When you are working on the finest projects, you need to use the best materials. Depending on the work you’re undertaking, the best material will change. However, when completing a lot of fine woodworking projects, rosewood and mahogany are two of the most highly sought-after types to use.
In this article, we’ll go into detail about the differences between rosewood and mahogany, so you can understand which one to use in your next project.
What Is Rosewood?
Rosewood is actually the name of a few different types of trees from the same family. For example, there is the Brazilian rosewood, the East Indian rosewood, and the Honduran rosewood. In this article, when we refer to ‘rosewood’, it is specifically talking about the Brazilian variety. This is because it is the first rosewood that grew in popularity in North American and European markets.
Every rosewood tree is a member of the Dalbergia genus. The scientific name for Brazilian rosewood is Dalbergia nigra. This tree is native to Central and South America, particularly centered around Brazil. The tree is capable of growing up to 130’ tall and its trunk can reach a diameter of 4’.
As a commercial timber, rosewood is extremely well respected because it is strong, stable, and looks great. Alongside this, the tone of the wood is great for making instruments. Rosewood became a very popular material that is worth a lot of money. Unfortunately, because of this, a lot of exploitation and illegal logging has taken place. In an attempt to protect the species, this wood is now heavily restricted.
What Is Mahogany?
As with a lot of exotic timbers, there are multiple trees referred to as mahogany. For example, there is Honduran mahogany, dry zone mahogany, Cuban mahogany, Santos mahogany, African mahogany, mountain mahogany, swamp mahogany, and Philippine mahogany.
Unfortunately, the term mahogany, when given to wood, is sometimes used too liberally, without always considering the scientific or botanical classification of a species. In this article, we are specifically referring to trees from the Swietenia genus. Sometimes, you might hear this group of trees referred to as ‘genuine mahogany’. In particular, from here on, when writing mahogany, it is in reference to the Cuban variety.
Cuban mahogany was the first to enter into markets and it’s what gave the wood such an amazing reputation. Unfortunately, because of exploitation, Cuba banned the export of the tree in 1946.
Rosewood vs. Mahogany: What Are the Differences?
Rosewood and mahogany are both considered fantastic, high-end lumber. However, there are a lot of differences between the two types of trees. In this section, we’ll discuss the similarities and what sets the trees apart.
The Janka hardness score of rosewood is 2,790 lbf, it also has a crushing strength of 9,740 lbf/in2. If we look at these measurements for mahogany, it has a Janka hardness of 930 lbf and a crushing strength of 6,280 lbf/in2. Side by side, this makes rosewood much stronger.
The heartwood of mahogany can change in color and appearance a lot from tree to tree. Some boards can have a light pink and brown, while others can have a dark red-brown in them. As a general rule, the denser the wood, the darker the tone will be. Alongside this, the timber will darken a lot with age.
Rosewood can also look very different from board to board. It has a beautiful range of colors that can come out in the grain. Brown is the main color, however, purples, reds, chocolate, and black will all interject at points. The black can create an interesting phenomenon called ‘landscape’ or ‘spider-webbing’ in the grain. The sapwood differs from the heartwood as it is much lighter, and yellow.
Grain and Texture
Mahogany grain can range between straight, interlocked, irregular, and wavy. The texture is not too rough, or too fine, it’s right in the middle. Rosewood has mainly uniform grain, however, some boards will have interlocked and wavy grain as well.
Mahogany works nicely and will pass through machines without trouble if the grain is straight and uniform. However, in areas where the grain doesn’t run true, tear-out is common. This wood will also sand quickly and turn well. Alongside this, stains and finishes take well. In some rare cases, however, mahogany has caused skin irritation for the person working it.
Rosewood is loved by woodworkers and one of the reasons for this is because of how lovely it is to work with. Both hand and power tools cut the fibers well, but because of the timber’s hardness, tools will get blunted quickly. Turners are also fond of rosewood because of how nicely it responds on a lathe. One point of caution when gluing up rosewood is to make sure that the glue properly cures, as the natural oil content can cause issues with the glue setting.
Heavy exploitation has led to mahogany no longer being commercially available. Sometimes a small amount will make it to market and the price will be extremely high. Mahogany is on the CITES Appendix II and the IUCN Red List. The tree is classed as endangered because its population declined by more than 50% in the last three generations.
Rosewood is also a heavily restricted wood. It is listed on CITES Appendix I and on the IUCN Red List. Not only is the lumber of rosewood restricted, products made from it are restricted as well. In the last three generations, the amount of rosewood trees has declined by more than 20%.
When to Use Rosewood Wood?
Over the years, people have made a lot of different projects out of rosewood. Some of the most common ones are musical instruments, furniture, veneers, cabinets, and ornaments. Because rosewood is so strong and stable, it is capable of resisting impact and temperature changes. However, because the timber is in restricted supply, it is recommended to use it in areas where it won’t be at risk of damage.
When to Use Mahogany Wood?
Traditionally, mahogany is maybe the most respected timber for cabinets and furniture, where it has been used for centuries. Alongside this, it is used in turning, veneering, boatbuilding, carving, and for musical instruments.
Alternatives to Rosewood and Mahogany
Alternatives to rosewood and mahogany are essential to consider for any woodworking project. Particularly because boards of both can be very difficult to source, and extremely expensive.
Sometimes sapele is called ‘sapele mahogany.’ Whilst it is not a true mahogany, it does possess some similar characteristics. This is a much cheaper and sustainable alternative to mahogany.
Cherry is another handsome and dignified hardwood. It is not endangered and stocks are not depleted. For European and North American markets, cherry is also grown much closer to home. This means that the timber doesn’t travel as far to reach its end destination, which is another environmental benefit.
Rosewood and mahogany are two fantastic timbers. Unfortunately, because of how strong and beautiful they are, people have not managed their stocks sustainably and there is a real risk that the timber won’t survive in the future. If you can find a supply of rosewood or mahogany, make sure it is ethically sourced and use it for a project that shows respect for the material.