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Ebony Wood : Identifications, Origins and Current Uses

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When something is the color of darkest night, we often refer to it as ebony. Think Snow White’s storied hair or the black keys of grand piano. This shade of deep black is derived from ebony wood, a dense hardwood with a smooth, fine texture. This material, which comes from several tree species in the Diospyros genus, has a long history of ornamental use.

Where Does Ebony Wood Come From?

Lumber from these Diospyros trees is considered black ebony:

  • Ceylon ebony, from the Diospyros ebenum species found in Sri Lanka and southern India
  • Gabon ebony, from the Diospyros crassiflora species found in Western Africa
  • Makassar ebony, from the Diospyros celebica species found in Indonesia
  • Mun ebony, which is native to Laos and Vietnam as one of the only Diospyros trees found in Asia

Other trees in the same species have similar properties as black ebony, but with a variegated, striped hue rather than pure black. African ebony is the most traditionally used species and is prized for its rich, dark heartwood and dense, heavy consistency.

What Are the Properties of Black Ebony?

African ebony ranks as the world’s heaviest tree. The jet-black heartwood features a fine, even straight grain, although interlocking grain is occasionally seen. It boasts a natural shine and is highly durable, with resistance to termites and other wood-boring insects. Because ebony is so dense, working this hardwood can be difficult and may require specialized tools.

What Is the History of Black Ebony?

The use of this hardwood for ornamental purposes dates to ancient Egypt, where carved ebony was found in royal tombs. By the late 16th century, ebony was prized for fine cabinetry with bas-relief carvings featuring religious or classical scenes. These pieces were first created in Antwerp, where the Dutch largely depleted the supply of Mauritius ebony, and later crafted in Paris.

How Is Ebony Wood Used Today?

In modern times, the use of ebony is relegated to small, ornamental items. Some common examples include crosses and religious paraphernalia, musical instrument parts such as piano keys and guitar fingerboards, guitar picks, figurines and chess pieces. Turned objects such as bowls and decorative veneers and inlays are also common.

In addition to these uses, African ebony has antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties and is often harvested by locals for medicinal purposes.

Is Ebony an Endangered Species?

Because of historically unsustainable harvesting practices, most ebony tree species are now protected. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which maintains a red list of threatened plant and animal species, Gabon ebony and Makassar ebony are currently considered vulnerable with a decreasing population.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international trade agreement designed to protect vulnerable species that may be depleted by export. Most types of ebony are listed in CITES Appendix II, which means trade must be controlled to prevent extinction.

Gabon ebony is a small, slow-growing tree, usually found alone or with just one or two other trees. Forestation has reduced its population by more than 50% over three generations.

Ceylon ebony is rarely available and has been banned from export because of its endangered status. Mun ebony is considered critically endangered and is rarely available from legitimate sources. Export of this material is currently banned.

How Much Does Ebony Cost?

As a result of its rarity, ebony is one of the most expensive woods in the world. The price often exceeds $100 per board foot, compared to about $15 per board foot for furniture-grade black walnut.

What Are Some Alternatives to Ebony?

Artisans who want to create the appearance of ebony without the associated cost and unsustainable harvesting practices have several options to mimic the wood’s characteristic jet-black sheen. Oak and other more inexpensive species can be stained or dyed to attain the same color at a fraction of the cost. This method can be used for furniture and piano keys.

Small ebony objects are often indistinguishable from high-quality, durable black plastic. This is an appropriate substitute for inlays, knobs, guitar bindings and other small accent pieces.

Other dark woods can also be substituted for ebony. Some of the most common choices include:

  • Katalox is an extremely hard, dark wood native to Southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America. The reddish-brown hue ranges to deep purple and black, with a similar fine grain and texture to true ebony. Like ebony, it can be difficult to work, so it’s best for small decorative items rather than large pieces such as furniture. Black palm is a sustainable, durable wood native to tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Its brown hue is accented by black fibers and it features a straight, fine to medium grain. This decay-resistant material is commonly used for turned objects, furniture, tool handles, walking sticks, boats and flooring.
  • Black walnut, which derives from trees grown in the eastern United States, is often available in deep reddish-brown although the hues of its heartwood vary. It features a medium texture and a relatively straight grain with some irregularities. It naturally resists decay and is commonly used for novelty items, turned objects, decorative veneers and paneling, cabinetry, flooring and furniture. This is one of the most popular materials among U.S. woodworkers.
  • Purpleheart, a native Central and South American wood, has a distinctive violet hue that tends to darken with age. It’s prized for its straight grain, fine texture and beautiful natural sheen. It can be used for almost any small objects and specialty items as well as furniture, boats, flooring and heavy construction.

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