Ebonizing wood has been around for a very long time. But before we go further, there is a question that needs to be asked.
What is Ebonizing Wood?
Ebonizing wood is the effect of darkening or blackening a naturally lighter colored wood to appear more like black ebony wood. Ebonized wood can be created with a chemically reactive process or other means to color the wood black, like ebony, while still allowing the wood grain to show through.
Traditionally, woodworkers have ebonized wood by using a reactive chemical solution that penetrates the wood and is responsive to tannins present in the wood cells.
While using chemicals to cause a reactive process has been a long-standing ebonizing practice, there are several other options available. We will cover them all.
The Real Thing
Ebony is a beautiful decorative and ornate wood that is very dense. Ebony is such a dense hardwood that it will sink instead of float in water.
Found in several species of the tree genus Diospyros, the ebony tree is also related to the persimmon tree.
Hm? That makes me wonder about persimmon wood. Ah, I guess that’s a topic for another time.
Ebony tree varieties grow in India, Africa, Madagascar, South and Central America, and Indonesia.
It is the heartwood of the ebony tree that contains the famous jet black dense wood fiber. The sapwood around the heartwood of the ebony is very light tan or pinkish in color.
Ebony is highly prized for its characteristic solid black color and density. Because of its popularity, ebony is harvested heavily within its growing regions.
Also, because of the high demand for ebony and massive production, ebony quality has diminished. It is common to find ebony with lighter colored veins and not necessarily solid jet black in appearance.
The high demand combined with diminishing quality makes ebony a very high priced wood to turn into shavings on the lathe. Depending on where you look, ebony can sell for over $100 (U.S. Dollars) per board foot.
If that wasn’t enough, shipping ebony around the world is also pricey because of the wood’s weight. A single board foot of ebony (12″ x 12″ x 1″ or equivalent size) can weigh over 5 lbs.
Why Ebonizing Wood?
So, why ebonize wood?
It’s pretty simple. Ebony is rare, not easily accessible, and very expensive.
To achieve the look of ebony, we can colorize a lesser expensive and more available wood to make it appear jet black like ebony.
Yes, ebonized wood is not the same quality or density as genuine ebony. However, ebonizing wood is affordable and much more practical.
Best Woods To Ebonize
Any wood can be ebonized and made to look black. However, if we only use the iron acetate method, which we will discuss more in a minute, we need wood with a high tannin content to achieve a rich black color.
Some woods that contain higher amounts of tannin include oaks, cherry, and walnut.
Woods with lower tannin content will not respond well to the iron acetate process, but we can encourage them to be more responsive. We’ll cover that technique as well.
In addition, we will cover additional ebonizing techniques that will work for most any species of wood.
Preparing Wood For Ebonizing
The surface of the wood needs to be prepared for the process. If you are turning a bowl, the surface needs to be completely turned and sanded.
Sand the wood surface up to, but not past 220 grit sandpaper. The reason to stop at 220 is higher grit sandpapers will potentially burnish the wood surface and make it more difficult for the ebonizing processes to penetrate the surface.
We want the ebonizing process to meld with the grain and fibers of the wood and make the wood appear as if it is black from the fibers up.
If it wasn’t essential to have the details of the fibers and wood grain visible, we could just paint the wood. But we want the wood to appear as if it has been jet black ebony all along.
Additional sanding can be done later after the ebonizing is complete and your finishing coats are applied. Then you can continue sanding with higher grit sandpapers if you’d like a very fine smooth topcoat.
Curious about how to best sand your wood bowls? Read this article next.
Ebonizing Wood (Option 1) Iron Acetate
For many years woodworkers have used iron acetate to darken the wood. Iron acetate reacts to tannins in the wood to make a chemical reaction within the wood cells.
We only need a couple of ingredients to make iron acetate, steel wool, and cleaning grade vinegar.
But there are several steps involved in getting everything right.
Be sure to use “cleaning-grade” vinegar because it is more acidic compared to food-grade vinegar.
You will need to use a plastic container, not a glass container to hold the vinegar and steel wool. A plastic container with a screw-on lid will work well.
Make some small holes in the lid of the container to vent the off-gassing that will occur.
Next, you will need to clean the steel wool. I recommend using 0000 steel wool because it is finer and has more surface area.
All steel wool is coated with a thin layer of oil. Remove the oil by washing the steel wool with dish soap or a degreasing soap.
I washed the steel wool like I use washing my hands, letting the running water thoroughly rinse away any soap or detergent.
Making Iron Acetate
With everything prepared, it’s time to make the iron acetate. Place a handful of cleaned steel wool in the plastic container and pour in enough vinegar to thoroughly cover the wool.
The steel wool needs to stay submerged. Use a rock, stick, or straw to keep the wool at the bottom of the container.
If the wool floats or is sticking out of the vinegar, it will oxidize and rust. We don’t want rust to form, so keep the wool under the surface of the vinegar.
Let the mixture sit for a week or so, and the steel wool should be almost completely dissolved.
Use a coffee filter or paper towel to strain the iron acetate, and now the solution is ready for application.
Applying Iron Acetate
Use a cheap broad paintbrush or clean paper towel to apply the iron acetate to the wood surface.
Also, wear protective gloves. I made the mistake of not wearing gloves and apparently I have tannin in me, as my fingertips turned black. LOL
The surface of the wood will begin to darken once the solution is applied. The more tannins that are present in the wood, the quicker and darker the wood will change.
You may let the liquid sit on the wood for a few minutes, but don’t leave it much longer as it can begin to raise the wood grain fibers.
After five to ten minutes, wipe any standing liquid or wet areas off the wood surface. The chemical reaction will continue within the wood fibers.
Multiple applications can be made to increase the darkness of the wood.
Ebonizing Low Tannin Wood (Option 2)
If you are trying the iron acetate ebonizing process on a wood species with low tannin content, you probably won’t be very impressed.
Species like maple or pine may have little effect with just a single application of iron acetate.
The iron acetate ebonizing wood technique usually makes low tannin woods gray or look aged. This can be very useful if that is the look you’re trying to achieve.
However, to make low tannin wood ebony black with iron acetate, we have to add supplemental tannins.
The easiest way to add tannin is by making tea. You can use regular tea bags, in a large amount, or you can use an exotic tea called quebracho, which is loaded with tannin.
Quebracho is available online, here’s a link. While it is effective at delivering tannin, it is not cheap.
If you use regular black tea, you will need about 8-12 tea bags brewed in one cup of hot water. It will powerful tea, and if you’re caffeine-sensitive, I’d recommend not drinking even a sip. You might not even want to look directly into the cup. 😉
I’ve also experimented with turmeric, which is readily available and not too expensive. While turmeric makes a visible yellow liquid, the results seem interesting.
I mixed one tablespoon of ground turmeric (foundd in the spice section of the grocery store) with one cup of hot water.
The obvious yellow color boost from the turmeric may or may not be desirable, but it is interesting how it subtly warmed the iron acetate effect on oak.
Oak seems to turn a bit blueish/purple with iron acetate and the turmeric tea warmed the tone on oak to a particularly pleasing shade.
The order of which you apply the tannin doesn’t necessarily matter, but you may want to experiment.
Apply a coat of the tannin tea solution and let it soak in for a few minutes, then apply the iron acetate, while the wood is still wet from the tannin tea.
You can also try applying the iron acetate and then use the tannin booster liquid afterward.
All woods will act differently, and even the same wood species can react differently based on numerous factors like temperature, humidity, and the moisture content in the wood.
Again, multiple layers usually increase the darkness of the wood so reapply alternating layers of iron acetate and tannin booster. Let them soak for a few minutes and wipe the wood dry.
Ebonizing Wood (Option 3) Dyes and stains
I have to admit, using the iron acetate solution feels like performing a magic trick, when it works. Coaxing the wood fibers to alter their appearance seems like a natural and acceptable phenomenon.
The key phrase in that paragraph was, “when it works.”
However, we really are just trying to make our wood a deep, dark, jet black.
Does it matter how we get to that state?
Dyes and Stains
Dyes, in general usually do a good job of coloring side grain, while stains penetrate well into the wood end grain.
It is possible to use a two-step process of applying a layer of stain and then dye to achieve a beautifully rich and evenly covered ebony wood surface.
Two products can be used to create this one-two ebonizing technique, Solar-Lux Jet Black Dye (which, unfortunately, appears to have been discontinued) and Old Masters Wiping Stain.
Apply a coat of a rich black dye and let it dry, which won’t take long because it is alcohol-based.
Then wipe on a coat of the wiping stain, let it sit and wipe off the excess stain. Follow the directions on the package.
For an even quicker process, leather dye is formulated to make a nice thick color coat with one application on leather and does a decent job with wood as well.
Black leather dye is available in an easy to use foam applicator top as well, bonus. Simply press down and blot the leather dye onto the surface of the wood.
See what I mean?
That doesn’t seem as natural or proper compared to the hocus pocus of the iron acetate trick. 😉
Leather dye works fast and can make the wood jet black, but it has drawbacks too.
The longevity of the dye on the wood surface is an issue. Most leather dyes are not lightfast and will fade in UV light.
Also, you may need to work to get the leather dye to penetrate down into the pores of more coarse wood fibers.
A huge problem with leather dye is that is it not as stable as the black dye and wiping stain and can mix or blend into your finish clear topcoat.
Mixing with the final topcoat could be a problem, but that can be solved by applying a layer of shellac over the leather dye before the final topcoat.
Ebonizing Wood (Option 4) India Ink
OK, so you thought the leather dye process was super fast and straight forward? Get ready for this one.
Take black ink and wipe or paint it onto your wood. Done!
See, what did I tell you?
But wait, there are some things you need to know.
Don’t use just any old black ink. You want to use Speedball brand India Ink because it is made specifically for artwork.
You want to use Speedball India Ink not just because your wood turned bowl is a piece of art, but also because of the inks formulation.
Speedball India Ink is UV lightfast, meaning it won’t fade. It is archival grade and meant to last for a very long time.
And the best part, Speedball India ink is mixed with shellac. Added shellac means the ink seals and binds to the wood surface.
The ink will not mix with your final clear topcoat finish of lacquer, poly, or whatever finish you decide to use.
You may carefully pour the ink directly on the surface of the wood or pour it into a cup and use a brush to apply.
Either way, you will need a brush to spread the ink on the wood surface evenly.
A small amount of ink goes a long way. Pour out a small amount at first and see how far it spreads before pouring a more substantial amount.
Don’t let the ink puddle or remain thick in any one area. Apply a nice thin layer across the whole surface. Let the ink soak in and dry thoroughly before applying any finish coats.
Use isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) to clean your brush after you’ve applied the Speedball India ink.
I also discovered the applying ink to a thin turned bowl may result in ink bleeding through the end-grain.
Originally, I thought I would leave this bowl natural inside and ebonized on the outside. But when the ink bled through a bit, I made the whole thing ebonized.
Knowing the ink can bleed through, it makes sense to seal the bowl surface before applying the ink. This can be done with a thin coat of shellac.
Ebonizing Wood (Option 5) Fire
If you ever watched any episodes of Mythbusters, you know they always save the best experiments for last, even when they might have already proven a point.
I think we now have several ways for ebonizing wood under our belt, but wait, what if we also try FIRE??!! 🙂
The Japanese have long used a technique called Shou Sugi Ban to flame treat cedar siding.
The process of Shou Sugi Ban includes burning wood board surfaces with a powerful torch, extinguishing any flames, then wire-brushing off the loose charred material.
Cedar siding treated with fire has a distinct black appearance and is water and insect resistant. Homes built with Shou Sugi Ban siding can have a very contemporary elegant appearance.
Firing A Wood Bowl
The process of torching a wood bowl can be done with a small handheld torch or over an open fire.
A small torch offers the best control, but the open fire is so much more ceremonial, especially when the fire is created with bowl blank scraps. 😉
Burning a bowl interior and exterior might be a bit too much. My goal for this bowl is to have a wide charred rim and a turned-out half-spherical center bowl with exposed natural grain.
I turned the bowl entirely and started a small area where the center bowl is set, but I did not remove all the center area until after the charring.
The tenon is still attached because I will need to return the bowl to the lathe to turn out the middle. Also, I will use the tenon to attach a wire to hang the bowl over the fire.
By the way, if the wood contains moisture it can crack or warp dramatically. The dramatic temperature/moisture change can be the end of the bowl or the beginning of a fantastic look. It all depends on the results you desire.
With the bowl hanging over the fire, it only takes a few minutes before the whole piece catches fire. Oh, by the way, have a bucket of water handy and make sure it’s big enough to fit the bowl.
Dip the flaming bowl in the water to put the fire out. Let it cool and use a stiff-bristled wire brush to remove all the charred surface from the wood.
Now you can return to the lathe to turn away and reveal the wood grain in the middle bowl portion.
Linseed oil or Danish oil finish works well for charred wood as it penetrates into and through the burnt surface.
Surprisingly with a little brushing and the linseed oil finish, nothing comes off on your hands while handling the fired bowl.
I’ve also used sprayed lacquer over burnt wood bowl surfaces. The lacquer makes a beautiful high-gloss jet black finish.
If you’d like to learn how to set up a simple and inexpensive professional lacquer spray system in your shop, read this article next for all the details.
Unique Fire Ebonizing Bonus
Unlike all the other ebonizing wood techniques, burning the wood surface with flames causes a physical change in the wood.
I’ve found that the softer wood between the grain lines is burned down and altered when burning. Again, each wood will act differently.
The softer wood burns away, and the grain lines seem to remain higher. Once you use a wire brush to brush off the charred areas, a new texture is created.
Burning the wood surface can add a very satisfying new dimension to a turning by taking a once smooth surface and making it more tactile and dynamic.
Burning On The Lathe
I have also used a small handheld torch and burnt the bowl blank while it is still attached to the four jaw chuck.
Take a few moments beforehand to blow away any shavings, sweep up and move all flammable items far from the lathe.
The torch offers greater control compared to the open fire. Don’t get me wrong. The open fire technique is fantastic.
I highly recommend trying the open fire technique, but a torch offers more refinement when it comes to burning the wood surface.
Work slowly and gradually build up the charred black appearance.
If you are the person that can perfectly roast a golden crisp marshmallow outside with a warm gooey inside, then you’ll be fine.
On the other hand, if your marshmallows burst into flames at the campfire, you may want to have an extra fire extinguisher close by. 😉
How Not To Ebonize Wood
So now we’ve covered five different somewhat magical ways for ebonizing wood. However, there are also somethings you will want to avoid while ebonizing wood.
• RIT dyes are great for some projects, especially fabrics, but not for our wood turned bowls. RIT dyes are not colorfast, and they will change over time.
• Aniline Dyes also are great for many applications but don’t make a vibrant dark jet black color. The Solar-lux dye mentioned above is an exception and offers an excellent rich black result if you can find it.
• Only use India ink that is marked archival and UV safe, like the Speedball brand India ink. Other black inks can fade, dissolve, and blend with your final topcoat clear finish.
• Um, the fire ebonizing technique, yeah. It should go without saying, but I probably should say it anyway. Don’t use open flames around any flammable areas, like all the shavings in your shop or combustible finishing products, etc. Be safe!
Bonus Ebonizing Technique (Option 6)
As a bonus wood ebonizing technique, you can try another chemical approach, this time using ammonia.
Ammonia emits a gas that can cause a surface color reaction in wood.
The technique which I researched, but have not tried personally, requires a little set-up.
Using a cheap styrofoam cooler, wood dowels or skewers can be poked through and across the long sides of the cooler about four inches from the cooler bottom.
The dowels or skewers will act as a shelf inside the cooler to hold your bowl.
Inside the cooler, under the skewers, place a plastic bowl or dish with about one to two cups of ammonia and place your wood bowl upside down on the stick shelf.
Place the lid on the cooler and give the ammonia gas time to act on the wood.
How long will it take?
I’m not sure, you will need to experiment and see what works best for you and the type of wood you are using.
Ammonia is very dangerous, so don’t do this inside and don’t breathe the ammonia fumes.
I skipped experimenting with this technique because of the amount of set up and control.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to control where this ebonizing technique is applied to the bowl. The entire bowl will be affected and that may or may not be what you’d like.
If you have tried this ammonia technique before or if you do decide to try it, please leave a comment below and share your results. Thanks.
Ebonizing A Wood Bowl
The sky and your imagination are the limits when it comes to ebonizing wood bowls.
You can make an entire wood bowl jet black, or just the outside or just the inside. What if you made ebony-colored strips or only the bottom portion of the bowl was black?
Create whatever you want and have fun with it.
You may need to think through the steps or stages of your process and decide things like if the tenon will remain or disappear before or after the ebonizing.
Think through the whole process and make a plan before you start colorizing your wood bowl and the final results will benefit greatly.
Ebonizing Hard Edges
If you plan to have the ebonized surface stop next to a natural or different colored surface, you will need to make a barrier.
Because most of the techniques described, except (or perhaps “especially”) the burning flame method, will bleed into the fibers of the surrounding wood surface, you will need to create a solid edge if necessary.
For example, you can’t merely apply a strip of masking tape and expect these techniques to follow a crisp line.
You can use a small fine tool, like a detail spindle gouge or diamond point tool to create a slight defining edge.
The iron acetate, dye, and ink will usually bleed under masking tape, but stop at the solid groove in the wood surface.
Signing Ebonized Bowls
As you may know, I like to sign my bowls with a wood-burning pen. You can see this article to learn about that and other ways to sign your bowls.
There are some interesting effects when signing ebonized bowls.
Signatures on iron acetate ebonized bowls with a wood-burning tool look like a graphite pencil.
The burning tool works through the ink layer on the India ink ebonized bowls and partially reveals the wood underneath.
And the most difficult ebonized bowl to sign with a wood-burning tool is fire treated ebonized bowls. Only a subtle groove is etched into the wood with the pen since the wood is already burnt.
A different method needs to be used when signing fire treated ebonized bowls. Try a silver or other metallic ink pen when signing fired wood bowls.
Experiment and Practice
There are so many variables at play that it’s impossible to say “do this,” and you will always get great results, although the Speedball India ink technique is excellent in most situations.
You need to experiment and try different techniques for yourself and based on the wood you’re using at the moment.
If you have a timber you always use, it might be possible to figure out the one way that always works best for ebonizing that particular wood.
If you utilize many different wood species (a.k.a. whatever wood you currently have access to), it’s best to play and experiment a bit with different ebonizing options first.
For example, if you have multiple stains and dyes already available in your shop, experiment. See what happens if you incorporate various layers of several different darker stain or dye products.
It’s very possible you will discover an ebonizing wood technique that works for you based on what products you already have available.
Ebonizing Wood Results
So to sum up and recap the different ebonizing wood techniques.
Iron Acetate is somewhat complicated, but it does a good job making tannin-rich woods appear ebonized and black or perhaps at least look aged.
Leather dye is cheap and fast, but not necessarily lightfast, non-archival and can bleed into your final clear topcoat.
Mixing multiple stains and dyes can result in a satisfactory ebony looking finish, and it can be suitable for a final topcoat.
Speedball India ink is cheap, easy, fast, lightfast, sealed with shellac and won’t blend when the finish is applied.
Fire is super cheap and fun. It does take a little time to clean the wood surface afterward, but the results can be amazing.
Ammonia can alter the wood surface but is dangerous and more complicated to set up and prepare than the iron acetate technique.
Ebonizing wood is a process of altering inexpensive, available wood and making it appear like an expensive, exotic ebony.
At the end of the day, the way you get to the final ebonized appearance is up to you and needs only to satisfy you.
Ebonizing wood can happen in several different ways. If you like, conjure chemical reactions, breathe fire, or brush on pigment.
Do what works for you and gives you the results you desire.
I hope you find ebonizing wood a fun creative option for your turnings.
If you have questions or comments, please leave a comment below!
Check out these other wood bowl finishing topics:
• 3 AMAZING TURQUOISE INLAY TECHNIQUES – ILLUSTRATED GUIDE
• MY FAVORITE FOOD SAFE WOOD FINISH – WATERPROOF ALMOST
• MAKE SHELLAC – HOW TO – WOOD BOWL FINISH
Happy Turning (and Ebonizing),