18th century furniture designer, Thomas Sheraton, once characterized mahogany as "best suited to furniture where strength is demanded as well as a wood that works up easily, has a beautiful figure and polishes so well that it is an ornament to any room in which it may be placed." Matching his words to his work, Sheraton designed much mahogany furniture. The qualities that impressed Sheraton are particularly evident in a distinctive pattern of wood called "flame mahogany."
The flame figure in the wood is revealed by slicing through the face of the branch at the point where it joins another element of the tree. An alternative term for the pattern is "crotch mahogany," because it derives from a crotch in the tree. The flame pattern extends outward from a core in waves.
In addition to Africa, the most common sources for mahogany are Cuba, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Spain. Mahogany from the Western Hemisphere tends to be rich red or golden in color. Mahogany from Africa tends to be paler in tone, more salmon-colored and sometimes slightly grayer.
Veneers and Solids
The flame pattern in mahogany appears in solids and veneers. Veneers became popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as an economical way to adorn furniture with rare and expensive woods. Thin layers of individual wood patterns are cut and glued to a less expensive core. The first veneers were hand cut and fairly thick, up to 1/8 inch. Later, skilled woodworkers learned to cut paper-thin veneers in a variety of ways to achieve artistic patterns with which to decorate furniture surfaces. Flame veneers are especially beautiful when the figure is repeated for a rich effect. Fine veneers are expensive to produce, and require highly skilled craftsmen, so veneers no longer indicate lower quality and value.
Flame Mahogany Value
Flame mahogany patterns are always associated with high quality, expensive furniture. Because of the rarity of these distinctive figures, they continue to command high prices and respect in antique furniture and contemporary pieces.