Woodsense: Spotlight on Ebony

Once the favored hardwood of emperors, kings, and pharaohs 

Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

The nearly 300 shrubs and trees of the ebony family (Ebenaceae) grow throughout the world’s tropic and mild temperate regions. One of the world’s darkest woods, ebony was highly prized even in ancient times and frequently offered as tribute to reigning monarchs. Even today’s woodworkers have a special place in their heart for ebony–famed craftsman Sam Maloof especially favored Macassar ebony for his signature rocking chairs.

History in woodworking

It was once believed that ebony was a poison antidote, so rulers fearing for their safety drank only from cups hewed from the wood. And at one time, India’s royalty would reign with nothing less than scepters crafted from only the blackest ebony. And so it’s been throughout the centuries with the darkest wood available used sparingly for small items and parts, such as piano keys, guitar fingerboards, pegs in Greene and Greene furniture, carvings, turnings, box accents, inlay, marquetry and such.

The only commercial wood in the ebony family in North America is persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), a tree that for decades provided the stock for golf club heads (drivers and putters). And due to its tight grain, density and hardness, this brownish persimmon was looked to for weaving loom shuttlecocks.

Where the wood comes from

By its lofty price you might assume that ebony is quite rare. Actually, it’s somewhat abundant where it grows. The problem: Not all trees of the many ebony species are large-sized, and only the deepest colored heartwood has been sought by woodworkers. There is also a great amount of degrade (loss to twisting, warping, etc.) if ebony is taken too quickly through the drying process (usually air-drying).

Most ebony species in world trade are called by names that relate to their country or region of origin. Here are the three most common: African (Gabon) ebony (Diospyros crassiflora), the blackest from central west Africa; East Indian (Ceylon) ebony (Diospyros spp. meaning several types looking somewhat alike), black or dark brown with contrasting stripes from Asia and Indonesia; and Macassar (Indonesian) ebony (Diospyros celebica), dark brown/black wood streaked yellow-brown from large trees growing in the East Indies and Philippines. Many times wood dealers simply list their differing ebony stocks descriptively, such as black and white ebony (actually Diospyros embryopteris) or striped ebony (normally a type of Macassar ebony). Persimmon comes from the southern parts of the U.S., and east of the Missouri River.

Ebony Quick Take

COST Very high
WEIGHT High (one-third heavier than red oak)
HARDNESS High (more than twice as hard as red oak)
STABILITY High (when thoroughly dried)
Durability High
STRENGTH Very high
TOXICITY High (fine dust in particular)
TOOL TYPE Power tools with carbide-tipped blades and cutters
COMMON USES Accents, boxes, inlay, musical instrument parts, small turnings, small chests, and cabinets

What you’ll pay

You’ll only find ebony at wood specialty retail stores, by mail order, or from online sellers, and it’s costly. Large boards are highly unusual, with the stock of most ebony 6" wide at most and rarely longer than 8' in Select & Better grade (Gabon ebony has a premium grade). The finest Gabon ebony can cost over $150 per board foot! Macassar ebony costs about half that and can be purchased as paperback veneer in 4 × 8' sheets of bookmatched pieces for about $500. American persimmon runs around $6 per board foot.

Due to its cost and somewhat limited availability of large-sized stock, typical ebony uses only require small amounts. Pen blanks, typically in 3⁄4 × 3⁄4 × 5" size, are readily available at around $2 to $4 each. Other small sized pieces and larger blocks for turnings, knife handles (scales), pool cue butts, etc., are available as well. Note: Small store-bought pieces may be coated in wax to keep out moisture during shipment and storage.

How to select the best stock

If shopping by mail order or online, be sure to order all ebony of the same species unless you have the desire to mix and match. Remember, too, that even the blackest Gabon ebony can exhibit lighter-toned wood if bought in large batches; for pens that may not matter as much as it would for a set of ebony-handled steak knives!

If using ebony for larger projects, it makes sense to personally inspect the wood to check for flaws, splits, and desired color and grain. If that’s not possible, ask for color photos of all views. Also, because ebony is quite unstable until thoroughly dry, inquire as to its dryness and drying method (air- or kiln-dried). Smaller logs are traditionally air-dried whole in their country of origin. Lumber from large logs may have been kiln-dried. This is important because ebony, once dried from six to nine percent, will remain stable in use.

Working ebony in the shop

Ebony is difficult to work. Its extreme hardness and density quickly dull cutting edges so they must be made of carbide to slow the effect. Ebony normally features finely textured, straight grain, but can sometimes exhibit interlocked grain. Coupling that with density and hardness, light passes in planing, jointing, and routing are advised. In sanding, progress through successive grits (up to 400), or you’ll leave minute scratches that will show under a finish. The higher the grit, the more polish.

Ebony requires predrilling pilot holes for nails or screws. Gluing freshly sawn or abraded surfaces results in a good bond, but use adhesives with longer open time to allow the glue to better penetrate the surface. Surfaces not freshly sawn or sanded must be wiped with solvent to remove natural oils.

Also be aware of ebony’s fine sanding dust, which poses respiratory problems. Ebony may also cause allergic reaction in the form of skin irritation (dermatitis), so wear a good-fitting dust mask or respirator and cover your arms with long sleeves.

Deciding on a finish

Although ebony takes all stains and finishes equally well, it looks wonderfully lustrous under a clear penetrating oil. There’s no reason to hide its color with dye or stain, unless you’re seeking to even the color or darken it.

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