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What is Ebony?

Ebony. That simple word sure encompasses a LOT of species of one of them ought sought after and expensive tone woods found on this planet. Ebony. In prior years, the only Ebony we saw was the heartwood: jet black, ultra-dense, and mirror-polished smooth stuff that we all grew to love. As we have moved on through the decades and supplies dwindled, we have begun to see many more species, types, whatever come into the fretted musical instrument fold. In earlier days, Ebony was most often used as fingerboards on elite level instruments by companies like Gibson and Gretsch. Since Bob Taylor purchased the largest importer/exporter of ebony years back, we have seen much better usage of this awesome tonewood, not only as fingerboards but even as the back and sides on some acoustic guitars. Much less is going to waste thanks to Bob Taylor: Environmental Champion!

Ebony in tree form

So, what is Ebony? With a broad focus, its considered one of the finest, most ornamental woods that money can buy. Most people think of it as a very dense, black wood that could pass as plastic from a distance. When held up close, it’s easier to see grain, and few pores depending on the direction of the cut. It’s used on any type of luxury item you can imagine, from furniture, to clocks, to frames, to carvings, to jewelry, to gun handles, to guitars! Anything that can be made from wood and is made from ebony carries a price premium compared to say Maple, Mahogany, or Rosewood. The stuff polishes up to almost a mirror shine, so seeing it as a fingerboard with some gorgeous inlays looks phenomenal over a basic rosewood and dots board.

You can see the heart and sap wood here. It used to be only the dark heartwood was desirable

Nerd Stuff

Family: Ebenaceae, known as the Ebony Family.
Genus: Diospyros - this genus is responsible for all commercial Ebony.
Species Include: Crassifora, Ebenum, Ebanaceae, Melanoxylon, etc…
Janka Hardness Scale Ratings: 3000 (Pale Mun) to 3690 (Brazilian Ebony)
Height: 30s’ to mid 70s’depending on type, conditions
Circumference: 8 to 10 feet around
Other Names tied to Ebony: Macassar, Gabon, Striped, Black, African, Brazilian, Man, Pale Moon, Ceylon, Mauritius, Myrtle, Queensland.
Rot Resistance: Exceptional. It's durability has only a few rivals.

Ebony is the stuff that got the Gibson Guitar Company raided in 2012, so it must be valuable, right? Right! So valuable that the Missouri Botanical Garden calls the Madagascar wood trade equivalent to Africas Blood Diamonds! - Wikipedia. Even Herodotus, Greek author of the first great narrative history produced in the ancient world, claims the Ethiopians sent 200 logs of Ebony to Persia every 3 years as a tribute. Point being, humans have been hip to this special wood dating back to the 400s. That's insane!

Visually: Mostly known as a Jet Black wood until more recently. Now, we have species from India, Sri Lanka, West Africa, etc that offer a variety of looks. Some of the other species have streaks of varying shades of brown offering very interesting contrasting lines. Pale Moon Ebony is White, Tan, and Khaki colored with interesting black or dark brown spots of grain. Pale Moon is even showing up on Drop-Top guitars left and right these days because it is supremely cool!

Ebony is one of those woods that can look DRASTICALLY different.

Some Jet Black EbonySome more interesting ebony with dramatic color changesDark Ebony but with some brown streaks

Janka Hardness Rating: Pale Mun sports the lowest Janka Rating for Ebony at 3000, which is still 600 points harder than Indian rosewood. The Brazilian Ebony comes in at 3690. There are only a few other woods on Earth as hard as Brazilian Ebony. Because of this, it makes for an exceptional fingerboard material that wears no where near as quickly as maple or rosewood.

Workability: due to its extreme density, it can be hard to work with . It will dull cutting tools and blades much faster than softer woods. It has a rather high oil content so it can make gluing it more difficult than less oily woods. It does finish up well and can polish to a high luster. We see it being used as the back and sides on acoustic guitars but only on

Where it's used: Ebony is most often used as a Fingerboard on both electric and acoustic instruments. It's also used as the bridge material on many acoustic guitars. Some acoustic builders use it as the back and sides on acoustic guitars but it's rather rare and difficult to work with due to the brittle nature of Ebony. The more visually interesting kinds of ebony like Striped and Pale Moon are becoming more popular on Drop-Top Guitars, as well. Nowadays, you can even get knobs, tuning machines keys, bridge pins, etc, made out of the stuff!

This Taylor has a beautiful piece of Macassar Ebony for it's back!

This Taylor has a beautiful Macassar Ebony back!

Where it's going: The Pandemic Era has really jacked up supply the chain but thank to Bob Taylor, the guitar industry seems to have a pretty steady supply. Since Ebony is already used in practically all the areas (aside from the body wood on solid body electrics) it doesn't have a lot of room to expand. Most likely, it's going to end up on more Endangered Species lists sooner than later!

It's beautiful. It also polishes smooth for an unmatched feel. You need a board with this kind of density and hardness to polish up as Ebony does. It's jet black look is contrasted nicely by Mother of Pearl Inlays, Paua Shell, and Abalone so it looks more elegant than Rosewood. A nice white binding also makes Ebony pop even more! It's got fantastic tonal properties, think bright like maple but replacing the maple 'snap' with a smoothness.

It's a brittle wood so doing refrets on it requires experience and a light touch. It's easy to tear out small pieces when pulling frets so it needs to be done with care and will still require some attention to get it looking its best.

Personal Experiences: I have owned many guitars with Ebony Fingerboards. My Gibson Les Paul Custom and an SG Supreme I sold a few years ago being my 2 favorites. I have a partscaster with an Ebony Board as well. The smoothness, lack of visual pores, and uniform black look certainly make a guitar look more elegant. Though, its beauty comes at the price of some extra weight. This wood is hard and dense and that means MORE WEIGHT. If light weight guitars that don't exhibit neck dive are your thing, you may want to steer away from Ebony. I have sourced Ebony from Gilmer Woods before and have never been disappointed with the quality.

This edition of Matt's Blog was penned by the Pale Mun light.

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