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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Late Classical Mahogany Rocker (ca.1840)

The Completed Rocker
What is good mahogany? What do people mean when they say "This is good mahogany, or that piece has fine mahogany in it"?

The answer  to these questions could fill up a book, in fact it did. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson traces the United States love of this wood through the 18th century and well into the 19th. It is a comprehensive look at how we used and abused this wood to the point where it is in some cases in a state of commercial extinction. If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book.

In and attempt to answer the question a little more quickly, The two main types of mahogany used in the production of fine furniture are Honduran Mahogany (swietenia macrophylla) and West Indies Mahogany (swietenia mahogani) Both are fine woods and can be polished to a nice shine, but latter is what people refer to as good mahogany.
Swietenia Mahogani is found throughout the Caribbean region and when originally harvested, differences in the micro climates where the timbers grew gave the wood different characteristics, giving rise to many different names, including Haitian mahogany, Cuban mahogany, Santo Domingo mahogany, Jamaican mahogany etc. While all of these woods had different characteristics they were all swietenia mahogani. Distinguishing what wood came from where these days is difficult so the name of West Indies mahogany has been adopted when referring to swietenia mahogani.

 Swietenia macrophylla, or Honduran Mahogany is found in a much larger geographical area including much of Central America. The trees are bigger and produce quality lumber that is still being produced today. 

In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for cabinetmakers to use both woods in a single piece of furniture, usually reserving the West Indies mahogany for the showier places like drawer fronts, while the sides of a case for a chest of drawers might be made of Honduran Mahogany. Each piece of furniture was different, but when it was available, West Indies mahogany was generally preferred.

Today, Honduran Mahogany is the only true mahogany commercially available. The only West Indies mahogany available is old stock or pieces reclaimed from furniture and architectural pieces. When possible, I use reclaimed West Indies mahogany to make repairs, but when the repairs are substantial, I use Honduran and apply stain and touch up to blend the repairs into the existing wood.

In the case of the rocking chair, the majority of the chair was made from exquisite West Indies mahogany. One of the rockers was broken and in need of repair, involving the use of bridging patches to span a very broken component. 

In order to make room for the patch, I need to remove some of the wood around the broken area. I used a router to do this. Even though it is a small amount of wood, I always lament the fact that I am pulverizing a wood that is no longer available. I try to keep these repairs to a minimum and only do what is necessary.

When I routed the wood, I was left with a pile of shavings of West Indies mahogany. Below is a photo of those shavings next to a piece of Honduran mahogany used for patching.

The first thing to notice is the color difference, The West Indies mahogany being a rich dark color, while the natural Honduran mahogany is much lighter. If the shavings were one piece of wood, you would also see that the grain is much, much tighter and the wood resembles cherry more than Honduran mahogany in some cases. The result is a wood with unbelievable natural color and and compact grain which lends itself to a high polish.

Below is a photo of the completed repair I spoke of above. You can clearly see the color difference here.
As far as the rocker is concerned, Once the repairs were made I cleaned the existing finish and polished it with Dewaxed Shellac. It did not take many coats to bring the finish to a high polish. All of the repairs were touched up and the chair was eventually waxed. The result of the restoration showed off the beauty of this wood. No stain was used on the rocker originally  and the only staining I did was to blend in the areas I touched up, as seen in the photo below of the same repaired area.

Below are a few photos of the the restored finish. The embroidered upholstery was old but not original. This piece is a stunning example of  a late classical rocker made probably in a city center like New York or Philadelphia. To me, the most stunning aspect was the fine mahogany used to execute the design of this chair. A most remarkable wood the likes of which we will never see again!






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