Ebonizing. What is it? What causes its distinctly beautiful effects? Our Urban Hardwoods showrooms have seen a recent wave of interest in the ebonizing process, and ebonized pieces are quickly becoming some of our most popular. So we decided it was time to answer some frequently asked questions, celebrate this centuries-old technique, and take you behind the scenes to our workshop to see how it’s done.
Ebonizing is a wood tinting process that has changed little since its development in Europe in the 16th and 17th century as an alternative to using naturally black ebony, which was becoming increasingly rare and expensive. Thanks to the Aesthetic Movement, ebonized wood gained wide popularity in late 19th century France and England, in part because of the contemporary fascination with Japanese lacquerware. Ebonized furniture from this period was typically obsidian black (or very near to it) with a glossy finish. Dark black ebonizing continues to be the norm today.
As you can see from our time-lapse video above, the process is decidedly low-tech. Essentially, ebonizing is a simple chemical reaction. All wood species have tannins. When a solution of vinegar and iron is introduced to the wood, the tannins in the wood darken. The color deepens over the drying time. The more tannins, the darker the results. (This same reaction causes the gray or black streaks in certain wood species when a nail has been driven into the tree.)
Historically, ebonizing has been done using high-tannin species such as oak and cherry to achieve a very dark hue—as close as possible to the color of ebony. We have recently been going against the traditional grain, and ebonizing our wood slab furniture built from species with lower tannin levels, such the maple dining table shown in the video above. Recent experiments in ebonizing low-tannin hardwood tables have delivered colors ranging from bronze to cocoa to gray.
One of the things we love most about the ebonizing process is that we can never be certain of the results. This unpredictability keeps the process interesting, most of the time for the better. Two salvaged wood tables built from the same species can react very differently. It makes every piece we ebonize a new discovery, with nature controlling the outcome. But by far the biggest reason we love the ebonizing process is that it’s non-toxic, and crucially, it doesn’t contain particles of pigment that obscure or muddy the grain, character, and figure of the wood.