Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tech Tip Tuesday

I just want some Mahogany!

Very often, the first time a novice woodworker goes to an actual lumber dealer they are absolutely staggered by the variety they find. What seems to be a very simple trip to buy wood soon becomes both a botany, engineering and economics lesson - usually in a big hurry. Take, for example, one of my students. He went to purchase some Mahogany at a good reputable local dealer. The owner, who is very knowledgeable about her product asked which Mahogany he wanted. She took him on a tour of his choices - Honduran, Khaya, Sapele, Swietenia, etc. All are considered "mahogany" but not all are Mahogany. Their grain, color, appearance, hardness, density, rot resistance, brittleness, and cost all are a bit different. The trick is to find the material that is the best balance of what you want functionally and that (hopefully) falls within your budget.

Then, just to confuse things, there are other woods like "Philippine Mahogany" which is actually Luan or a similar product, not necessarily suitable for a boat-building application, mind you, but very attractive from a cost perspective.

What's a person to do?

Well, you can do several things:
  • Ask the advice of others who are doing what you do, ask what materials they use (and why) and to go find the materials at their source.
  • Tell your local wood supplier what you're doing with the wood and ask their opinion.
  • Go do some research.
For this student's question, I went to what I consider the source. I consulted the Center for Wood Anatomy Research. This is a branch of the US Forest Service (No pun intended. Really.), which falls under the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory. The amount of information about wood species, their physical properties, growing conditions and uses is staggering. This information is all available to you for free. It's been paid for by the US Taxpayer and is available to anyone, anywhere. It includes information about wood that can be found worldwide.

On this website, are some other links. One is to their Common Name Database Search. A query on the common name "Mahogany" will get you about 465 hits. (The picture at the top of the page is a small selection of Mahogany samples) That's a LOT of information and can be overwhelming. However, with a little looking, you can see that very often there are common bits of information that can help you narrow your search. Once you've narrowed down the selection, there are individual datasheets to tell you about the wood. These are where the useful information lives to let you compare the types of wood.

Like with anything else, a little research and some experience will go a long way.

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