It takes anywhere between 60 and 200 years for an ebony tree to be ready for harvesting. Then, only one in ten trees meet the requirements of the “black core” that ebony is so well-known for and to make musical instruments. The rest of the trees are left to rot.
Such is the sad story of the ebony tree. No wonder, ebony wood almost became extinct. Today, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has stepped in to protect Madagascan ebony.
But the process of reviving this valuable resource is slow, given the slow growth rate of this tree and the sporadic poaching that continues. What do we do in the meanwhile? The responsible thing to do would be to identify ebony alternatives.
No wood can match the perfect jet-black color of ebony. But for all those years of exploitation, we need to pay the price. We have to compromise. Some wood species come close to ebony and can serve as adequate alternatives. Here are a few of the best ebony alternatives that come to mind:
Katalox (Swartzia cubensis) also goes by the name Mexican Royal Ebony. It grows in Southern Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. The trees grow to a height of 130 feet. The wood is extremely hard with a Janka hardness of 3,660.
The wood is dark reddish-brown, almost black and often has a purplish hue. The sapwood is pale yellow. The wood grain has a straight orientation but then it also has some interlocking intermittently with small irregularities. The grain has an even, fine texture with a natural luster.
Katalox is normally fairly durable and highly resistant to rot and termites, but it is prone to attack from marine borers. You will find it difficult to work on this wood on account of its high density, and it also has a blunting effect on cutters and blades. Tearout tends to occur in the locations where the wood grain interlocks.
Gluing can be difficult because of the high density and natural oil content of the wood. Katalox emits a slight odor on being cut. It isn’t available in all shapes and sizes and the wood has a moderate to high price.
Katalox is not on the list of endangered species of wood. We use it for making fine furniture, parquet flooring, cabinets, turned and small specialty wooden items. Although Katalox resembles ebony, it is not related to that coveted wood, ebony. However, it makes a viable alternative to ebony due to similar properties.
Black Palm (Borassus flabellifer) grows in tropical Asia and Africa. The trees grow up to 100 feet in height and the wood is quite hard with a Janka hardness of 2,020. The wood gives the appearance of light-brown wood with embedded. Like with ebony, the true hardness of the wood comes from the center core.
The texture of black palm is medium to fine but not uniform due to disparity. The wood has a straight grain and you will not find any knots, defects or growth rings. The wood is resistant to decay but does not withstand insect attack.
It is a difficult wood to work with both hand tools and machines. The wood tends to be brittle which gives rise to a high tendency to chip and splinter. So, ensure that your cutting tools are sharp at all times. The wood doesn’t give off any odor.
Black palm comes at a moderate price and is easily available. We use black palm to make furniture, flooring, walking sticks, boats, rafters, knife and tool handles and turned objects.
Ipe (Handroanthus spp.) also goes by the names Brazilian walnut and Lapacho. It is a native of Central and South America and is farmed commercially. The trees grow up to 130 feet and the wood is extremely hard with a Janka hardness of 3,510.
The wood varies from reddish-brown to olive-brown through to blackish-brown, with dark stripes. The texture of Ipe is fine ad the grain comes alternatively straight and interlocked. The wood is extremely durable and has good resistance to insect except for marine borers. The boardwalk along Coney Island beach in New York City was made of Ipe and lasted for 25 years.
Ipe wood is not easy to work with due to its hardness and also has a blunting effect on blades. You need to take care of tearout in areas where the grain is interlocked and it is difficult to glue and polish as well. Generally, you need some prior experience to work on Ipe wood.
Ipe has a mild odor when cut. It is not on the endangered list of wood species and it is moderately-priced and widely available.
Purple heart (Peltogyne spp.) also goes by the name Amaranth. It grows in Central and South America and the trees grow to a height of 170 feet. The wood is extremely hard with a Janka hardness of 2,520. It is grayish-purplish brown when freshly cut but on exposure to the light, it gradually becomes a deep eggplant purple.
The wood grain of purpleheart is straight but some wavy irregularities can occur. The wood has a medium texture with a natural luster. This wood is durable and resists insect attack but it cannot survive against marine borers.
Purpleheart needs some special talents to work with. If the cutting blades get overheated, then they can get clogged with natural resin secreted by the wood. Tearout is also another potential hazard of purpleheart and cutting blades get dulled easily.
Purpleheart is not on the endangered list, is easily available and comes at a reasonable price. We use it for making furniture, inlays, flooring, and heavy construction.
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) grows in the Eastern United States. The trees grow as high as 120 feet and the wood is relatively soft with a Janka hardness of 1,010. It comes as pale brown to chocolate brown with streaks darker than the background. You can also ger figured grain patterns.
It has a straight grain which can sometimes be irregular with a medium texture and a natural luster. The wood is very durable but susceptible to insect attack. It Is an easy wood to work with if the grain is straight, but tearout can occur in places of irregular grain. The wood glues, stains and finishes well and even gives a good response to steam bending. It emits a mild odor while cutting it.
Black walnut is widely available and reasonably priced. It is not an endangered wood species. We use black walnut for making furniture, gunstocks, interior paneling, cabinetry and small wooden objects and novelties.
Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano) grows in South Texas and Eastern Mexico. The trees grow up to 30 feet in height. The wood is quite hard with a Janka hardness of 2,820. It is dark reddish sometimes purplish to almost black.
The wood grain is a bit erratic, but the texture is nice and uniform with a natural luster. Texas ebony is extremely resistant due to rot. It turns beautifully and you can get a highly polished surface. The wood does not have any odor.
Texas ebony has not been commercially exploited, so you would have to move around looking for small pieces of this fine wood. The price of this wood is understandably quite high. It is a sustainable wood and not listed as endangered.
We use Texas ebony to make small wooden objects like knife handles, miniature furniture and small wooden turned objects.
Bog oak is not a type of wood that you can cultivate. It is oak that has been buried in a peat bog for hundreds or even thousands of years. The conditions of low oxygen levels prevented the wood from decaying. The acidic secretions of the peat in the presence of iron salts combined with the tannins in the wood helped create a dark, hard wood.
Although it has the name “oak” other types of wood also make up bog oak. Due to its restricted distribution in the United Kingdom, bog oak comes at an extremely high price.
With so many non-ebony alternatives, there is a good case for using them in woodworking projects that previously used ebony. Especially in musical instruments, which sound so good with ebony parts. But there is much experimentation going in with ebony alternatives.
We need to be responsible and change the way we do things. Change need be a bad thing – it can usher in improvement if we execute it in the right manner. Be responsible and use ebony alternatives!