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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