Wood of the Month:
Macassar Ebony Offers a Touch of Drama

By Jo-Ann Kaiser


FAMILY NAMES
Diospyros celebica or Diospyros macassar of the Family Ebenaceae. The rough translation of Diospyros is "fruit of the gods."

OTHER NAMES
Macassar ebony, Indian ebony, marble wood, coromandel, calamander wood, tendu, temru, tunki, timbruni.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT
Average height is 50 feet. Average weight is 68 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 1.09.

PROPERTIES
Macassar ebony can be difficult to work with hand or machine tools if the material is brittle. Hardness of the wood contributes to blunting of cutting edges. Pre-boring is recommended for nailing. Wood can be difficult to glue, but has a natural luster and finishes extremely well. Timber can be difficult to dry, with slow, careful drying recommended to avoid checking. Experts recommend kiln schedule of T3-C2 for 4/4 stock and T3-C1 for 8/4 stock. Wood should be stored covered to avoid sun damage. Wood has small movement in service.

With a heartwood that is dark brown to black interspersed with contrasting bands of yellow to golden brown, Macassar ebony yields a bold and attractive 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. With that combination, Macassar ebony's uses are often relegated to the decorative, where strength is not a factor.

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 wood is also a good choice for turnery.

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.

Girdling and Drying
Macassar ebony poses problems initially because the lumber is difficult to dry. Trees are routinely girdled at least two years prior to being logged. Girdling involves cutting through the cambium layer around the circumference of a growing tree to terminate its growth before felling. In effect, girdling allows seasoning to begin while the tree is still standing.

The lumber is prone to checking so experts recommend that it be dried slowly and carefully. Sun damage is possible so the wood should be stored in a shady spot. Experts recommend an air drying period of six months after the logs are felled when the logs are in plank form. The wood should be covered during this period. Slow drying avoids problems with checking.

Ebony has an interesting history, filled with myths and legends. "Believed to be an antidote to poison," The Encyclopedia of Wood notes, "ebony was popular with the ancients for use in drinking vessels - such was their perennial agony. The Greek historian Herodotus records that Ethiopia paid an annual tribute of 200 ebony logs to the Persian Empire. Most supplies came from India and Sri Lanka, so it was not readily available in Europe until the 1600s.

"Ebony is a collective trade name given to all species of Diospyros, which have a predominately black heartwood, by contrast to the North American white ebony, also known as persimmon. Macassar ebony from Indonesia is more variegated still."

Macassar ebony is one of some 300 species of shrubs and trees belonging to the genus Diospyros, which thrive in tropical or temperate areas. The American species of ebony, persimmon, thrives in the Southern states.

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.

Musical instruments and parts for instruments - especially points of stress, such as fingerboards and tuning pegs -have long been made of ebony, which joined rosewood as a wood of choice for many instruments and parts. Ebony was an especially good choice for woodwind instruments, although African blackwood now competes with ebony in those uses.

As a carving and turning wood, Macassar ebony is a definite favorite. In addition to being attractive, it is durable, has a fine, even texture and finishes well.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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