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  Ebonizing Woods - Dull Polishing - a chapter from Polishes and Stains for Wood by David Denning, 1903    

Ebonizing is the peculiar treatment to which wood is submitted in order to give it a 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 drawing-room furniture.

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 ebonized work.

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 ornaments.

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 polishing materials.

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.

While 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 body.

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 are so.

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.

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