Ebonizing Wood

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodThe next time you’re working on a project that calls for a dark, opaque accent that looks like ebony, try ebonizing wood for the right look. It’s a fairly simple process, but works better on some woods than others.

Ebonizing wood is not the same thing as simply coloring wood with ebony stain. When you ebonize wood, you’re causing a chemical reaction that makes the material turn black. The benefit to this process is opacity. When wood is stained you can sometimes see the grain through the stain. When wood is correctly ebonized it becomes pitch black, and you won’t be able to see grain through the color.

It’s important to understand that this is more art than science. You should definitely experiment before using this technique on a project.

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Suitable Woods. Ebonizing depends on the wood having a lot of tannin content. As a rule hardwoods have more tannins than softwoods, and dark hardwoods more than light hardwoods. That makes oak, cherry and walnut good candidates for ebonizing. Birch and maple are not good candidates, but I’ll show you a way to work around their shortage of tannins.

Even among the usual suspects there’s tannin and there’s tannin. One piece of walnut may ebonize completely differently than another. You’ll need to experiment with the pieces you’re using to see what it takes to get the results you want.

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Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodWhat You Need. Ingredients for ebonizing are all household items. Tea, steel wool, and vinegar.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodEbonizing Requires Iron Acetate. The reaction with tannins is caused by iron acetate being brushed on the wood. Don’t run off to the hardware store looking for it. It’s simple to make.

Start by washing the steel wool with soap and water to remove any oils. If you don’t do this the oil may prevent a reaction with the vinegar. With the steel wool in a glass jar, pour vinegar over it. You’ll know it’s working when bubbles are coming off the steel wool. Bubbles should start to form within minutes of the vinegar contacting the steel wool. You can cap the jar, but cap it loosely. The gas must be allowed to escape.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodThe steel wool and vinegar need some time to react; a couple days would be good, a week would be better. If you suddenly realize you need iron acetate for a project NOW, you can accelerate the reaction process by heating the mix in a double boiler. Gently heat the mix for a couple hours, then let it sit overnight. You should be able to use it the next day.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodI bought the hot plate for my shop at a thrift store. It’s earned its keep a number of times.

In addition to making iron acetate, make yourself a nice pot of tea. Steep 10 tea bags in a quart of hot water to make a really strong brew. The tea will be used to add tannins to wood.

A good jar of iron acetate will look pretty icky.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodRemove particles from the iron acetate by pouring it through a coffee filter.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodDo Some Testing. Brush the iron acetate on to some sample boards and see what you get. Results are not instantaneous. Elapsed time on these boards is two minutes. The tannin-heavy woods-walnut, oak, cherry-are much darker than the other woods.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodWant things to get even darker? Add tea. Brush tea on to the wood and let it dry a little. I find results are best if the tea is slightly damp to the touch when brushing iron acetate over it.

Woodworking Techniques for Ebonizing WoodThe tea really helps. The top board is birch with tea and iron acetate on the right, iron acetate only on the left. The bottom board is walnut, raw on the left and iron acetate only on the right. The center board is walnut with tea under the iron acetate. It’s significantly darker and more opaque then the other walnut board.

You can also brush tea on top of the iron acetate. The bottom line is that tea has a lot of tannins in it, so it’s a tannin-additive for low tannin woods.

A Few Notes.

Ebonizing only affects the surface so machining, such as routed profiles, should be done before ebonizing.

The ebonizing process may raise the grain, especially if you use tea. It’s a good idea to do a pre-ebonizing grain raise. Brush on a little water and, after the wood dries, sand off the whiskers. That should prevent you from having to sand the ebonized piece and taking the risk of sanding off the ebonizing.

The iron acetate needs to get into the wood, so don’t sand finer than 220-grit or you may prevent the liquid from soaking in and having the chance to react.

Give yourself ample opportunity to experiment with this process before using it on a project. Keep the test boards and record how you made them.

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29 Responses to “Ebonizing Wood”

  1. Christopher Baker

    Storage of iron acetate solution? Can I close my mason jar with the lid or does it need to breathe?

  2. Charles Roucher

    Hi George, Thanks for publishing this interesting piece of your knowledge on the subject. I do have a question for you. I intend on ebonizing the fretboard of my guitar. The fretboard is made of amaranth which I understand is a variation (Brazilian if I recall) of rosewood. Now, I want to stick to non invasive or destructive products to achieve that, what I am wondering though is once If have achieve ebonizing (hopefully) can I still clean my fretboard with lemon oil when it is required for instance or would this affect or wipe out the ebonizing? You also described the process of sanding the wood ever so slightly beforehand so to avoid the wood rising like a sort of velvety texture. Would this be required since the fretboard is new? Last question, does ebonizing affect the density or structure of the wood in any way? Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Louise

    Hello, I feel my oak dresser is much too dark after this Ebonizing process... how can I lighten it? Should I do a whitewash or a white glaze? I have sanded it...I have also washed it with soap & water, I was thinking about chalk paint for the whitewash. I would also like it to have more of a sheen. How can that be done? I think what I wanted was a light gray driftwood look, possibly with some Tan tones... I look forward to your reply... Louise

  4. Edward Piotrowski


  5. Fred

    Great article and ensuing comments. I never thought of ebonizing my projects but will definitely give it a try. Thanks for the great information.

  6. Sherri Ballinger

    Fascinating article regarding ebonizing Wood. Love all the wonderful tips.

  7. Harold Dowda

    I have a 100 year old piano from which the ebonized surface was removed. Apparently it was done with a commercial paint remover. It was then varnished with a urethane product. I want to restore the ebonized finish. The base wood is mahagony? I assume I will need to strip the varnish. Is this a hopeless task? What will be the best product to reve the varnish? Thanks for your help.

  8. Yolanda lewis

    Thank for this post. They are very great and clean wooden. It is very interesting article. We all good needs in iron body. I have used in Ebonizing wood . I will sharing in this post .

  9. Barry

    <strong> Ticket 19321 Hi, Using your recipe for iron oxide I used it on a serving board, not meant for cutting. I used 2 different woods maple and what I thought was oak but the stained colour was a rusty not black at all. I made a tea and it went black which was terrific. However it is for my daughter who is so afraid of what is on the board for safe use wit food. Since tea, iron and vinegar is safe I wonder how to finish of the ebonizing so the finish will last and still look good when she cleans it. Please help me know what would be a good durable but safe finish for the ebonizing process. Thanks Barry

  10. Jason Malczewski

    we put in a hickory floor two years ago and used iron acetate to give us a great look and have been very pleased with it. We liked it so much that when we redid the rest of our house, we decided to put down more hickory and do the same process. However, we ran into an issue where we can match the undertones between the two sections. The original has a warm red feel and the new section is just turning black with a slight yellow undertone. Any ideas on what we can do to match the two or why we cant achieve the same end result? I have pics if that would offer some clues. Thanks.