Black, Black Heart

I came across an advertisement recently which kind of shocked me. Up for sale were some Gabon ebony (diospyros dendo, diospyros crassiflora) logs, and the seller, African Figured Woods, is looking for something like $34,000 for the lot. The price wasn’t what startled me however.

Take a look first at a few of these logs – consider them representative:

Lotsa heartwood checks:



Notice the heartwood checks and voids here:


I use small amounts of Gabon ebony from time to time. I have a 1″x3″ stick of it that I’ve been nibbling bits off of for the past few years. It’s a brittle wood which I find fun to plane, but not to saw or chisel, and the typical losses when slicing and dicing it up seems to be around 30%. The wood seems to have numerous little fissures and cracks which cause the waste tally to mount up.

Gabon Ebony is desired by many, especially musical instrument makers (guitar and violin fingerboards), for various reasons, but mostly, I suspect for its hard-wearing nature, glossy, dense and highly polishable black heartwood. By far the majority of the demand for ebony is from the lutherie trade. Some metal plane makers use, or used to use, ebony as an infill material.

When it comes to black types of ebony, the blacker and more perfect the heartwood, the better. I’m talking about market demand pressures here – what people want to buy. For many, the term ‘ebony’ is in fact synonymous with Gabon ebony, though there are many varieties of ebony that have widely varying colors and patterns. There is a form of ebony growing here in the US, the Persimmon (diospyros virginiana), which at one point in time saw use as a material for golf club driver heads.

Apparently only 3~5% of the Gabon Ebony logs harvested contain the highly desired jet-black ebony, with lesser grades the ebony will have fine tan streaks in the heartwood, here and there. The streaks will oxidize black eventually, however color uniformity when the item is newly made seems to connect strongly to price point.

Looking at these logs, I was struck immediately by just how small a portion of the log is the black heartwood – not much! And thinking about it for a moment, I can’t recall ever seeing Gabon Ebony sapwood ever advertised for sale. It seems that the sapwood is simply sliced off and tossed, generally in the bush where these logs are harvested with axes and saw. Combine that with the defects common to the heart of the tree, and you are looking like a ‘fall off’ of 89~90% from an intact log. This does, of course explain the high cost, but it also starkly shows how little of the tree is put to use by humans. You can tell from the photos above how large the tree trunk needs to get so as to obtain a reasonably large enough portion of heartwood – possibly these trees are on the order of 150~200 years old. Seems a sad way to utilize something that old.

I have no interest in using sapwood in furniture, although a few companies are/were trying to market ebony substitutes. A few people are staining Swiss Pearwood black to make it look like ebony, and there is a chemically altered form of walnut used also as an Ebony substitute, Ebon-X, which was made in the 1980’s by a company called SuperTech Woods, since defunct. Then there’s plastic. Thank god for plastic huh, where would modern man be without it? Of course, there used to be ‘good’ plastic, but now even that is getting cheaper in quality! I’m kinda joking, but I’m kinda not joking as well.

Gabon Ebony is on the CITES II list, so it is no longer generally available for trade, though with the prices which can be obtained for it, like many other exotics, a black market will exist for the material well into the future. You won’t be finding much of it for sale anymore here in the US, or in Europe, and what is available today has likely been imported a while back and is simply floating around in the marketplace.

I continue to wrestle with the ‘waste’ issue with this wood. On the one hand, ‘waste’ when it comes to wood is largely meaningless, as all wood is part of the natural carbon cycle, accumulating carbon while alive and releasing it gradually after death, no matter what. Certainly the insects and fungi do not consider the off cuts from a tree ‘waste’, but food and shelter. More to the point with ebony though is the fact that the utilization of the tree’s wood, in the end, is so minimal, and one can imagine how many trees will be cut down simply in the hunt for the prized super-dark sapwood. Even though there is no waste in one sense, from a moral perspective I feel bad about a tree being used that way, thinking it was doing more for all of us while still standing and growing. The fruits – persimmons – are edible and tasty – the word diospyros is ancient Greek for ‘divine food’. Considering what little we obtain as far as wood is concerned, keeping these trees for their fruit, at the very least, would be wiser perhaps. Given the fact it is banned for trade, if demand subsides possibly more of these trees will be left to produce fruit and not be chopped down. Then again, there’ the climate change side of the picture, which is causing negative outcomes it seems for many tree species. Then there are demand pressures, which, by and large, are ever on the rise.

It’s a complicated picture. Wish I had the answers, but I don’t.

Postscript: After a comment by Brian Eve linking a post from Taylor Guitars on the topic of ebony, i felt it must be added to this post:


2 Replies to “Black, Black Heart”

  1. Great post! I think not many woodworkers realize the waste involved in obtaining ebony for use in woodwork. Granted, it grows on trees, but we would all like to use it and ensure it continues to grow for use in the decades and centuries to come.

    Bob Taylor of Taylor guitars put up a pretty cool video about his company's aproach to ebony a while back. It is relavent to this post.

  2. Brian,

    I thank you for the comment and for providing that link. It was so very relevant to the post that I added in a link to that video as a postscript.

    Thanks again!


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