Ebonizing Wood Study

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.

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Step 1: Preparing the rust liquid.

Picture of 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. 
explosivemaker11 months ago
Ever looked into fuming?
daleruisky1 year ago
Great instructable. I am really into the ebony stains and this takes it to a new level. Thanks for the information!
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)
nyx702 (author)  supersoftdrink1 year ago
Thanks so much for the idea! I am definitely going to have to try that. That really gets my gears turning.
rimar20001 year ago
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.
nyx702 (author)  rimar20001 year ago
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.
jarikcbol1 year ago
I highly recommend trying India Ink. I've seen several projects on a Woodworking Forum done in India Ink and they turned out absolutely gorgeous. The person that did it says that a surprisingly small amount of ink went a very long way as well, because it is so black, it takes very little to get good results.
Interesting, thanks for posting. The rust option seems the clear winner here.

Do you know if the rust option gives any protection to the wood or is it purely aesthetic? Does the oxide remain in protective layer as with some metals or does it form something else when it reacts with the tannin? And would it protect it if it did? (Oxidation of the wood not being the issue really.) Feel free to get sciency here ;-)
nyx702 (author)  leftfootleashed1 year ago
From my limited testing I am not sure. The liquid doesn't penetrate very far into the wood. About as much as a stain would. So the protection would be minuscule if it did offer any in my opinion. But it's far more durable than any product that sits ontop of the wood like the paint.
I expect you're right - probably need an additional coating to protect the timber itself if necessary. Stil the way to go I think though.
rford1 year ago
I have had good luck using Aniline dye. They don't have the plastic look of paint and pigment stains.
nyx702 (author)  rford1 year ago
This is something I would like to try soon too. What do you mix the dyes in? A water wash? I have heard some people mix it directly into their finish.
Quick-tune1 year ago
Which other woods have you tried this method on? I wondered if Holly or something similar in density may result in a more relistic finish than the coarser grain of Oak.
nyx702 (author)  Quick-tune1 year ago
That is something I should have mentioned. You do not get this results on every type of wood. Oak and Walnut seem to give the darkest blacks.

In general softer woods turns a greyish color. Harder woods turn darker. As Dex said the pore size makes a difference too. There are comparison images online if you search hard enough. I know I have seen them but I can't seem to find the link right now.
D_e_x1 year ago
Hey, thanks for this submission. I really like how you compared the different methods. I'll second you on the awesomeness of the General Finishes water-based coatings.

Not meant as a criticism, but I have used India ink and really like the results. I think it's similar to the iron oxide finish in that it really allows the grain to show through, but without the fuss. Cost-wise, the iron oxide is obviously cheaper. The one thing to watch with it is to make sure that you get one that is completely jet black, as a lot of them have a bluish tint.
nyx702 (author)  D_e_x1 year ago
Thanks! India Ink is next on my list to try. It seems next in line for the cheapest method.

Actually you just gave me a great idea for another instructable... subscribe so you don't miss it!
rocklocker1 year ago
The steel wool and vinegar solution also makes an excellent dye for VEGETABLE tanned leather. I wish I knews about the tea being mixed in when I did my possibles bag, I believe it would have given better results.
nyx702 (author)  rocklocker1 year ago
Ah great idea! I am going to have to try that sometime.
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?
nyx702 (author)  milesfromneihu1 year ago
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.
I used Rit black dye, dries fast and takes finish well.
nyx702 (author)  sgt_eldridge1 year ago
Ah yea! This is something I would like to try. It seems pretty cheap too. I have seen it at Walmart. I have heard that it's not color fast and will fade over time. Have you ever noticed any fading?
Very informative and I am a big fan of process comparisons. Great job!
Dude. Seriously awesome and equally informative. Thanks so much!
D_e_x1 year ago
Density will make a difference, but probably open- versus closed-pore grains will affect it more (less so for paint, which is made to sit on top). This can vary widely independently of density. Here's a link that can explain it visually:

That is just a general guide; results will vary widely even within the same species. The thing with holly is that it is often VERY uniform in terms of grain, so you would end up with a very uniform-looking finish without much variation in grain showing through.
lime3D1 year ago
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.
Hey this is a really cool project, thank you for sharing it. I suggest that you change your first image to the same image as your completed project - this will help drive page views and contest votes to your page.

Good luck!
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nyx702 (author)  audreyobscura1 year ago
Thank you so much for the tip. Will do!

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