This section is from the book "Spons' Mechanics' Own Book: A Manual For Handicraftsmen And Amateurs", by Edward Spon. Also available from Amazon: Spons' Mechanics' Own Book.
This tree is indigenous to the W. Indies and Central America. It is of comparatively rapid growth, reaching maturity in about 200 years, and the trunk exceeding 40-50 ft. long and 6-12 ft. diam. The wood is very durable in the dry, and not liable to worms. Its costliness restricts its use chiefly to furniture; it has been extensively employed in machinery for cotton-mills. It shrinks very little, warps and twists less than any other wood, and glues exceedingly well.It is imported in logs: those from Cuba, Jamaica, Ran Domingo, known as "Spanish," are about 20-26 in. sq. and 10 ft. long; those from Honduras, 2-4 ft. sq. and 12-14 ft. long. The weight is 35-53 lb. a cub. ft.; the cohesive force is 7560 lb. in Spanish, and 11,475 lb. in Honduras; the strength, stiffness, and toughness are respectively 67, 73, and 61 in Spanish, and 96, 93, and 99 in Honduras. The tree attains its greatest development and grows most abundantly between 10° N. lat. and the Tropic of Cancer, flourishing best on the higher crests of the hills, and preferring the lighter soils.
It is found in abundance along the banks of the Usumacinta, and other large rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the larger islands of the W. Indies. British settlements for cutting and shipping the timber were established so long ago as 1638-40, and the right to the territory has been maintained by Great Britain, chiefly on account of the importance of this branch of industry. The cutting season usually commences about August. It is performed by gangs of men, numbering 20-50, under direction of a "captain" and accompanied by a "huntsman," the duty of the latter being to search out suitable trees, and guide the cutters to them. The felled trees of a season are scattered over a very wide area. All the larger ones are "squared" before being brought away on wheeled trucks along the forest roads made for the purpose. By March-April, felling and trimming are completed; the dry season by that time permits the trucks to be wheeled to the river-banks. A gang of 40 men work 6 trucks, each requiring 7 pair of oxen and 2 drivers. Arrived at the river, the logs, duly initialed, are thrown into the stream; the rainy season follows in May-June, and the rising current carries them seawards, guided by men following in canoes.
A boom at the river-mouth stops the timber, and enables each owner to identify his property. They are then made up into rafts, and taken to the wharves for a final trimming before shipment. The cutters often continue their operations far into the interior, and over the borders into Guatemala and Yucatan. Bahama mahogany grows abundantly on Andros Island and others of the Bahama group. It is not exceeded in durability by any of the Bahama woods. It grows to a large size, but is generally cut of small dimensions, owing to the want of proper roads and other means of conveyance. It is principally used for bedsteads, etc, and the crooked trees and branches for ship timber. It is a fine, hard, close-grained, moderately heavy wood, of a fine, rich colour, equal to that of Spanish mahogany, although probably too hard to be well adapted for the purposes to which the latter is usually applied. Honduras is best for strength and stiffness, while Spanish is most valued for ornamental purposes. The Honduras wood is of a golden or red-brown colour, of various shades and degrees of brightness, often very much veined and mottled. The grain is coarser than that of Spanish, and the inferior qualities often contain many grey specks.
This timber is very durable when kept dry, but does not stand the weather well. It is seldom attacked by dry-rot, contains a resinous oil which prevents the attacks of insects, and is untouched by worms. It is strong, tough, and flexible when fresh, but becomes brittle when dry. It contains a very small proportion of sap, and is very free from shakes and other defects. The wood requires great care in seasoning, does not shrink or warp much, but if the seasoning process is carried on too rapidly it is liable to split into deep shakes externally. It holds glue very well, has a soft silky grain, contains no acids injurious to metal fastenings, and is less combustible than most timbers. It is generally of a plain straight grain and uniform colour, but is sometimes of wavy grain or figured. Its market forms are logs 2-4 ft. sq. and 12-14 ft. in length. Sometimes planks have been obtained 6-7 ft. wide. Mahogany is known in the market as "plain," "veiny," "watered," "velvet-cowl," "bird's-eye," and "festooned," according to the appearance of the vein-formations. Cuba or Spanish mahogany is distinguished from Honduras by a white, chalk-like substance which fills its pores. The wood is very sound, free from shakes, with a beautiful wavy grain or figure, and capable of receiving a high polish.
It is used chiefly for furniture and ornamental purposes, and for ship-building. Mexican shows the characteristics of Honduras.
Some varieties of it are figured. It may be obtained in very largo sizes, but the wood is spongy in the centre, and very liable to starshakes. It is imported in balks 15-36 in. sq., and 18-30 ft. in length. St. Domingo and Nassau are hard, heavy varieties, of deep-red colour, generally well veined or figured, and used for cabinet-works. They are imported in very small logs, 3-10 ft. long and 6-12 in. sq.
This hard and durable wood is brought from Sierra Leone, and is much used for purposes requiring strength, hardness, and durability. But it is very liable to premature decay, if the heart is exposed in felling or trimming.
Two species of Swietenia are indigenous to the E. Indies: - 8. febrifuga is a very large tree of the mountains of Central Hindostan; the wood is less beautiful than true mahogany, but much harder, heavier, and more durable, being considered the most lasting timber in India. S. chloroxylon is found chiefly in the Circar mountains, and attains smaller dimensions; the wood more resembles box.