The mahogany tree, says the Lumber World, is a native of the West Indies, the Bahamas, and that portion of Central America that lies adjacent to the Bay of Honduras, and has also been found in Florida. It is stated to be of moderately rapid growth, reaching its full maturity in about two hundred years. Full grown, it is one of the monarchs of tropical America. Its trunk, which often exceeds forty feet in length and six in diameter, and massive arms, rising to a lofty height, and spreading with graceful sweep over immense spaces, covered with beautiful foliage, bright, glossy, light, and airy, clinging so long to the spray as to make it almost an evergreen, present a rare combination of loveliness and grandeur. The leaves are small, delicate, and polished like those of the laurel. The flowers are small and white, or greenish yellow. The fruit is a hard, woody capsule, oval, not unlike the head of a turkey in size and shape, and contains five cells, in each of which are inclosed about fifteen seeds.
The mahogany tree was not discovered till the end of the sixteenth century, and was not brought into European use till nearly a century later. The first mention of it is that it was used in the repair of some of Sir Walter Raleigh's ships, at Trinidad, in 1597. Its finely variegated tints were admired, but in that age the dream of El Dorado caused matters of more value to be neglected. The first that was brought to England was about 1724, a few planks having been sent to Dr. Gibbons, of London, by a brother who was a West Indian captain. The doctor was erecting a house, and gave the planks to the workmen, who rejected them as being too hard. The doctor then had a candle-box made of the wood, his cabinet-maker also complaining of the hardness of the timber. But, when finished, the box became an object of general curiosity and admiration. He had one bureau, and her Grace of Buckingham had another, made of this beautiful wood, and the despised mahogany now became a prominent article of luxury, and at the same time raised the fortunes of the cabinet-maker by whom it had been so little regarded.
Since that lime it has taken a leading rank among the ornamental woods, having come to be considered indispensable where luxury is intended to be indicated.
A few facts will furnish a tolerably distinct idea of the size of this splendid tree. The mahogany lumbermen, having selected a tree, surround it with a platform about twelve feet above the ground, and cut it above the platform. Some twelve or fifteen feet of the largest part of the trunk are thus lost. Yet a single log not unfrequently weighs from six or seven to fifteen tons, and sometimes measures as much as seventeen feet in length and four and a half to five and a half feet in diameter, one tree furnishing two, three, or four such logs. Some trees have yielded 12,000 superficial feet, and at average price pieces have sold for $15,000. Messrs. Broadwood London, pianoforte manufacturers, paid £3,000 for three logs, all cut from one tree, and each about fifteen feet long and more than three feet square. The tree is cut at two seasons of the year--in the autumn and about Christmas time. The trunk, of course, furnishes timber of the largest dimensions, but that from the branches is preferred for ornamental purposes, owing to its closer grain and more variegated color.
In low and damp soil its growth is rapid; but the most valuable trees grow slowly among rocks on sterile soil, and seem to gather compactness and beauty from the very struggle which they make for an existence. In the Bahamas, in the most desolate regions, once flourished that curiously veined and much esteemed variety once known in Europe as "Madeira wood," but which has long since been exterminated. Jamaica, also, which used to be a fruitful source of mahogany, and whence in 1753 not less than 521,000 feet were shipped, is now almost depleted. That which is now furnished from there is very inferior, pale, and porous, and is less esteemed than that of Cuba, San Domingo, or Honduras.
In a dry state mahogany Is very durable, and not liable to the attack of worms, but, when exposed to the weather it does not last long. It would therefore make excellent material for floors, roofs, etc., but its costliness limits its utility in this direction, and it is chiefly employed for furniture, doors, and a few other articles of joinery, for which it is among the best materials known. It has been used for sashes and window frames, but is not desirable for this purpose on account of the ease with which it is affected by the weather. It has also been used in England to some extent for the framing of machinery in cotton-mills. Its color is a reddish brown of different shades and luster, sometimes becoming a yellowish brown, and often much veined and mottled with darker shades of the same color. Its texture is uniform, and the rings indicating its annual growth are not very distinct. The larger medullary rays are absent, but the smaller ones are often very distinct, with pores between them. In the Jamaica woods these pores are often filled with a white substance, but in that brought from Central America they are generally empty.
It has neither taste nor odor, shrinks very slightly, and warps, it is said, less than any other wood.
The variety called Spanish mahogany comes from the West Indies, and is in smaller logs than the Honduras mahogany, being generally about two feet square and ten feet long. It is close grained and hard, generally darker than the Honduras, free from black specks, and sometimes strongly marked; the pores appear as though chalk had been rubbed into them.
The Honduras mahogany comes in logs from two to four feet square and twelve to fourteen long; planks have been obtained seven feet wide. Its grain is very open and often irregular, with black or gray specks. The veins and figures are often very distinct and handsome, and that of a fine golden color and free from gray specks is considered the best. It holds the glue better than any other wood. The weight of a cubic foot of mahogany varies from thirty-five to fifty-three pounds. Its strength is between sixty-seven and ninety-six, stiffness seventy-three to ninety-three, and toughness sixty-one to ninety-nine--oak being considered as one hundred in each case.
There are three other species of the genus Swietania besides the mahogany tree, two of them natives of the East Indies. One is a very large tree, growing in the mountainous parts of central Hindostan, and rises to a great height, throwing out many branches toward the top. The head is spreading and the leaves bear some resemblance to those of the American species. The wood is a dull red, not so beautiful as that known to commerce, but harder, heavier, and more durable. The natives of India consider it the most durable timber which their forests afford, and consequently use it, when it can be procured, wherever strength and durability are particularly desired. The other East Indian species is found in the mountains of Sircars, which run parallel to the Bay of Bengal. The tree is not so large as any of the other species described, and the wood is of much different appearance, being of a deep yellow, considerably resembling box. The grain is close, and the wood both heavy and durable. The third species, known as African mahogany, is brought from Sierra Leone. It is hard and durable, and used for purposes requiring these properties in an eminent degree.
If, however, the heart of the tree be exposed or crossed in cutting or trimming the timber, it is very liable to premature and rapid decay.