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

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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.

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