Mahogany and cherry are popular hardwoods that are widely used in furniture and cabinet making. Both have grain patterns that finish beautifully and are immediately recognised. These woods have been used by woodworkers throughout history and are used to craft historically accurate period replicas or modern furniture masterpieces with equally satisfactory results. Craftsmen choose mahogany or cherry for a project based on three main characteristics: how well the wood machines, the desired finish, and the long-term stability of the wood.
Mahogany is a tropical hardwood that is harvested from Central and South America and Africa. There are subtle differences in the species from which the lumber is cut but it is all marketed as mahogany. It is an open-grained wood with pronounced pores that will show up in the finishing process unless they are filled. The colour of the wood ranges from pink to a deep, reddish-brown that darkens as it ages.
American Black Cherry is a fine-grained hardwood harvested in North America. A cherry board can contain both heartwood and much lighter sapwood. With exposure to light and air, the heartwood will oxidise over time to the deep rust-brown colour that most people are seeking when using this wood. The sapwood will not change colour and must be dyed or relegated to secondary components in the finished piece.
Machining Mahogany and Cherry
Both mahogany and cherry lumber machine well. Cuts are clean and both work easily with hand or power tools. Mahogany can splinter slightly so sharp tools are a must. Cherry lumber that has been properly dried is very stable and cut pieces will remain flat. Some species of mahogany have a higher rate of internal stresses that cutting relieves. The resulting pieces may be milled flat and cut square one day only to be found twisted the next.
Finishing Mahogany and Cherry
Mahogany is an open-grained wood that sands and planes well. If a smooth finish is desired, the large pores of the wood must be filled prior to applying the final protective coating. The tight, smooth grain of cherry will sand and plane exceptionally smooth, but it can be very difficult to finish. Cherry lumber has uneven density in the pores of the wood, so in some areas a finish will penetrate deeply and on others it will barely leave the surface. Additional preparation is necessary before an even finish can be applied.
Durability of Mahogany and Cherry
These woods are very close in terms of their hardness, with cherry being the softer of the two. The wood fibres of both species will dent and crush but exhibit some ability to repel damage. When finished, mahogany and cherry are very stable in most household environments. If properly cared for, the furniture crafted from these woods will become family heirlooms that last lifetimes.