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With a heartwood that is dark brown to black interspersed with contrasting bands of yellow to golden brown, Macassar ebony yields a bold look by offsetting the darkest of the dark woods with a variety of color.
However, good looks are sometimes Macassar ebony’s strongest suit. The wood, while very hard, dense and heavy, can be extremely brittle at its heart.
The wood is rare in veneer form because the trees usually are not tall. Defects aside, Macassar ebony is a prized wood. Its uses include high-end cabinetry, inlay work, musical instruments, billiard cues and other specialty items like jewelry boxes and walking sticks. Its sapwood, which is not brittle, is used to make tool handles.
The trees are native to the Celebes Islands, which are also called the Sulawesi Islands of the East Indies. It is also found in Maluku and Borneo, known as the Greater Sunda Islands of Indonesia.
The name Macassar is most likely from the famous Macassar seaport on the islands. Some retailers have used the term Macassar ebony for any ebony that has a high contrast of light and dark streaks, although most people today limit the term to the species Diospyros celebica.
Challenges and Rewards
Most forms of ebony offer challenges to users due to the innate hardness of the material. Early on, the wood was sliced for veneer and glued to oak or pine, which was not only cheaper but easier to work. The process of veneering was common in France, where woodworkers were credited with perfecting early veneering techniques with ebony for furniture and cabinetry. In France, cabinetmaking was called “ebenisterie” and the French name for a cabinetmaker is “ebeniste.”
Ebonizing, a common woodworking term, refers to the staining and treatment of lighter-colored woods to produce the look of ebony. “There was a time when Victorian interior decorators would ebonize everything from chair frames to door cases, but the method continues today, in a more perfect form, in the finishing of the cases of grand pianos,” the Encyclopedia of Wood notes.
As a carving and turning wood, Macassar ebony is a favorite. It is durable, has a fine, even texture and finishes well.