Working with Ebony

Ebony is a difficult material to source, and quality varies. January 20, 2011

Has anyone done any work with ebony? After speaking with Hearnes Hardwoods it sounds like it's very hard on tooling. I would like to hear some firsthand accounts of this if anyone has the experience.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor T:
The entire scope of my knowledge: it seems to machine similarly to most hardwoods and it splits easily (that's why it comes dipped in wax). It's very expensive. I've only used it for splines and plugs for furniture, and what I've used has been gaboon ebony.

From contributor G:
I have never found it very difficult to work. It is hard and can be brittle if too dry, but it works very well with sharp tooling. It will load up sandpaper. I always use epoxy to be safe since it is slightly oily. It's does not like full film finishes since they do not bite into the material. Be wary of thick pieces as they may not be evenly dried. Mistakes are costly. The black dust gets everywhere.

From contributor O:
I have built the harmonic curve and fore-pillar of small harps out of solid gabon and veneered the curved soundbox shells with macassar. It is difficult, although not impossible to get decent sized stock. 4/4 to 8/4 by 6 inch by 3 1/2 foot is about it. Maybe eight inch wide if you are real lucky and up to seven or eight foot, the same. (The billets coming out of the producing areas are just the dark heartwood of the tree that has been stripped of the bark and outer layer with machetes. The billets look like old split rail fence rails and only rarely reach the size of a railroad cross tie, most are much smaller.)

Price is topping $100 per board foot. Also, even at that price, a lot that is sold has terrible cracks running through it rendering it absolutely unsound, so it really needs to be bought by the piece, with photos and from a reliable source. Drying is extremely difficult so most sold is of highly variable moisture content and the wood is subject to cracking in service if not fully dry before using.

Wipe joints and glue only with epoxy (for solids). If you need to do end grain to end grain or end grain to grainwise don't expect to get away with biscuits; you will need tenons or mechanicals. The first I did I glued stock side to side with yellow glue in several places to obtain the needed widths and shapes. All of the joints failed. The best finish is sanding to high number, oil, wax and buff. I have had luck with McFadden vinyl sealer under their nitrocellulose guitar finish. Not hard to work with except slight brittleness. Not rough on tooling. I have never tried to carve it, but I believe that would not be easy.

From contributor Q:
I have turned a bunch of shaker furniture knobs from it. It turns great.

From contributor K:
Ebony is for small decorative work in my opinion. It is brittle, checks easily and does not like to be in a large form of 3/4" stock. Guitar fret boards, violin finger boards, small turnings are fine. For big work use maple and stain with super high penetrating stains several times.