Woods to Know: Santos Mahogany

Woods to Know: Santos Mahogany

Santos Mahogany (Myroxylon balsamum)

by Peter MacSween

Santos Mahogany (aka Cabreuva) is a recent addition to the palette available to woodworkers. Originally discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, Santos Mahogany is still principally harvested for the distinctive gum the tree produces. Years ago, the wood was thought to have medicinal properties; today the resin is used in the food and cosmetic industry.
The gum (also called balsam), is a spicy smelling resin used in flavoring cough syrups, soft drinks and chewing gum. Upon distillation, it will yield volatile oils found in perfumes and related cosmetics. To harvest the resin, the bark of the tree is scored deeply. This is detrimental to the health of the tree, often resulting in disease and death. Consequently, few trees are available for lumber production.

Santos Mahogany grows from Mexico south to Argentina and Brazil. Plantations are found in Africa and South-East Asia. Care should be taken when planted as an exotic species because it can quickly become an invasive plant. 
This tree can reach heights of 115 feet. However, it typically grows to 60 feet, with widths of 18 to 36 inches. The tree can produce large amounts of knot free lumber. The heartwood is typically a reddish brown, similar to South American Mahogany, although it is not a member of the Mahogany family. Throughout its range, the heart wood can vary from a yellowish brown to one with purplish overtones. These colours will fade upon exposure to light.
Comparisons to genuine Mahogany end with the similarity in colour. The wood is hard and dense, often with interlocked grain.  When cut on the quarter this will produce an attractive ribbon stripe.  The grain is considered to be tight with a fine texture.

Santos Mahogany end-grain
The combination of interlocked grain and a high density makes it a difficult wood to work.  It is prone to tearout. Tools must be sharp, and fresh sandpaper must be used to achieve the high luster it is capable of producing.  While it does not contain silica deposits, it will dull tools. Screws and nails will require pre-drilling. Gluing can be a problem due to the density and the oils produced by the wood. The wood should be surfaced just before it is glued for best results. It can blotch when stained, so dyes may be preferable. Clear coating with lacquers, etc. produce good results. 
Typical uses include cabinetry, furniture turnings, and it excels in architectural uses such as flooring, stairs and bar tops. Beware of the dust as it can cause allergic reactions. Don’t expect the performance of genuine Mahogany. Instead, use it where it performs best: let this wood fill its niche in the woodworking world.
Average Dried Weight57 lbs/ft³A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.57A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC)
ShrinkageRadial: 3.8
Tangential: 6.2
Volumetric: 10
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio1.6A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness2,400 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength 11,680 lbf/in²A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
Heart is a reddish brown. Can vary from a yellowish brown to a purple brown.
GrainTypically interlocked.
TextureHas a fine, even texture.
Difficult to work. Tools must sharp. Gluing and staining require care. Finishes well. Nails and screw must be predrilled. 
UsesFurniture, cabinetry and turning. Excellent architectural wood.  Flooring. 
Price$8.95/bf  4/4 stock
Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database