Ever wondered why ebony is the most expensive wood? This article will explain why ebony is worth the price tag and explore the different types of, and uses for, ebony wood.
Ebony, the pitch-black wood, is among the rarest and most exotic types of woods known in the world. It is a tropical hardwood highly prized for its density and rich, dark color. Also known as zebrawood, it is entitled "A Million Dollar Tree" for all the right reasons.
Ebony has been in use for centuries and is still popular among woodworkers and luthiers for its unique properties. It has various types suited for different purposes that we will explore in this article. But before jumping on the types, let's understand the fundamentals and see what makes ebony unique.
Ebony Wood and its Characteristics
Ebony is a black wood that comes from various species in the genus Diospyros. It is a tropical hardwood that grows in scorching and humid climates like Africa and South America. Ebony is also one of the densest woods, with an incredible strength-to-weight ratio. The wood is so dense that it doesn't float in water!
It has a stunning texture and is favored for its jet-black color and smooth grain. The black color results from the high concentration of carbon present in the wood. The smooth grain is thanks to the slow growth rate of the trees in hot climates.
Ebony is mainly associated with furniture making, but its practical implications are vast. It includes canes, walking sticks, inlays, chess pieces, instrument parts, knife handles, pool cues, etc. The wood is also resistant to fungal and insect attacks, making it durable and long-lasting.
The ebony tree has male and female flowers that start budding in the springtime. These flowers are small in size but have a strong scent. Another reason that adds to this tree's value is that its roots have medicinal properties. The roots effectively cure different kinds of infections caused by bacteria and parasites.
Characteristics of the Ebony tree:
|Scientific Name||Diospyros crassiflora|
|Common Name(s)||Gaboon Ebony, Nigerian Ebony, African Ebony, Cameroon Ebony|
|Native Area||Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia|
|Sunlight||Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade|
|Water Needs||Medium; needs well-drained soil|
|Soil Type||Sandy, loamy, or clayey|
|Soil pH||6.0 to 7.5|
|Fertilizer||Monthly, during the growing season|
|USDA Hardiness Zones||11 to 12|
|Average Height||50 to 60 ft (15 to18 m) tall, 2 to 3 ft (0.6 to 1 m) trunk diameter|
|Average Dried Weight||60 lbs/ft3 (955 kg/m3)|
|Specific Gravity||.82, .96|
|Janka Hardness||3,690 lbf (13,700 N)|
The above table is enough to give you an overview of what this black wood is all about. Now, let's take a quick stroll through the history of ebony wood.
A Brief History of Ebony Wood
Ebony has been used for centuries and is one of the oldest known decorative woods. It is believed that ebony wood was popular among Egyptians who used it to make furniture, canes, and inlays. Traces of ebony can be found in various carved pieces in the ancient Egyptian tombs. Moreover, the word "ebony" is derived from the Egyptian word "hbny" and the Greek word έβενος (ebenos).
Ebony reached its peak in the 16th century when it was highly coveted by European royalty and aristocrats. They used it to make cabinets for the luxury trade, and with time these ebony cabinets made their way into Paris. In the 17th century, ebony was utilized heavily by the Dutch for all sorts of furniture and ornamental objects.
Another exciting implication involves the royals of Asia. They believed that the wood could neutralize poisons, so ebony was used for making drinking cups. Other traditional uses include black pianos and harpsichord keys, and black chess pieces.
In the last 500 years, ebony has significantly been used as ornamental pieces by royal courts all across Europe and Asia. Modern use, however, is limited to small objects like knife handles, rosary beads, and musical instrument parts. The durability and strength of this wood type have also made it suitable for making handgun grips and rifle fore-end tips.
However, over the years, ebony has faced over-exploitation and poor harvesting. Many of its species are considered threatened.
Different Types of Ebony Wood
Ebony wood is derived from various species of trees in the Diospyros genus. In this segment, we will discuss some of the popular ebony woods used for different purposes. Let's get to know them a little better.
Scientific Name: Diospyros ebenum
This ebony is native to Sri Lanka and southern India. Also known as East Indian Ebony, the heartwood of this tree is black with very few darker or lighter streaks. The wood is heavy, hard, and dense with a fine texture. It has an excellent natural luster and polishes to a very smooth finish. The tree grows up to reach a height of about 60 to 85 ft (18 to 25 m). Their leaves are big and have a long oval shape and are about 6 to 15 cm (2.5" to 6") long and 3 to 5 cm (1" to 2") wide.
Ceylon ebony is mainly used to manufacture turned objects, knife handles, and other small specialty wood items. This peak popularity of this type was observed in the 16th century, and it continued all through the 19th century. It was preferred for making all kinds of high-quality furniture. The high demand for Ceylon ebony poses a significant threat of this species becoming extinct. That's why the governments of Sri Lanka and India have put protective laws on its export.
Scientific Name: Diospyros mespiliformis
The African ebony is an evergreen tree that flourishes in subtropical and tropical regions. Found primarily in the African Savannah, they are also called Jackalberry because of the fruits it provides to the jackals. The trees are recognized by their dark gray bark that has narrow cracks. This ebony tree thrives in areas with adequate water and little or no frost. The wood of this tree is termite-proof, strong, and fine-grained.
Compared to the other family members, mespiliformis is smaller as it reaches an average height of about 13 to 20 ft (4 to 6 m). However, some may also touch a height of about 25 ft (7m). The tree has a dense and dark green canopy with elliptical leaves. It blooms with cream-colored flowers between February and April, which are later followed by fruits that resemble blackberries. The female flowers grow solitary, while the male ones are arranged in bunches. They turn red and yellow when the fruits get ripe.
Gaboon Ebony or Gabon Ebony
Scientific Name: Diospyros dendo
Gaboon ebony is native to the tropical forests of west-central Africa, majorly Ghana. The heartwood of this tree is black with a rare pattern of gray or brown stripes. The wood is heavy, hard, and dense, with a fine texture and natural luster. It polishes to a very smooth finish. With just one-half of an inch (1.5cm) per year, the Gaboon ebony is one of the slowest growing woods and the heaviest.
The tree can reach up to about 60 ft (18 m) with a trunk diameter of 2 to 4 ft (0.6 to 1.2 m). The leaves of this tree are simple, alternate, and spirally arranged. This type of ebony wood makes sensitive and small musical parts and instruments. However, the exploitation in the past 100 years has halved the population of the Gabon ebony wood, adding it to the list of endangered species.
Scientific Name: Diospyros celebica
Also called the striped ebony, Macassar ebony is a tropical hardwood derived from Indonesia's Celebes/Sulawesi Islands. The central part of the island is called Macassar and hence the name. It has broad brown streaks in its wood grain that separate it from the other trees in this family. These trees grow up to reach a height of about 65 ft (19 m).
Compared to the other types discussed till now, Macassar is the easiest to work with. Since it is relatively soft, Macassar can be carved and turned easily. Japan largely imports this wood, and it's primarily used in houses. It's easy to work with and allows woodworkers to make creative and intricate pieces. However, the high demand for the Macassar ebony wood has caused the resource to deplete quickly. It has been listed as vulnerable.
Pale Moon Ebony
Scientific name: Diospyros malabarica
This type of ebony is native to the southern part of India and is also found in Sri Lanka. With an average height of about 115 ft (35 m), Pale Moon ebony is one of the tallest trees in this family. It's also one of the slowest growing trees, taking about 150 years to fully mature. The heartwood is black with a few dark brown streaks. The texture is medium to fine, and the grain is interlocked. You get round fruits that turn yellow when ripe.
The flowering tree has several common names: the Gaub tree, Malabar ebony, black-and-white ebony, or pale moon ebony. The name Malabar comes from the coast of southwestern India, Malabar. The unripe fruit and the tree's bark have some great medicinal applications. Moreover, the leaves and fruits that are not ripe are used to extract black dye for clothes. Its wood is often used to make parts of a guitar.
Scientific name: Diospyros melanoxylon
This tropical hardwood is native to India and Sri Lanka. While it's named after the coast of southeastern India, Coromandel, it's also called East Indian Ebony. It has a rugged, dry bark that has several medicinal applications. The leaves also have medicinal relevance and are used as tobacco wrappings to make the Indian beedi. One of them is the ability to cure malaria and several other diseases in the same vein.
The tree grows to about 59 to 79 ft (18 to 24 m) and has oblong leaves with irregular branches. Plus, it has olive-green fruits that are edible. It's prevalent in India and is used to make several objects, including combs, walking sticks, woodcarvings, brushbacks, etc.
Scientific name: Diospyros tessellaria
Also known as the tessellated ebony, Mauritius ebony is a tropical hardwood from the Indian Ocean island country of Mauritius. The tree grows to about 66 ft (20 m) and has a cylindrical trunk of about 3 ft (1 m) in diameter. They have beautiful, fragrant white flowers and fleshy fruits.
This type of ebony is popular for its use in crafting high-quality furniture. Plus, it's also used to make floors, staircases, sculptures, and other woodworks that require a fine finish. This is a slow-growing type of ebony tree that has a long history of being exploited by the British and Dutch. Although they are not at the stage of being endangered, their regular use is causing the resources to deplete faster.
Scientific name: Diospyros mun
Mun Ebony is another popular tropical hardwood native to Southeast Asia and is primarily found in Vietnam and Laos. Typically, the heartwood has dark black and brown stripes with some occasional red streaks. You will find a fine uniform texture with a high natural luster in this ebony wood type.
Reaching a height of about 59 ft (18 m), Mun ebony is a slow-growing tree with relatively low branches. This type of ebony is used to make guitar fingerboards, inlays, wood carvings, chess pieces, and other objects that require an excellent finish. The over-exploitation of ebony has dramatically reduced the number of these species. As a result, in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species(2011), it is listed as "critically endangered."
Scientific name: Diospyros pentamera
Hailing from the tropical regions of Queensland, Australia, Myrtle ebony is an ebony type also known as black myrtle, gray plum, or gray persimmon. It's a small to medium-sized tree with a short trunk and spreading crown. The height of this ebony wood ranges from 20 to 130 ft (6 to 40 m) with a base width of about 40 cm (15"). It can grow in various rainforests; however, it thrives best in volcanic soils and areas with heavy rainfall.
The tree has 5 to 9 cm (2" to 3") long leaves, and fragrant white and red flowers bloom in spring. It bears edible mid-sized berries that various rainforest birds eat. The wood obtained from Myrtle ebony is used to make furniture, woodturning, and other objects that need a very fine finish. Now it's not listed as endangered, but myrtle is the rarest rainforest tree in the ebony family.
Scientific name: Diospyros humilis
Most commonly found in coastal and semi-arid regions of Queensland, this ebony wood is also known as the scrub ebony. Its domain also includes parts of the Northern Territory and New South Wales in Australia. This ebony type grows in small trees and shrubs. It has stiff and glossy leaves and oval-shaped bright yellow fruits that turn orange when ripe. The fruits are slightly poisonous and contain large seeds.
The wood obtained from Queensland ebony is quite hard and dense. This ebony wood type is most preferred for woodturning and high-quality cabinet work. It's also used for making wood carvings, inlay work, and other objects that require an outstanding finish. The Queensland ebony is quite rare and is only found in a few locations.
Scientific name: Swartzia tomentosa
Found in the tropical forests of South America, this ebony type is also known as Panococo. With a Janka scale score of 3690, Brazilian ebony is one of the hardest woods in the world. The wood is almost black and is categorized by its straight grain. It's a tree that belongs to the bean family, and they grow up to 50 to 75 ft (15 to 22 m). The tree's diameter is around 35 to 60 cm (14" to 24").
This ebony type is used to make musical instruments, veneers, gun stocks, and other objects that require a fine finish. The tree is not endangered, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find high-quality Brazilian ebony. Moreover, in 1997, it was listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants.
How to Identify Ebony?
It can be challenging to identify ebony wood if you're unfamiliar with it. However, certain features can help you distinguish it from other woods. Here are the ways to find the real ebony wood:
Scratch to See the Color
Ebony wood is usually black or very dark brown. However, other kinds of wood can be stained and polished to appear like ebony. So scratch a small area of the wood to see if the color beneath is black or dark brown. If it's been painted, you will see the difference in colors. You can also ask your dealer to cut a small piece to compare the colors.
The Sound Test
When you tap the ebony wood with something, it should make a "ting" sound. This is because of its high density.
Weight of the Wood
Ebony is a very dense wood, so it's heavier than most other kinds of wood. If you pick up a piece of ebony wood, you will feel that it's heavier than other woods of the same size.
Ebony wood is exceptionally smooth to the touch because of its high density. So run your fingers along the grain to see if it feels soft. It will feel very smooth if sanded down or polished too much.
This is a full-proof method to tell apart the real ebony from the fake. Use a cloth soaked in acetone and rub a small area of the wood. Real ebony never leaves its natural colors, so if the cloth turns black, you have found the fake one.
These methods will save you from buying fake ebony wood. So the next time you go shopping for ebony furniture or other objects, keep these tips in mind.
Uses of Ebony Wood
Ebony wood has been used for centuries to make different kinds of objects. Ebony can be found in various things, from early Egyptian implementations to modern-day uses. The striking features of this wood type have made it a favorite among woodworkers and artisans. Here are some of the most popular uses of ebony wood:
Ebony wood is often used to make high-end furniture. It's used to make everything from chairs and tables to cabinets and beds. The wood is prized for its beautiful black color and smooth texture. Among the various types, Ceylon, Mauritius, and Myrtle are the primary choices for making high-quality furniture.
Ebony wood is also used to make different kinds of musical instruments. Pianos and guitars are two of the most popular instruments made from ebony. The wood kind is favored for its acoustic properties and strength. It's also used to make other musical instruments like violins, cellos, and harps. The Gabon, Brazilian, Macassar, and Ceylon ebony types give the best results for making instruments.
Knives and Guns
Ebony is also used to make the handles of knives and guns. It's believed that the weight of ebony helps to absorb the recoil of guns. Moreover, the wood's high density makes it ideal for these objects. The Macassar and Gabon ebony types are most commonly used for making knife and gun handles.
Ebony wood is also used for making different kinds of carvings. The beautiful black color and smooth texture of the wood make it ideal for this purpose. The most popular items made from ebony wood carvings include bowls, figurines, and chess pieces. The most commonly used and most suitable ebony type for carving is Macassar because it's softer compared to other types. Apart from that, Ceylon and Gabon are also good choices for carving.
Ebony wood has a long history of being used for making all kinds of ornamental objects, and it still prevails. From vases and bowls to jewelry boxes and photo frames, you can find all sorts of decorative objects made from ebony wood. Although it's a little challenging to work with ebony wood because of its high density, the durability it provides makes it worthwhile. Not to forget the shine and fine texture that it provides. The Gabon and Macassar ebony types are the most popular choice for making such objects because they offer beautiful patterns.