Ebonizing is the peculiar treatment to which
wood is submitted in order to give it
supposed resemblance to ebony.
I say advisedly a supposed resemblance, for much
ebony is not of the jet black hue which is generally associated
with this wood.
When furniture, however, is ebonized it is made
to assume as intense a black as possible, one uniform dull
blackness unrelieved by figuring or visible grain of the wood.
In the result it may best be compared to the blackest ebony
which has had the grain entirely filled and then polished with
oil or wax, that is, if the polish is a comparatively dull one.
Strictly speaking, ebonizing implies dull polishing, but it may
also include bright black wood.
In the latter case, however, it is usual to
specify it so, for otherwise ebonizing is synonymous with dull
black. A few years ago black furniture was much more commonly
made than now; in fact it was the fashion for cabinet and other
As the amateur may reasonably be
supposed not to be influenced by fashion to the same extent as
the professional polisher, it will be useful for a few
suggestions as to the advantages which may be attributed to
Taking appearance first, it may be pointed out
that black being neutral does not clash with any coloring of
wall-paper, carpets, or ornaments - it harmonizes with anything.
It is also admirably adapted for displaying ornaments placed on
it to the best advantage, and in this respect is unrivalled as a
finish for cabinets and those articles of furniture which are
hardly complete without odds and ends of china or other
Nor is ebonized work without its advantages from
the point of view of the maker or manufacturer. For it he can
use up his "stainy" pieces of wood, or pieces which though sound
enough are from some defect in color or figuring not usable in
furniture which is to be polished in its natural color.
Then an article need not be made entirely of the
same kind of wood, and I do not now refer to those parts which
are usually made of pine and are not visible, but to the main
portions of the work. Thus the top of a cabinet may be of
American walnut or whitewood, while the drawer fronts, doors, or
any other portion may be of mahogany.
Of course if the work were being polished in its
natural or any other color than black this could not be, for one
kind of wood would have to be used throughout. The hint that
various woods can be used for ebonized work may be useful not
only to the amateur cabinet-maker but to the fret-cutter, by
enabling them to use up waste, or what would otherwise be waste
bits of timber, by making them up into one article.
As there is apparently a vast amount of
misconception among amateurs as to what woods are suitable, or
what is the best for ebonizing, a few words of explanation may
be given. As a matter of fact, any wood may be stained black or
ebonized, but the coarser kind, such as ash, oak, and similarly
open-ground woods, are not as suitable for the purpose as
others. To ebonize a choice timber, such as satinwood or
valuable mahogany, would be of course absurd, as a cheaper one
will do equally well.
In ordinary practice the woods most generally
ebonized is cheap mahogany - cheap because it is plain, not
because it is unsound - American walnut, American whitewood, and
beech. It may be said that pine is not a good wood for
ebonizing, and that it is seldom used for the purpose. American
whitewood is hardly more costly and answers better. Even pine
may be ebonized, but it rarely looks well, and is never used for
good ebonized furniture.
It does not pay to ebonize pine, for the labor
in getting a good appearance on it is as costly as the use of
some more suitable wood. American whitewood, which is not so
easily dented as pine, is unobjectionable; but for ordinary
purposes there is perhaps no more suitable wood for ebonizing
than cheap mahogany, of the kind known as Honduras or baywood.
It is less costly than American walnut, and is, moreover, a
nice, easily workable wood, and readily obtainable.
On the whole, ebonized work requires much the
same treatment as when French polished in the usual way, but is
generally considered more difficult, and perhaps rightly, though
there is very little difference in this respect.
As with other preparations used by the polisher,
the black stain may either be prepared by the user or be bought
ready made. It is, however, one of those which it is better to
buy and should only be made by those who cannot obtain it
otherwise, as for some unexplained reason the quality sold is
generally better than the home-made article turns out to be in
most cases. It can always be got from the same places as French
To get a cheap kind for good work is generally
false economy, as the color is not so good, and personally I
prefer the French black stain to most others. If, however, the
stain is really a good strong black, the exact kind is
altogether unimportant. A very good and cheap substitute for
stain specially sold as such for ebonizing wood may be found in
a preparation sold by leather-cutters and known as American ink.
It is apparently made very much in the same way
that black stains are, and may safely be used on wood. For very
small pieces of work even ordinary writing ink may be used, but
its cost is prohibitive in the case of large articles.
speaking of the stain I must caution the novice against the
supposed labor saving mixtures which purport to be a varnish, or
polish and stain combined, if he wants to produce good work. For
common rough things they may do well enough, but for nothing
more. No special remarks are necessary about the application of
the stain, as it is used in just the same way as any other.
If the color is not dense enough with one
application it may be advisable to repeat the staining process
till it seems satisfactory.
Of course a good deal will depend on the quality
of the stain as to the number of applications which are
necessary. When a black stain is used it is particularly
necessary that the wood should not be greasy. If it is, the
greasiness must be removed by washing the parts with a little
soda and water, or it may be done with water slightly acidulated
with sulphuric acid. The former is preferable.
Any filler may be used, but it must be mixed
with black. Of course, the filler being composed principally of
a white substance, plaster of Paris or whiting cannot be made an
intense black or more than dark grey, so that the novice must
not be disappointed at this. The grayness which is imparted to
the wood by the filler is overcome by using a black polish,
i.e., a polish stained black.
With the exception of the polish being black,
the work is the same as for ordinary bodying in, but the polish
being thickened by the black used to color it is somewhat
thicker than usual. It therefore requires more than ordinary
care in working with it to prevent it forming a ridgy or rough
The spiriting off need not be done so carefully
as when a high degree of polish, i.e., a bright polish, is not
wanted, as it will be sufficient if the oil is killed by the
spirit. Some polishers make a rule of finishing off the
spiriting as carefully as if the surface were to be left bright,
but if the oil is killed nothing more is necessary. As it will
be seen shortly that the surface is dulled down afterwards,
readers may be inclined to think that by spiriting off a
superfluous amount of labor is involved, and it may be well for
the reason to be explained. It is simply this, that were the oil
to be left it would render even the dulled surface smeary
instead of firm and hard.
After the spiriting comes the final operation of
removing the gloss and reducing the polish to a dull one. Though
not difficult to manage, some little skill and care are required
not only to prevent the surface being irregularly
dulledóbrighter in some parts than in othersóbut to make the
strokes all in one direction and to avoid scratching.
The best material for dulling down ebonized work
is the finest emery powder, though pumice-powder is sometimes
used. Any sharp-cutting powder will do, but the advantage of
using one which corresponds with the color of the work is so
manifest that emery seems the natural material. Although it has
been said above that scratching must be avoided, it should be
understood that the whole dulling process is nothing more or
less than scratching; only the marks or scratches should be so
fine that separately they are not visible. Taken en masse they
It is therefore necessary to dull down all in
one direction, and that a straight one from end to end of the
wood, except in the case of turned work, when it is often
practically impossible to do so. The emery powder should be
lightly dusted on from a pumice bag, or through a piece of
muslin, and then either brushed along or rubbed with a soft rag.
Coarse scrubbing should be avoided, as the powder soon takes the
gloss off the polish.
When carved panels form part of an ebonized
piece of furniture they are best left a dead black, i.e., they
are not polished in any way, though simply oiling may often be
resorted to with advantage.
Of course it will be understood that any French
polished work may be dulled in the same manner as if ebonized,
but, as a rule, the only wood which is treated so is American
walnut, though it is not uncommon to see " Chippendale "
mahogany articles which have been dulled.