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Woodworking with Ebony

comments (9) September 13th, 2012 in blogs

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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.

More on Ebony

Should Woodworkers Say Goodbye to Ebony?
The Dark Knight of Details
Ebony Writing Desk

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

Plane to thickness. When thicknessing small ebony parts, Hack prefers hand over machine. He often uses a jig to ensure that all parts are uniform. It's simply a piece of plywood with thin runners that the plane rides on. A brad in front works as a stop.
Shape with a scratch stock. Machines can cause wicked tearout on brittle ebony, so Hack uses scratch stocks to shape the material. Here he shapes a bead applied to a door frame.
Keep the contrast. When bringing an ebony inlay flush to a surface, a sharp handplane or scraper is your best bet. Avoid sanding these elements, because it often embeds the fine black dust into the surrounding surfaces.

posted in: blogs, how to, inlay, ebony, stringing, shaping wood

Comments (9)

Bundu Bundu writes: Hardekool (Afrikaans name), Leadwood (English name), Combretum Imberbe (scientific name) is NOT ebony.
Posted: 9:07 am on September 21st

61A 61A writes: I recently used some ebony for the first time on a jewellery box. The results were fantastic well worth the care needed to work it. I too found the a steeper angled plane and a scraper worked best and that when initially dimensioning the stock it took the edge off the table saw blade as if it was made of concrete !!! The only down side, apart from the cost, was that I seem to have a reaction to the dust if it came into contact with my face even though I wore a mask. I think if I use it again I will try wet sanding to try and stop airborn dust particles causing problems.
Posted: 3:05 am on September 20th

Rooinek Rooinek writes: What a shame the way we dont appreciate natural things of beauty--
I love ebony and in south Africa our local equivalent
is called "Hardekool" It is white around the sapwood with a hard black core. It is readilly available at the roadside
where hawkers are selling it by the bagful as firewood



Posted: 2:53 am on September 18th

dfrangipane dfrangipane writes: Garrett, Nice article. BTW it looks like you ebonized your thumb nail with a hammer.
Posted: 1:25 pm on September 17th

josue josue writes: beautiful

Posted: 12:50 pm on September 17th

joefree777 joefree777 writes: Ebonizing can be carried all the way through a piece of wood if done properly but it takes study and care.
Posted: 6:03 pm on September 16th

Hartley1029 Hartley1029 writes: you should clarify wether to use a low angle plane. One article contrasts the other.
Posted: 5:14 pm on September 16th

berferdt berferdt writes: To ebonize small pieces that will stand some scraping or light sanding, I have used multiple coats of a magic marker. It will raise the grain a bit, and so there is an iterative series of light sanding and marker-dying steps. It's a lot like brushing on analine dye, but penetrates more deeply. It also needs to be sealed with shelac - we have all seen how marker ink will bleed.
Posted: 9:08 am on September 15th

damarples damarples writes: As a professional violin maker I work with ebony regularly. Airborne ebony dust is considered to be toxic (not just an allergan for 'some people' so everyone should wear an effective respirator when working ebony with tools or abrasives that create airborne ebony particles. I find that ebony planes much better with a steeper bevel angle (so don't use a low angle plane!). Also, it works very nicely with sharp scrapers. When sanding is desirable, use wet-or-dry sandpaper with water: it cuts nicely, controls loading of the abrasive (clean the sandpaper with a brush in a tub of water as needed) and prevents the dust from getting into the air. After wet sanding, the ebony can be burnished with a dry paper towel for a nice matte finsih, or polished with a little beeswax on a rag. Finally, ebony is not a single species, but a variety of related tropical species from Africa, Madagascar, India, etc.
Posted: 7:48 am on September 15th

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