar nor a mahogany—has also found favor with many guitar makers as a substitute for Honduran mahogany, though more often in electric guitar-making. 

Martin 00-18 with Spanish cedar neck

Desirability

Investigate further, keeping an eye on the guitars that many great players are using, and it’s easy to determine that those who know what they’re doing have a lot of respect for mahogany in the back and sides of a well-made acoustic guitar. And while part of the stratification of wood types was set in place by C.F. Martin more than a century ago, it’s always worth remembering that the jump in cost from a OO-18 to a OO-21 meant stepping up to a back and sides wood considered more exotic—at the time, from Honduran mahogany to Brazilian rosewood—but that this was an aesthetic demarcation point rather than one that denoted any increase in overall build quality.  

“Mahogany devotees need no convincing,” says Wilborn. “I think having both a rosewood guitar and a mahogany guitar is an ideal situation. They are different animals, and will inspire you to play different material, or the same material in different ways.” 

Richard Hoover concurs: “Mahogany is actually consistently one of my favorite tonewoods. And it may be that I’m just going for the underdog, but way back to my beginning days as a singer-songwriter, I had saved and saved and saved for a D-18, an entry level Martin, okay? My first real guitar was an all-Mahogany Harmony, an OM size which I really love. And then I got this D-18 which I really bonded with too. And a pretty girl on a blind date sat on it and squashed it, and I upgraded to a D-28, which was Brazilian [rosewood] at that time, and I just did not like the sound of it as much. And it wasn’t even until I was a guitar maker that I realized what I was dealing with, which was the tuning difference between Brazilian rosewood and mahogany.” 

Given these considerations, and others, we can see how a guitarist who’s swayed by the status of other woods might actually miss out on the best choice for his or her playing. As ever, most makers would urge us to define what we’re after sonically in a guitar, as well as to trust our ears, to achieve the desired results from any proposed new acquisition.

“There's a good reason mahogany has been used in so many good guitars,” says Dion James of Dion Guitars in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “Though less flashy than its rosewood cousin, its relatively lighter weight makes for a guitar with a quick response, which many players desire. I like its simple aesthetic and versatility. mahogany can be used for nearly every part on a guitar, it’s stable, and nice to work with.

“There’s a lot of mystery and hearsay when it comes to the conversation about tonewoods. It’s my opinion that most hardwoods and some softwoods can successfully be used as back and sides to make great guitars, as long as the builder tests each piece and uses only the highest quality sets, taking into consideration the material properties and adjusting the build accordingly. All that to say, I think we’re mistaken to consider mahogany an inferior wood relative to rosewood, though desirability is a mysterious beast and not necessarily based in objectivity.”

Acquisition and Availability

While many makers agree that great guitars can be made from prime, properly selected supplies of many types of mahogany, the scarcity of Honduran mahogany on the market has recently put it in a position not unlike that of Brazilian rosewood several years ago—even if the relative costs aren’t as extremely elevated in mahogany’s case. The most desirable species are still out there for the finding, but good supplies are certainly fewer and further between, and it takes some hunting and some expenditure to acquire them.

“I like Honduran mahogany and Cuban mahogany,” says Wilborn. “I also like it for necks. Honduran is still readily available, but it is getting rare. I once bought a bunch of very old Cuban boards, so even though Cuban is very rare, I have enough to last me a while."

“The African ‘mahoganies’ like sapele and khaya can also be lovely woods, especially for necks and internal parts. They can also make good backs and sides, though they are scorned unfairly by some as being the wood of cheap guitars.”

Having seen this market in flux for some five decades, SCGC’s Richard Hoover is well positioned to sum up the state of this prized wood in the industry today, and to provide a thoughtful perspective on seeking out and repurposing the good wood that’s already available.  

“What’s unfortunate is there are so many of us putting so much pressure on our resources,” he says, “that mahogany available on the commercial market today is just a shadow of what it was, from maybe even in the beginning of my career, because [the mahogany available today] grows much faster, it’s less dense, and… it’s not junk, it’s just not the stuff. So that’s another reason for reclamation.” 

The Tree Mahogany—the world’s most coveted tonewood?

One of the most notorious mahogany variations is The Tree. The story of the Tree is well told, but let’s quickly explore its provenance and importance. 

The mahogany tree in question was discovered in 1965 in the Honduran rainforest of Chiquibul. It was reportedly over 100 feet high and 10 feet wide. Best estimates put its age at around 500 years old. 

Having arduously prepared the tree for felling, the loggers watched as this towering beast of a tree didn’t fall where they intended—it fell backwards into a ravine, unable to be extracted due to the limited machinery on hand. While unfortunate for the loggers, this was fortuitous to the Tree and its story. The Tree stayed in that ravine for the next 10 years.

In the late 70s, Sawmill owner Alan Mauney stumbled upon The Tree in his search for timber and mentioned it to Robert Novak, a specialist in importing woods. Novak recognized its significance, purchased it and began a plan to extract it from the ravine deep in the rainforest. It’s location, size, and the obstacles surrounding it did not make it an easy task for Novak. 

They decided to cut The Tree into quarters where it sat and then cut those quarters to length. They then dragged the sections out of the ravine and made the 100-mile journey through the jungle to the Chiquibul river. 

Once at the river, the logs had to be floated a final 70 miles downstream to an old, steam-powered sawmill where Novak supervised all the processing, which required nearly two weeks’ work, yielding 12,000 board feet of timber. The wood was then shipped to the US and kiln dried for 30 days. 

To guitar makers and players, this wood would not become known as The Tree for at least another decade. 

The mahogany from The Tree is coveted by players and builders alike, as Jason Kostal concurs.  

“I think the biggest thing about using this wood is that it is unique, rare, and there is literally a diminishing, finite amount to it,” says Jason.

“Unlike any other wood on the planet, each time we build something out of the Tree, there is no refill on the supply. We are already repurposing tables and furniture to make guitars, and I don't know of anything that can be made out of a repurposed guitar, so that is pretty much its final state. It’s a stunningly beautiful wood and I am fortunate that my guitars are in a price point that allows me to use some of the finest woods on the planet. That means that when this wood is all gone, there will be some pieces of my work that remain to showcase its beauty and allow music to be made in the world. While a table itself is art and beautiful to look at, a guitar allows one to create art indefinitely and so that feels like a much greater gift to me.” 

Thanks for reading! Check out our full collection of in shop and incoming mahogany guitars here.

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