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Genuine Mahogany – an important ship building timber.

This article demonstrates the durability of genuine mahogany.

The first recorded use of Mahogany was in 1514. That date was carved into a cross placed at the entrance to the Cathedral de Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The cathedral was richly ornamented with carved Mahogany woodwork that was still in almost perfect condition after more than 400 years in the tropics. Completed about 1540, it is the oldest church in the West Indies. Santo Domingo is the oldest European-founded city in the Western Hemisphere. Bartholomew Columbus, a brother of Christopher Columbus, founded it in 1496.  Other records refer to the use of mahogany between 1521 and 1540 when Spanish explorers employed the wood for making canoes and for ship repair work in the West Indies. The next significant recorded use was in 1597 regarding repairs for Sir Walter Raleigh's ships in the West Indies. The first documented use in Europe of West Indies mahogany for major building structures prior to 1578 was in Spain. It was specified for use in the construction and interior trim of one of the great Renaissance churches of Europe, the Escorial. It is evident that its merits were well-known and that it was used extensively, or the king's advisors would not have requisitioned it for making the fancy furniture and trim work of a group of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. When in 1578 the king ordered incorruptible and very good woods - cedar, ebony, mahogany, teak, acana, guayacan and iron wood - sent to embellish the Excorial, they had to be brought from a distance by the slaves. A shipment of such woods was made in the summer of 1579 and others followed through a period of ten years at least. Its first major use in Spain and England was for ship building and during the eighteenth century it was the chief wood employed in Europe for that purpose.  Mark Catesby's Natural History describes mahogany's excellence in that regard. "[Mahogany] has properties for that use excelling Oak, and all other Wood, viz. Durability, resisting Gunshots, and burying the Shot without Splintering. That merchant ships calling on West Indies ports took on occasional parcels of mahogany logs prior to 1666 may be accepted from what Davis says: "Some masters of ships who trade to the Caribbean many times bring thence planks of this wood which are of such length and breadth that there needs but one to make a fair and large table."

Ship Construction

Mahogany, Teak and other woods were shipped regularly from the West Indies to Spain long before 1575, for Spain at that time dominated the world and her demand for ship building timbers was enormous. Spain itself had no timber suitable for building ships and her unfriendly relations with north Europe made it impossible to draw supplies from that source. The natural conclusion is that Spain obtained timber from San Domingo, Cuba and Jamaica for building many ships of the Spanish Armada prior to 1588. See also Catesby's reference above regarding mahogany's superior resistance to cannonballs. A number of the largest Spanish ships were built of West Indies mahogany.  Spain looked to Cuba for masts for ships, since rebellion in Flanders (The 80 Years War started in 1566) had closed that source of supply.  Spain continued building ships from West Indies mahogany for two hundred more years. "...Several Spanish man-of-war were captured by the British during naval battles. One of these, the Gibraltar, of 80 guns, captured by Lord Rodney off Cape St. Vincent was broken up in the royal dock yard at Pembroke, and though she must have been one of the oldest ships afloat, yet all her timbers were so sound as when they were put into her, and the whole British navy, and if I (Capt. Chaffell, secretary of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company) am not mistaken, are now supplied with tables made out of the Gibraltar timbers. The Gibraltar was captured in 1780 and was finally broken up in 1836.  Clayton Dissinger Mell's 1917 monograph expanded use in ship construction. "It is particularly suited for planking, waterways, bulwarks, rails, skylights and companions, bitts, gangway ladders, and other deck work. With the later employment of iron, steel and teak in shipbuilding, mahogany became far more important as a furniture wood, though it is still preferred to any other wood for the framework of small sailing vessels. Large sailing vessels with mahogany framework were sold for enormous prices and manufactured into fine furniture." During World War II mahogany was used in the construction of small boats from the 21-24 meter (70 to 80 foot) PT boats (motor Patrol Torpedo) to the small rescue boats that were parachuted from rescue planes.  During WW II the use of mahogany for boat construction increased from 1,350 M board feet in 1940 to 21,500 M board feet in 1943.[4] Often reputed to be made of plywood, PT boats were actually made of diagonal layered 25mm (one inch) thick mahogany planks with a glue-impregnated layer of canvas in between. As a testament to the strength of this type of construction several PT boats withstood catastrophic battle damage and still remained afloat. An instances was PT-109 then commanded by a young officer, John F. Kennedy, who later became the President of the United States.  The forward half of his boat stayed afloat for 12 hours after she was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships approves mahogany for use in small boats and high-speed boats that require a wood easy to work, medium in weight but adequate in strength, with low shrinking, swelling, and warping characteristics, and high decay resistance. Mahogany, in 1966, still held an important place in the construction of yachts, launches, motorboats, and small boats of various kinds. In large ships its use is confined largely to interior trim, paneling, and furniture. In a large luxury liner, the volume for such uses may be considerable.


Posted on June 27, 2013 and filed under Materials.