Ebonizing Wood Study





Introduction: Ebonizing Wood Study

About: 3D Character Artist and Wood Dabbler

I have been scouring the internet looking for the best and cheapest way to ebonize wood. If you are not familiar with this term it's basically staining wood a deep dark opaque black. You are trying to simulate the real ebony wood only at a fraction of the cost. There are a variety of ways to do this but I have narrowed it down to three that I want to try. Using a commercial product that seems to have pretty decent results. Using an old trick with vinegar and steel wool. And lastly using regular latex paint as a "rub." These processes are described freely on the internet I just have not seen any comparison of the results.  

For each of these processes I want to evaluate their end result, cost, and plain ol' hassle factor.

Step 1: Preparing the Rust Liquid.

::::::::Process 1:::::::::
Vinegar and Steel Wool

Required Materials

- Steel Wool
- Regular White Vinegar

When searching for a way to ebonize wood this process came up very frequently. It seemed pretty neat to me. The potential cost also seems very low. However I was worried about the time and hassle involved with this one. Without getting too sciency all wood  (and alot of other organic material) contains Tannin. When the rust liquid reacts with Tannin it produces a dark black color. 

The process is fairly simple. It just takes some preparation. First you get some regular vinegar. Then you just submerge some steel wool in it and leave it sit for a week or more. The longer the better as far as I can tell. Gas builds up inside the bottle so leave the cap off or at least open it up every day so it doesn't explode.

If you are using new steel wool you should wash it off first. There are oils in on the steel wool from the factory so that it doesn't rust. After about a week you have basically liquid rust.  From some of the other guides on the internet I expected my rust solution to be cloudy and dark. However it was still pretty much clear**. There were some floaties in there but I wouldn't call it cloudy. This had me a little worried but it still worked fine. After a week I used a coffee filter and strained the rust liquid into another bottle. This isn't absolutely unnecessary but I felt more comfortable getting some of the chunks out.   

 Just a word of caution. Even tho this stuff is clear it stuff stains just about anything. Including the brush you use.  I split some in my kitchen sink and it stained some dishes and the stink itself. It came off with some scrubbing but be as careful with it as you would any other stain.

A good tip I read is to use a SOS pad that is all used up. Or you could soak it and get all the soap off. I believe these rust faster/easier than regular steel wool. I read that some people use pre-rusted items like nails and nuts. I am not sure how that compares to steel wool however. 

**After about two weeks it did turn brown. 

Step 2: Vinegar and Steel Wool Application

Once you steel wool and vinegar has been sitting for a while and you are ready to apply it. The next thing you need to do is make some tea.  The type of tea you use doesn't seem to matter. Some guides I read said to use some African bark tea but I used both regular Lipton tea and some Chai that I didn't like (I am picky about my Chai.) They both worked fine.

You need to make this tea super concentrated. For the test I used a small cup and 4 regular sized tea bags. Depending on your application size you could use upwards of 10 or so. 

Then take that tea and brush it onto your wood. What this is doing is adding a super concentrated amount of tannin to your wood for the rust to react with. Let this dry for a bit. Some people found that it works best when it's still slightly damp. Then brush on some of your rust liquid. If you are going to use these solutions for future projects I recommend transferring only the portion you need to another container. You should also use a brush that you don't care about or a rag because it's going to get stained black.

After a few minutes it will start to turn black. Once it has dried brush another thin layer of tea on it. This should make it a much deeper black. Once the first application had totally dried overnight it was very dull looking. Slightly grey and chalky. It looked like if you had colored it in with a sharpie. You could still see some wood deep down in the grain. A second coat fixed all this. I brushed another layer of rust on, let that dry, then brushed on some more tea and it came out very opaque and flat black. 

As you can see in the image the black bled very far into the wood. The tape did not do anything to help. It probably made it worse. So that is something to consider. But it's a good opportunity to show the difference between the first and second coats. 

Just as a test I tried to sand some of the part that bled off. I assumed it would have sanded off really easily but I withstood alot of sanding with 60 grit paper. I gave up after about 5 mins. Another plus for this method is it seems to be very durable. 

::::::: Cost::::::
$1.10 for 16oz generic white vinegar
$ 0.22 for a pad of steel wool
+ cost of finish

1 week rust liquid setup
2 coats of rust liquid
2 coats of tea
2 coats of finish

Step 3: Paint Rub

::::::::Process 1:::::::::
Paint Rub

I came across this idea right at the very last minute. The process is very simple. You just take your basic flat black latex paint and rub two very thin coats on with a rag/paper towel. Then finish as desired. I was skeptical... I have seen black paint on wood and it doesn't always look good. It's usually thick and chunky and makes the wood look plastic-y. The reason I wanted to try this is because it seemed fairly easy and fairly cheap. You can get the cheapest house paint available. I just got one of the mini cans. The guide said to use flat black but I could't find any in the small cans and latex. So I am just using Satin. 

Compared to the rust liquid you have alot more control because of the viscosity.  The thin coats dry insanely fast. The rust liquid took more time to absorb/evaporate. Something else to consider is durability. Since the paint sits on top of the wood it scratches really easily. I sanded between polyurethane coats and I sanded some parts of the paint off down to the wood. 

The unfinished Result has a slightly tacky plastic feel. Like latex paint I guess. In retrospect I should have thinned the paint to penetrate into the wood better. Maybe 50:50. 

::::::: Cost::::::
$5 for half pint of latex paint (~$15 for a quart)
+ cost of finish

2 coats of paint 
2 coats of finish 

Step 4: Minwax Polyshade

The next thing I wanted to test is the "Classic Black" Polyshade by MinWax. The reviews I found of this online were generally very favorable by DYI-ers. Serious woodworkers of course scoffed at it. I still wanted to try it because doing everything in just a couple coats is pretty dang appealing. 

Application couldn't be easier. First coat is very thin. Lots of wood color showing through. I always have trouble with tiny bubbles when using Minwax. This is no exception. Wiping on helps some but I just do not like the finish Minwax products give. No matter how long I let it sit it never seems to cure completely. **

Since this is oil based it takes a long time to dry. The instructions on the can say 6 hours but I was experiencing longer dry times. I had to use three coats to get it to a similar opacity as the others. The long dry times makes it difficult to judge the time factor. Because on one hand you are doing less coats of finish... but on the other they take a very long time to dry. Personally I do not like long dry times. There are more opportunities for things to go wrong. Dust and fuzzes sticking to it, cats jumping onto it, significant others tripping over it... you know... the usual. 

::::::: Cost::::::
$12 for a quart

A or D depends on how you look at it
3 wipe on coats

**After about a week it did get less tacky. This seems about right since it's an oil based finish. Still has a plastic-y feel. 

Step 5: Conclusion

For the paint and rust I finished with "General Finishes" water based High Performance polyurethane. I cannot recommend this product enough. The results are a silky smooth factory like finish. Just follow the directions on the can and you will be golden.

Taking an accurate picture of the finish is pretty difficult. You can't capture the sheen and tactile feel. The results of the paint and the Polyshade are pretty comparable. They both have a similar "plastic" look that fills in the grain of the wood. However... the finish of the Polyshade is just terrible in my opinion. It's not so much the "look" of it as the feeling. It's not as smooth and silky as the General Finishes. So for that reason alone I would not use Polyshade. The length of time it took to dry also did not help it's cause. 

So it's down to the Rust and the Paint. Once the finish was applied to both I was very pleasantly surprised with how the Rust came out. It's a slightly cooler black once finished but a much more natural look. After all... isn't that what we are trying to do? Mimic real ebony wood? It's hard to tell in the picture but the grain of the wood is much more noticeable and not masked by a product sitting on top of it. So despite the long preparation if I had to pick a method I would absolutely pick the vinegar and rust process. The results once finished are great, very cheap to make, and the extra durability makes this a winner in my book. 

If I was really pressed for time I may try the paint process with a very thinned down paint. I would also do a few more coats of poly since the durability isn't there with the paint. Even in a pinch I probably wouldn't use the Polyshade. Having control over the finish is just too important to me. I realize I could go back over the Polyshade with another finish but that kind-of slow and defeats the purpose of a "all-in-one" product. 

A few other ideas I would like to try in the future:
- India Ink
- Commercial Dyes 
- Charcoal?
- Shoe polish? 
- Dissolved vinyl records?! 



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    Thanks. Very nice, and well presented. I had never heard about the rust-tea finish. Do you have there any DIY tricks for blacking metals, such as aluminum?

    2 replies

    Google "tannic acid coating for rusted iron artifacts" and "Black Dye - Primitive Ways".

    Thanks! Unfortunately I don't really get to work with metal much. I don't really have the tools to. I am sure there is a way tho.

    Thanks for the instructable. I had read somewhere about 'aging' wood with tea and rust, I just didn't realize that you could take it to the extreme, and turn it black!

    I think for the money, and results, rust is the clear winner.

    1 reply

    different sides of the same coin...,you can dry certain woods ashen grey with this if slathered on without mercy - and return em to jet black with just a few drops oflinseed oil (BLO) rubbed in over it

    you can make rust in <4 HOURS: oversaturate jar with torn wool, cook jar for as long as you have patience il IN WATER BATH at a slow steady boil.

    so yeah make the jar, close it LOOSELY, and drop it in a pot of hot water then apply heat. crefuloy. jar will produce small amounts of flammable fumes.

    for tannins mix with supersaturated russian styke "zavarka" (pot of tea concentrate, brewed like half full of leaves, steeped closed with hard boiling water)

    makes solid JET black on basswood in two layers

    1 reply

    PS oh yeah strain it through coffee filters. the liquid dies black. the residue does browns. so yeag iron tannate person was right

    Thanks for doing some testing I was about to set out to do! After reading a lot about how the rust vinegar stains the tools and everything black as well. That makes me wonder... is this stuff any good for dyeing fabric? Hoping for some answers so I don't need to do a separate study ;-)

    3 replies

    I too just discovered this method of dyeing wood, and I'm actually a chemist, so I decided to read the primary literature on all this. There's actually a good bit of research done on this subject, even today.

    Iron tannate is an ancient dye for hair and cloth! It may not be as permanent in the modern age. The important thing is it isn't iron acetate (formed from the reaction iron and vinegar) that is a good dye, its the iron tannate (formed from reaction the tea with the iron acetate).

    There are two things happening that cause the coloration. The obvious one is the precipitation of iron by the tannic acid. This creates the dark black/blue/brown color you get when ebonizing wood with this method. This isn't really dyeing, it's pigmentation, where you disperse fine, colored particles into a substrate (wood, fabric, hair, etc.).

    But iron tannate is a dye which is to say it is soluble it water depending it's pH (the more basic the better) and you can use it to directly color the fabric. Since vinegar isan acid, you won't get as much dye as you would if you made an iron solution with base. Also, the colors intensify from pale yellow/greens at acidic pHs, unpredictably changing but generally intensify as the pH rises, arriving at dark woody browns towards around pH 9.

    If you first imbue the fabric with tea, and then apply the iron acetate solution after it dries, you'll get a TON of insoluble iron crashing out, but with a strong enough tea solution, you'll get some dyeing from the iron tannate. Another way you might go about this is mix the tea and the iron acetate first, then filter through a coffee filter leaving only the soluble stuff behind. Use this solution to dye your fabric.

    As far as speeding making your solution faster I have an excellent trick, please see my comment on KJBill's awesome guide on this stuff:


    That method works like gangbusters, and it gives you the opportunity to completely avoid vinegar if you want. The ammonia that it uses is essentially dead on as a base. You'll just need to make sure that most of the ammonia and chlorine it uses evaporate off out of solution so that it won't damage the fabric (just leave it uncapped for a few days outside).

    OK, I have set up a bunch of vinegar to test on fabric. Also remembered that steel wool burns (usual cautions...), so I tried a separate batch with burnt steel wool to see if it works and maybe speeds up the process...

    That is interesting. I had never thought about doing it on fabric. I bet if you soaked the fabric in strong tea first it would work well. I would love to see the results. My steel wool turned really flaky and the vinegar had lots of sediments at the bottom so I would probably strain it first.

    You don't have to buy the India Ink. The pigment is just candle soot.

    Get or make a plain unscented candle... a larger flame (untrimmed wick) is better. Make sure you have a good amount of yellow flame, since you want it to be only partially combusted in order to produce soot. Hold a plate or whatever at a slight angle over the candle as it burns, periodically scraping off the black stuff into a vial. It sounds slow, but it doesn't take very long to get a good usable amount.

    If you're using it on wood, I'd suggest just mixing up a batch of shellac to use as a binder/carrier.

    Shellac seems to be too thin (or too sticky) if you're using it for conductive properties, though, and we're still trying to figure out the best carrier for soot-based circuitry at our house. I think hide glue is next on the experiment list. (not that you gave any indication that you wanted india ink for that... but it is pretty neat that it's conductive)

    2 replies

    Tried egg white?

    Thanks so much for the idea! I am definitely going to have to try that. That really gets my gears turning.

    Great instructable. I am really into the ebony stains and this takes it to a new level. Thanks for the information!

    Very interesting and useful, thanks for sharing,

    Regarding shoe polish, I use it often. In 1965 I found in the trash a beautiful demon mask carved on wood, a bit dirty and a bit impaired. I applied it brown shoe polish with very good result.

    3 replies

    Thanks so much!

    Shoe polish seems interesting. It's probably not cheap for larger projects though? I was worried that the wood would remain oily/greasy. Does the shoe polish ever cure?

    Yes, for large projects the shoe polish is a bit expensive.

    No, it does not cure, it is mainly wax and a solvent/thinner. The wax goes slowly degrading and dissapears, you must replace it when you see it needed. Thence it is not cheap.

    If you can still find the old-style liquid shoe polish in a bottle it works okay. The kind in the squeeze applicator doesn't seem to work as well.