What Makes African Ebony So Special?
African ebony comes from the Diospyros crassiflora tree which grows naturally in the rainforests of West and East Africa. It is highly valued for its very hard, dense and close-grained wood that makes it ideal for carving, turning and manufacturing fine furniture. African ebony has a density ranging from 1115 to 1220 kg/m3,making it one of the heaviest and hardest woods available.
More comprehensive information and care guidelines can be read here.
The History of African Ebony
African ebony has been treasured for millennia, first used by ancient Egyptian pharaohs for making coffins and furniture for the afterlife. Ebony objects excavated from tombs dating back to 3000 BC still survive today.
During the Roman era, ebony continued to be imported from Africa and used to make luxury items like furniture, jewelry boxes and musical instruments. Wealthy Romans highly prized ebony for its great beauty and durability.
In the Middle Ages, trade networks developed that connected Africa to Europe and Asia. Ebony became increasingly accessible to medieval craftsmen who used it to make religious statuettes, crosiers and elaborate cabinetry for churches and rulers. Some of the most exquisite pieces during this time were created in Italy and France.
By the 19th century, the strong demand for ebony to make piano keys, clarinets and violin bows depleted forests in West and Central Africa. This led colonial powers like Britain and Germany to develop ebony plantations in countries like Nigeria and Tanzania to ensure a stable supply.
Some Important Dates in the History of African Ebony:
- 3000 BC: Egyptian pharaohs start using ebony
- 27 BC: Roman emperor Augustus receives an ebony table as a gift
- 850 AD: Carolingian monasteries acquire ebony crosses and shrines
- 1820: Industrial-scale production of ebony begins in Africa
The Uses of African Ebony in Various Industries
African ebony has long been prized for manufacturing luxury products due to its beautiful black color, density and fineness of grain. Some of the main industries that rely on African ebony include:
Piano manufacturing: Piano frames, keys and action parts require the strength, stability and fine texture of ebony. A grand piano may contain up to 15 kilograms of ebony.
Musical instruments: The dark color and weight of ebony make it ideal for making clarinet and oboe mouthpieces, as well as violin and cello bows. It gives a rich tone when used for woodwind or brass instrument reeds.
Furniture industry: High quality ebony can be carved,turned and polished to produce exquisite cabinets, tables, chairs and picture frames that will last for generations.
Home décor: Products like tableware, trays, coasters, jewelry boxes and decorative pieces leverage the striking look of African ebony.
Other uses: Smaller volumes of ebony are used for gun and knife handles, software mallets, scientific and precision tools.
As ebony becomes scarce and more expensive, there has been a trend towards mixing it with other less costly woods to reduce costs. However, pure African ebony remains the industry benchmark for the finest products.
Caring for and Maintaining African Ebony Products
Properly caring for and maintaining African ebony products is crucial to maximizing their lifespan and preserving their deep black color over time. Here are some key steps:
Oiling the wood: Regular oiling renews the reserves of natural oils and closes pores in open-grain ebony to prevent moisture absorption. Specialized ebony oil should be applied at least once every 2-3 months.
Dusting: Use a soft damp cloth to wipe away dust from ebony surfaces. Excessive accumulation of dust acts as abrasive that rubs away the wood’s protective finish over time.
Waxing: Apply a thin coat of natural beeswax to ebony furniture once or twice yearly after oiling. The wax fills microscopic holes, seals the wood against moisture and makes it easier to clean.
Avoid direct sunlight: Excessive UV exposure can cause ebony to fade and dry out. Place furniture and musical instruments away from direct sunlight whenever possible.
Handle with care: Due to its density, ebony is susceptible to dents, scratches and cracks if dropped or mishandled. Use coasters under jars and vases.
Avoid extreme conditions: Large changes in temperature and humidity can cause ebony to crack or deform. Keep furniture at consistent room temperature and humidity.
Adopting these simple habits will help keep your African ebony products in superb condition for decades and even centuries. Regular maintenance is the key to preserving the unmatched beauty and charm of this rare African hardwood.