Having trouble with an "ebonized" finish

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Forum topic by Ben posted 10-07-2021 12:37 AM 447 views 0 times favorited 16 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Ben's profile


507 posts in 4142 days

10-07-2021 12:37 AM

I’m finishing up a dresser commission that called for an ebonized finish.

I used first a black dye (alcohol based), followed by a black stain, and am now applying wipe-on poly. The sample piece looked fantastic and perfect after the stain.
Parts of the project look good but the top looks like crap and I can’t figure
out what’s going on. I already scraped/sanded out the top and started over from scratch once.
The top is a three piece glue up with different grain patterns and also come curly figure, which adds to the complexity and the different wood pieces seem to take the dye and stain differently. The sides and bottom of the dresser look great to my eye.

I can’t tell if the problem with the top is in the surface prep, the dye level, the stain or the poly, or some combination. The dye dries almost instantly making it very hard to feather out on the large area, and it can look slightly blotchy, but that seems to be minimized with the stain.

The piece has large proud box joints which really made sanding and scraping the top challenging. The orbital sander left a lot of swirls, so I card scraped the hell out of it, but the scraper was leaving marks seen under raking light. So I hand sanded with 220. That seemed OK. What I might be seeing now are the scratches left from hand sanding 320 grit after the first coat of poly.

Just not sure what to do. The black seems incredibly unforgiving and I have very poor light conditions for finishing.

Thanks for any tips or suggestions.

16 replies so far

View Aj2's profile


4135 posts in 3083 days

#1 posted 10-07-2021 01:21 AM

Black is the most difficult finish to get right. Even Gabon ebony from the jungle in Africa is difficult if it’s anything bigger then a knob or tote.
So good luck

-- Aj

View EarlS's profile


4805 posts in 3633 days

#2 posted 10-07-2021 05:19 PM

Ben – try making an ebonizing solution from steel wool and vinegar. You can also brew some really strong tea. Sand to 150 grit, apply the tea (tanins) and let dry. Re-apply the tea a couple times, then use the iron acetate solution (iron and vinegar make iron acetate). The iron acetate turns the tanins BLACK. The more tanins, the darker the finish. Plus, it should also darken the wood deeper than the typical surface stains. Lightly sand out the nubs and finish.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View JackDuren's profile


1746 posts in 2244 days

#3 posted 10-07-2021 06:03 PM

I spray mine. Once applied I spray qa seal coat…

View Lazyman's profile


8230 posts in 2672 days

#4 posted 10-07-2021 06:15 PM

What kind of wood are you using? Are you trying to get jet black? How does it look before you apply the top coat?

One thing about the alcohol dye is that you can keep adding until you get it black but if you are trying for “less black” that sort of dye may not be the right kind to use for a uniform color. I’ve had good luck with the iron acetate that Earl is recommending but the type of wood will determine if that is will work well and the 3 different grain types in the glue up could be problematic for a uniform look. I would probably look at a black gel stain.

Note that it is possible that you are burnishing the surface with your scraping and fine grit sanding and with the different grain in the 3 pieces it may be affecting how the dye is soaking in. Generally, a lower grit is needed when applying stain so that it goes deep enough into the grain. In fact, after scraping, it is sometimes necessary to sand to improve uptake.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View wildwoodbybrianjohns's profile


2848 posts in 832 days

#5 posted 10-07-2021 06:20 PM

Some photos would be a plus here. (Nathan beat my comment by a second) >>> You didnt mention what type of wood you used.

From my experience, high-quality india ink is the best for ebonizing, Typically, india ink will have some shellac content, so the color wont get “pulled” by subsequent layers of finish.

-- WWBBJ: It is better to be interesting and wrong, than boring and right.

View SMP's profile


4960 posts in 1190 days

#6 posted 10-07-2021 06:40 PM

The best luck I have had with true ebonizing is with white oak and walnut. Otherwise you are better off just painting if you want black. And curly/figured woods will do what they do. So you may be fighting against the point of what you are trying to do/nature.

View Peteybadboy's profile


4153 posts in 3234 days

#7 posted 10-07-2021 07:47 PM

I use transtint black, full strength, then top coat with General Finishes black wipe on poly. Works great for me.

-- Petey

View dale3n8's profile


1 post in 55 days

#8 posted 10-07-2021 09:07 PM

Having issues with something I am working on also at the moment. I later discovered that minwax makes a sealer to use after taking down to bare wood, etc, before you stain, it helps even out the the way it takes stain lessening the effect of different woods, areas absorbing at different rates, might check out youtube, the demonstrate and show you with before an after, with and without the sealer. Wish I had known about it first. Good Luck!

View Ben's profile


507 posts in 4142 days

#9 posted 10-07-2021 09:59 PM

Thanks for all the replies. I’ll post some pics when it’s done.
I stripped down the top to bare wood for the third time this morning. Carefully preparing new edges on my card scrapers and Veritas cabinet scraper, I went to town on it. Then I used my small Festool, smaller stroke ROS on 220 grit, while holding a bright LED along the edge. Went very slowly.
Have never been so thorough in preparing a surface.

So, I applied the Behlen’s jet black dye, then the stain. Wiped it off about 15 minutes later. It looks great. The only thing I can see is that the rag is leaving directional “tracks” which I sure hope goes away once the stain dries. I used the best old fine cotton pillowcase I could find, so I don’t know how else I could have done this.

The proud finger joints really throw a monkey in the wrench, having to stop the wipe and go cross grain and around and between the fingers. Hard to get a uniform wipe.

Ah well. At this point, it is what it is.

View Foghorn's profile


1352 posts in 671 days

#10 posted 10-08-2021 03:43 PM

Feibings leather dye works great for ebonizing Gabon and other ebonies. I’ve used it a number of times for guitar fretboards. Not sure how it would work on lighter colored woods but I’m thinking it would be at least as good as anything else.

-- Darrel

View EarlS's profile


4805 posts in 3633 days

#11 posted 10-08-2021 04:05 PM

Ben – let it dry for an hour or so and come back with a clean rag and buff the stain. It should take off the excess (tracks). Then, get a rag with just a little stain in it but not enough to leave tracks, almost dry, and go over the top again. I use cotton tee shirt material that you can get in a bag-o-rags. This should remove the tracks (high spots) in the stain. Let it dry for a couple days at least. Follow up with a couple light coats of sealer. Hopefully the sealer won’t cause the stain to bleed out of the wood. I’d suggest spray, but if the stain bleeds you wind up with little blobs (dots) of stain and you have to start over.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Aj2's profile


4135 posts in 3083 days

#12 posted 10-08-2021 04:29 PM

Shop light can be unforgiving. When the dresser is in the house it might look really great under minimal lights.
Or it could be worse if there’s some low raking natural light.
I stay away from all ebony black finishes
Good Luck

-- Aj

View MPython's profile


398 posts in 1097 days

#13 posted 10-09-2021 02:05 PM

Try india ink. It gives a more consistent black on most woods than dyes or stains, and it does not mask the grain. It’s cheap at most art supply stores.

View Mattew123's profile


33 posts in 150 days

#14 posted 10-11-2021 03:08 PM

Black is the most difficult finish to get right. Even Gabon ebony from the jungle in Africa is difficult if it’s anything bigger then a knob or tote.
So good luck

- Aj2

I agree. I tried it once and failed, unfortunately.

View Ben's profile


507 posts in 4142 days

#15 posted 10-11-2021 03:20 PM

Yes, I am close to burning the dresser and walking away from it.
Even wiping the stain off seems to leave marks with the rag.

showing 1 through 15 of 16 replies

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