Until the 18th Century, French furniture makers preferred working with walnut, a locally abundant wood. Mahogany first came to Europe in the 1500s, arriving in England as patching in the deck of Sir Walter Raleigh's ship in 1597, according to Craftsman-Style.info. French cabinetmakers used mahogany more commonly in the 19th Century after the French Revolution, says the Old and Sold Antiques Digest.
French furniture makers preferred mahogany with straight grain and dark color, according to Old and Sold. That best matches the description of Cuban mahogany, or island mahogany, a local variety of Swietenia macrophylla. Also called Bigleaf mahogany, this tree grew timber of higher quality on the islands of the West Indies than in the mainland forests.
Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) grows in the warm rainforests of both Central and South America. Honduran mahogany overlaps in range with a closely related species, Swietenia humilis, which grows primarily on the Pacific coast of Central America and Mexico. The trees crossbreed frequently. Hardness of the wood varies, and color ranges from light to dark brown. The reddish glow of antique mahogany results from stain and polish techniques and is not the natural appearance of the wood.
As stocks of American mahogany declined, loggers turned to Africa for its supply of a similar tree African mahogany (Khaya sengalensis). Older trees often showed a distinctive grain pattern called ribbon stripe. By 1940, this type of African mahogany had become rare.
Grain figure -- the designs formed by the natural patterns in wood grain -- gave this mahogany its name. Flame mahogany used in French furniture refers to the flame-like appearance of the wood's figure, not to a particular species of mahogany. Most flame mahogany pieces use thin veneers of this expensive wood over a less costly hardwood base.
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