When choosing wood for a project, the color and appearance are often important factors. While many types of wood have a light brown or reddish hue, some varieties naturally appear much darker and can provide a beautiful black look.
Ebony is likely the first wood that comes to mind when thinking of black wood. This dense tropical hardwood grows in parts of Africa, Asia, and India. The heartwood of ebony trees is very dark brown or black, while the sapwood is pale.
Several species are used for lumber, such as Gabon ebony, Macassar ebony, and Ceylon ebony. The wood is so dark that it’s often referred to as “black gold.” After being cut and dried, ebony wood usually becomes even darker and blacker. The darkness comes from the high natural oil content in the wood.
Ebony has a very smooth, straight grain and takes an excellent polish. Historically, it was used to craft piano keys, clarinets, table legs, and more. Today, ebony remains a popular exotic wood in inlay work, fine furniture, and turnings.
Despite its name, African blackwood (also called grenadilla or mpingo) is actually a rosewood species native to southeast Africa. The heartwood of African blackwood trees is a dark purplish to black color. It’s sometimes marketed as “African ebony” due to the similar appearance.
The wood has a very dense, tight grain and is resistant to cracking. African blackwood is prized for woodwind instruments, such as clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes. It’s also used for small turnings, inlay, and other small specialty wood items.
Cocobolo is a tropical hardwood found in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It has a wide range of colors, from orange, reddish-brown, and yellowish-brown to almost black. Only the darkest, swirly black variety is referred to as “black cocobolo.”
When sanded and polished, the varied grain patterns of cocobolo create a dramatic, eye-catching look. The wood is very dense and stable, with excellent acoustic properties. It’s commonly used for knife handles, fine furniture, turning, and musical instruments like guitars and drums.
Sandalwood refers to the fragrant woods from trees in the genus Santalum. There are several species, such as Indian sandalwood and Australian sandalwood. African sandalwood comes from the Osyris lanceolata tree native to southern Africa.
The heartwood of Osyris trees ranges from grayish-brown to dark brown or black. African sandalwood is heavy, dense, and fine-grained. Easy to turn on a lathe, it’s often used for decorative bowls, boxes, and carvings. The wood is also made into beads and used for woodturning.
Gaboon ebony, also called Gabon ebony, comes from the very heart of the ebony tree. This wood is usually black all the way through, with no lighter-colored sapwood. It has a straight grain and satiny luster when polished.
Gaboon ebony is considered the blackest and very finest grade of ebony wood. It’s a rare exotic wood used for musical instrument parts, small turned objects, and other small specialty wood items. Due to its rarity, Gaboon ebony is quite expensive.
Other Black-Colored Woods
While the above woods are naturally black or almost black, various other species can be stained or ebonized to create a black look:
- Maple – Hard maple takes black stains and ebonizing treatment very well.
- Walnut – Walnut darkens from light brown to a black color with staining.
- Oak – Fumed or ebonized oak turns nearly black.
- Birch – When stained black, birch can mimic ebony’s appearance.
Nearly any wood species can be transformed into a black-colored wood with the right finishing process. In addition to chemical ebonizing and black stains, fuming with ammonia or other fuming processes will blacken wood.
What is Ebony Wood?
Ebony is the most well-known of the naturally black exotic woods. Here are some facts about genuine ebony wood:
- Ebony trees are slow growing broadleaf evergreens native to tropical regions.
- The high density of the wood comes from growing under hot, wet conditions.
- It sinks in water, unlike many lightweight wood species.
- True ebony heartwood is black, blackish-brown, or very dark brown.
- The sapwood is pale and removed during processing.
- It has a very fine, smooth grain that polishes beautifully.
There are over a dozen species of ebony from Africa, Asia, and India. Each has slightly different qualities and uses. However, all true ebonies are heavyweight, black woods valued for their appearance and workability.
Types of Ebony Wood
Some of the most commonly used ebony species include:
- Gabon Ebony – Very black heartwood with brown and gray streaks.
- Macassar Ebony – Dramatic black and brown striped pattern.
- Ceylon Ebony – Blackish-brown wood from Sri Lanka.
- Makassar Ebony – Dark ebonies with contrasting tan or brown stripes.
What is African Blackwood?
African blackwood, also known as muninga or grenadilla, is a rosewood species native to southern Africa. Here are some key facts about this exotic black wood:
- Grows in parts of Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Malawi.
- Heartwood ranges from grayish-brown to dark purplish-black.
- Very dense, hard, and heavy – sinks in water.
- Fine texture with straight, interlocked grain.
- Oily surface gives a waxy luster when polished.
African blackwood is one of the traditional woods used to make clarinets and bagpipes. It’s also used for carvings, furniture, and turnings. Small cut pieces are popular for pen blanks and other small turnings.
Qualities of African Blackwood
Here are some of the notable qualities that make African blackwood a top choice for musical instruments:
- Very stable wood that resists cracking as it ages.
- Excellent acoustic properties.
- Polishes to a dark, glassy finish.
- Turns well on lathes due to natural oils.
- Does not warp or shrink excessively when dried.
The wood is also resistant to decay and insect attack thanks to natural oils. However, the dust may cause skin or respiratory irritation during machining or sanding.
What is Cocobolo Wood?
Cocobolo is a tropical hardwood native to Mexico and parts of Central America. It has a wide range of colors and figuring. Here are some facts about cocobolo wood:
- Heartwood varies from yellowish to reddish-brown to almost black.
- Has intricate grain patterns such as waves, stripes, and swirls.
- Oily surface produces a bright polish.
- Very dense and hard wood that is durable.
- Machines and turns well despite density.
Only the darkest, black variety of cocobolo is referred to as “black cocobolo.” When polished, the varied grain patterns create a stunning visual effect. Cocobolo is popular for fine furniture, decor, and jewelry boxes.
Working with Cocobolo
Cocobolo has some important working properties to note:
- Wear a respirator – the dust can cause respiratory irritation.
- Dulls cutting edges quickly due to high density.
- Glues and finishes well despite natural oils.
- Take care to avoid tear out on interlocked grain areas.
- Apply a sealer before staining to prevent blotchy absorption.
What is Gaboon Ebony?
Gaboon ebony, or Gabon ebony, refers to ebony sourced from the African nation of Gabon. It has some distinct properties:
- Comes from the very heart of the ebony tree.
- All heartwood – no light colored sapwood.
- Usually all black, though may have brown streaks.
- Very fine, straight grain pattern.
- Rare and expensive, used for small specialty items.
Gaboon ebony is considered the finest and most expensive variety of ebony wood. The trees grow in the equatorial forests of Africa near the Gulf of Guinea. Gabon is the leading exporter of ebony species like Gaboon and Macassar ebony.
Uses of Gaboon Ebony
Due to its rarity and expense, Gaboon ebony is usually reserved for small objects like:
- Musical instrument parts – piano keys, guitar fingerboards.
- Knife handles and gun grips.
- Small turned pieces – pens, bowls, boxes.
- Inlays and marquetry veneer.
Larger cut lumber pieces of Gaboon ebony are hard to source and extremely costly. Most woodworkers can only obtain small cut pieces and lumber scraps.
How to Ebonize Wood
Ebonizing is a process of artificially darkening wood to create a black look. There are several methods of ebonizing, including:
This involves applying chemical solutions to react with tannins in the wood. Common ebonizing solutions include:
- Tannic or gallic acid
- Iron sulfate or vinegar and steel wool
- India ink or black leather dye
The chemicals darken wood species high in tannins, like oak or walnut. Multiple coats may be needed for full black coloring.
Fuming involves exposing wood to fumes that darken the surface. Common fuming methods include:
- Ammonia fuming – Reacts with tannins to blacken wood.
- Sulfur dioxide – Turns wood grayish-black.
- Bleach – Removes color, leaving wood pale gray.
The wood is enclosed in a chamber or box while exposed to the fumes for several hours to achieve full blackness.
Staining Ebonized Wood
Pre-ebonized wood can be stained black for an opaque solid black color. Some good stain options include:
- India ink – Totally opaque black staining.
- Black leather dye – Deep black coloring.
- Black water-based stain – Subtle natural black tint.
Applying a black stain over pre-ebonized wood enhances the blackness. The ebony treatment helps absorb and set the black pigment.
Comparison of Black Wood Species
Here is a comparison of some properties of key dense black wood species:
|African Blackwood||Very high||Very hard||Straight, tight||Instruments, turnings|
|Gaboon Ebony||Extremely high||Very hard||Straight, fine||Accents, inlays, parts|
|Cocobolo||High||Hard||Intricate, wavy||Decor, knives, guitars|
This table summarizes some characteristics of the three darkest, finest black exotic woods. All are from dense, tropical tree species and have deep black heartwood once finished and polished.
How to Finish Black Wood
Black-colored woods can be finished several ways to protect and enhance their dark beauty:
Penetrating oil like tung or linseed oil help waterproof and accentuate the grain on black woods like ebony and cocobolo. Apply multiple light coats, rubbing well between applications.
A dark paste wax or beeswax finish protects black wood from fingerprints and minor scratches. It also gives a soft lustrous glow.
Polyurethane, lacquer, or shellac varnish adds a glassy coating to highlight the smooth polished surface of ebony, cocobolo, and other black woods. Use high-gloss for most dramatic effect.
Oil and Wax
An oil and wax finish combines the water-resistance of oil with the tactile feel and low luster of wax. Multiple coats of oil followed by a layer of wax works very well on small black wood turnings and accents.
Proper surface preparation, sanding, and cleaning are also important before applying any finish to black woods. This ensures maximum absorption, adhesion, and clarity of the protective coating.
Sourcing Black Wood
Finding and buying genuine black exotic woods can be challenging. Here are some top tips for sourcing:
- Find specialty exotic wood suppliers online or locally.
- Purchase small cut pieces, blanks, turning blocks.
- Buy ebony and blackwood veneers for inlay work.
- Check lumber yards in major cities for exotic woods.
- Order black wood strips, pen blanks, and lumber from online sites.
- Travel abroad to buy woods like ebony and cocobolo.
Due to overlogging, many black wood species are endangered in their native habitats. Make sure to buy ebony and other exotics only from reputable sustainable sources.
The pure black color and smooth polished surface of exotic woods like ebony, blackwood, and cocobolo create stunning effects in wooden objects. While true ebonies and other black-hearted species are rare, many common woods can be transformed through stains and ebonizing treatments.
Understanding the qualities of each black wood species helps choose the right material for any project. Protecting the deep black finish with waxes, oils or varnishes enhances and maintains the beautiful appearance of these special woods.