View Full Version : black wood for carving

Carlos Alden
04-07-2009, 3:36 PM
Oh boy, I get to start a thread!

I've been commissioned to do a bas relief carving, a third of a series (done the other two, he likes them and wants a third.) He wants this one in black, black, black wood. Cost not important.

I know that ebony, besides being harder to get these days in true black wood, is difficult to carve, being splintery and just plain tough.

I suggested simply dying a finished basswood carving, but my patron is clear that he wants it to be a deep and rich black that is part of the wood and not dyed. I think he'd be okay with a dark brown wood that is augmented with black dye.

I would appreciate any suggestions on getting a very dark and black wood that is carveable.

thanks in advance,

Ted Calver
04-07-2009, 6:25 PM
I saw some african blackwood planks on Gilmerwood dot com recently. Don't know how it carves though.

David Keller NC
04-10-2009, 10:08 AM
Carlos - As someone that's carved ebony and various rosewoods, I can tell you what not to try - African blackwood is so hard that it will generally break any steel tool other than a file or a power carbide bit.

Most rosewood is similarly incredibly difficult to carve (African Blackwood's technically a rosewood).

You can carve ebony, and you can get big blocks of it from Tropical Latin American Hardwoods in San Diego. Prepare your customer for a shock - ebony is one of the most expensive hardwoods by species in the world.

However, what I'd say about ebony carving is that it will be a long, very laborious process. It's not as hard as glass (that would be the rosewoods), but it is about as hard as concrete.

So, for alternatives you mentioned dark brown woods augumented with a black stain. The first woods that come to mind that are far easier to carve than the above are walnut and mahogany. Mahogany will continue to darken upon light exposure, while walnut will fade somewhat.

If you want a truly black wood, you might try to see if you can find some English Bog Oak. I've seen this carved before, though I've not personally used it. Ian Norbury (quite a famous carver) incorporates it into many of his carvings.

Thomas Knapp
04-10-2009, 12:00 PM
Some of the wood turners I know use Higgins India ink to dye wood black. They say it takes several applications to make it pure black. It still lets the grain show through and it is permanent since the colorant is carbon black. Maybe you can do some simple samples of the options for your client. Then they can pick what they want based on cost and appearance. If you soak some rusty nails in vinegar for a day or more the liquid will turn wood with a high tannin content black. Here again repeated applications will yield darker wood.

george wilson
04-10-2009, 10:13 PM
Ebony is abrasive to cutting tools,and brittle. Blackwood was preferred in the 19th.C. for turning.Not as hard on the tools as ebony. I have never found any rosewood as hard as ebony,and I have 1000 # of Brazilian rosewood. I have some blackwood that cannot be planed in either direction by hand. Probably has to be scraped,or use a high angle bevel. Should carve o.k.,though. It is hard,but is carvable.

David Keller NC
04-11-2009, 9:30 AM
"I have never found any rosewood as hard as ebony,and I have 1000 # of Brazilian rosewood."

George, While I don't doubt you, remember that no one under the age of 50 has generally ever worked Brazilian Rosewood. What's available to us (and what what I was basing the post on) is the rosewoods commonly available today - Dalbergia species from Mexico, Central America, Asia, and in some cases, Africa. It would certainly make sense that Brazilian rosewood would be fairly easy to work - British planemakers would not have used it almost exclusively for infill planes before WWII if it was exceptionally difficult.

I can assure you beyond all doubt that cocobolo and Honduran Rosewood are very much harder to work than Gabon Ebony (and nearly impossible to work with carving tools).

Carlos Alden
04-14-2009, 10:10 AM
Thanks for the responses and suggestions. I have worked with rosewood and ebony before (musical instruments) and wanted to avoid them if possible, knowing how splintery they can be (especially ebony.)

I'm getting several potential woods (thanks to the suggestions here) - mahogany, oak, and walnut - and doing some quick relief carving then dyeing. I have some alcohol based dye that really gets in the wood, and doesn't raise the grain so it'll be good for a finished piece. I'm also going to try Thomas' idea of rusty nails in vinegar. That sounds like it might make for a very natural looking darkening.

I'll post back with some results.


David Keller NC
04-14-2009, 10:17 AM
Carlos - One other thought. If you're going to use oak, then it has enough tannins in it so that Ammonia fuming will render it very dark (assuming you use 30% ammonium hydroxide and leave it in the fumes for 12 hours or more). One advantage to this with respect to your customer's wishes is that the color induced by the fuming will go quite deep into the wood - at least 1/4" or more, depending on exposure.

Clara Koss
04-14-2009, 3:48 PM
rusty nails and vinegar!!!! cant wait to see your posted photos... good luck!!!!:D

george wilson
04-15-2009, 9:58 PM
I made an extremely black dye for my musical instrument maker film by mixing oak gall powder with chips of iron and vinegar. I think that oak sawdust would have sufficient tannin if you can't get oak gall powder. Behlen used to sell it,but may not now.

This was an original formula used in the 18th.C.,which is why I used it. It was used to dye the pearwood sharps,and the whole front end of the sharp keys black,just as was done on the original spinet we used as a model,a Stephen Keene from 1699.

Carlos Alden
04-19-2009, 1:21 PM
I did a couple of test carvings in mahogany and walnut and test-stained them using some of the suggested ideas. I made a soup using half vinegar and half water, threw in some rusty nails as well as some new nails, and tossed in a small block of oak with some oak filings. Figured I'd use everything at once! I also used alcohol based black dye.

First picture is the rough carvings on the two different woods. Next picture is the stain soup I made. Next shot is of the alcohol, dye, and stain soup. Next shot is the stained but not finished pieces (sorry for the poor pic quality.) The top dark band is the stain soup, the bottom dark is the black dye, and the middle is unstained. It's interesting- the stain soup went on just looking wet, but turned the wood dark in about 20 minutes. The last picture is the pieces with a tung oil finish, my finish of choice for carvings.

Results: I think that using the walnut with the stain soup gave me very good results for a carving looking like it came from black wood. In the last picture that is the top section of the piece on the right. This is what I'm going to pitch to my client. The walnut was harder than the mahogany but less splintery to carve, and I really like the finished surface, especially with the stain.


Thomas Knapp
04-19-2009, 4:11 PM

It's interesting- the stain soup went on just looking wet, but turned the wood dark in about 20 minutes.


That is normal for that coloring technique. The vinegar and iron solution reacts with the tannin in the wood, and that takes a few minutes. It only works on woods with tannin in them. I've heard heard you can paint strong tea on woods that don't have enough tannin in them, and then use the vinegar solution, but I have not tried that myself. I do like the Walnut sample It shows more of the character of the underlying wood. How about a picture of the finished project, when it is done?

"Tim Quinn"
04-19-2009, 5:04 PM
The vinegar and nails solution will turn oak as black as night with a few applications. I have never tried it on walnut.

george wilson
05-10-2009, 5:59 PM
We used our vinegar/oak gall/iron filing dye on basswood spinet keys,and on pearwood sharps in the film I mentioned above. It worked just fine. Stained both woods completely black.

David Keller NC
05-11-2009, 10:30 AM
Carlos - You may have already determined your exact route based on the post dates (about 3 weeks ago), but if not, there's an excellent article on ebonizing wood from someone that really knows his stuff in the latest issue of Popular Woodworking (June) by Brian Boggs. It's well worth reading - he goes through some of the "works well" and "doesn't work so well" aspects of using the ferrous tannate process.

It's probably worth buying the issue anyway - it's one of the best single issues I've seen of any woodworking magazine in the last several years. Of particular interest to carvers is Peter Follansbee's article on carved 17th century panels.

Carlos Alden
05-11-2009, 11:15 AM

Thanks for the tip. I'll look for the article.

Since I did my test pieces I stumbled on Brazilian Walnut, which is a very dark and rich gray-brown, which I think will work well as the base wood for this project. I carved a birthday present for my Mother :) out of this, and it was dark enough that I didn't put any finish on it, otherwise the image and lettering would have been hard to read (I did a test piece.)

Here is a pic of the piece, and even with the soft lighting (and thus open aperture) you can see it is gray-brown and dark. Compare it with an oiled mahogany piece, which is much richer and browner and lighter in color, but still darker than anything in basswood.


David Keller NC
05-11-2009, 1:40 PM
Carlos - In the photo, the brazilian walnut actually looks quite a bit lighter than the stuff I've seen in the local retail shop. I've never carved it, though, because I figured it'd be really hard - was that your experience?

Regarding the magazines, the latest issue of Woodwork also has a real departure - there's an extensive article by Peter Follansbee on making a riven-oak carved "bible box". It has some similarities to the Pop Woodworking article, but both are worth having.

Carlos Alden
05-30-2009, 2:19 PM
Hey all:

Thanks again for the suggestions and ideas. Here are some pictures of the finished piece, and a brief description of the conceptual origins of this set.

The first picture is of a carving I did when I was teaching myself to carve, back in 1993 or 94. I wanted some dynamic tension, so I drew up some figures in motion, doing something, with some kind of emotional component. My friend really liked it so I gave it to him. About three months ago he told me that that carving held all kinds of personal meaning for him, and he had it in his study, and that he had an idea for a trio of carvings based on it. He conceptualized a second image of the Egyptian God Horus bringing the world into being, and saw fish as part of the picture. I designed and carved the piece in the second picture.

Then he explained to me that the first image is life on earth - endless toil, that we are caught up in earthly, daily tasks. The second image is the spiritual potential we all have, the notion of Godlike perfection, what we are capable of reaching. So the last picture he wanted was a frightful, repellent image of the subconscious, the primitive and crude emotions and powers that lay behind much of who we are. (This guy is very spiritual and thinks about a lot of these things. He's a counselor and Tarot Card reader, and a few years ago came very close to death with a massive heart attack.)

So he envisioned a black, black, black primitive face, similar to but not exactly like an African mask. That's the third picture.

The next picture is the Brazilian Walnut, unebonized carving, still in progress. You can see the difference here between the raw wood then the ebonized/oiled finished piece.

The last picture is the trio as it's meant to be seen together.

I loved working with interpreting someone else's ideas, and greatly appreciated getting suggestions from this forum.


Dell Moore
05-30-2009, 10:03 PM
So, you basically made a poor mans metalized acid dye!

I saw David Marks of WoodWorks fame do that a couple times. You can buy actual metalized acid dyes if your mix does not work. Your client would never know the difference unless he cut the wood.

Carlos Alden
05-31-2009, 9:48 AM
So, you basically made a poor mans metalized acid dye!.


I didn't know it had an actual name. Thanks! However, I must say that my solution works really well. It was purely an experiment - I threw in some vinegar and water, some rusty nails, and to make sure I had some tannin in there, (on a guess,) I threw in some oak sawdust and a chunk of oak. Let it sit and brew and get real funky. So far this stuff has worked. Hmm, I ought to try it on as many different woods as possible.