Woodworking with Ebony
In his article in Fine Woodworking #228, Garrett Hack marveled at the small stature of an ebony tree he encountered in Java some 30 years ago. “In a climate where trees grow year-round, this 90-year-old was about 11 in. in diameter.” That slow growth goes a long way towards explaining why the species is so dense, and why it carries such a hefty pricetag. Any woodworker feeling the urge to experiment with this king of the tropical hardwoods would do well to heed Hack’s tips on working it. It all starts with machining–or the lack thereof.
Go Lightly on Machines
To avoid wasting any of the ebony, I tend to use the bandsaw, handsaws, and handplanes to cut pieces to size, rather than the tablesaw or jointer. I’ve never sent ebony through a planer for fear of it blowing up, quickly dulling my blades, or both. I will occasionally use the jointer to straighten an irregular edge. I’ve also turned ebony, with beautiful results, as the material is able to take the finest detail.
Hand-shaping the wood requires sharp tools and some finesse. When planing the long grain, fine tearout is common because of ebony’s hardness and interlocking grain. I’ve had success with both standard and high bevel angles. Just start with a super-shapr blade and expect to resharpen frequently. For best results, set the plane for a fine cut, with a tight throat. I clean up any fine tearout with a scraper.
When working end grain in these brittle woods, chipout is common, so I prefer to use a low-angle plane, taking a light cut with a tight throat and skewing the plane acutely.
To shape the material, I often use scratch stocks and sand occasionally. Though carbide router bits work, I avoid using a router with ebony because it creates more dust (a problem for some) and tends to produce clunky profiles. For other shapes, say for pulls and finials, you can use rasps and files.
Tricks for Working with Ebony
No Shame in Faking It
If you are troubled by true ebony’s sustainability, or its pricetag, ebonizing a less-expensive, more common wood is a great alternative. use water-soluble aniline dye powder to transform common woods into jet-black faux Gabon ebony. Finish it well, and it’s hard to tell it isn’t the real thing. Woods that mimic Gabon well are rift or plain-sawn cherry and pear, and to some extent, walnut. And you might want to try ebonizing oak or ash, where the grain remains dominant, but turns deep black. Any surface to be ebonized must be carefully prepped beforehand, sanding, raising the grain, and sanding again (up to 320 grit) until it is polished.
Ebonizing is only skin deep and you can sand, plane, or scrape through it if you’re not careful. So it is not appropriate for fans or inlays, nor small beads or other small moldings that will be planed, scraped, or shaped after installation. Minor sand-throughs can be touched up with a black felt-tipped marker. If you’re using a waterborne clearcoat, seal the dye with dewaxed shellac.
Create Contrasting Details
Ebonizing is easy, and opens up lots of design possibilities. The water-soluble dye powder dissolves in warm water and can be brushed or wiped on. Build up coats until you get the appearance you want.
|Faux black top. You can use your ebony efficiently by saving the real thing for small details and ebonizing larger surfaces. On this piece, Hack ebonized the top and used real ebony for the beads, banding, and pull.|
Ebonizing techniques can also work great for blackening the bottom few inches of a leg or adding a splash of color to a bead.
|Careful strokes. When ebonizing part of a molding, such as this bead, it needs distinctly defined transitions. Otherwise, the dye will roam. The black bead on this crown adds a delightful contrast, breaking up the broad butternut surfaces.|