If you want to make an exquisite, high-end product out of wood, you have to use the best, premium material.
Traditionally, ebony and rosewood are two of the most expensive, sought-after types of wood for upmarket projects. However, it can be challenging to decide which one to use. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between the two types of wood, so you know which one is best for your project.
What Is Rosewood?
In this article, when a reference is made to rosewood, it is specifically talking about Brazilian rosewood. This is because there is more than one type available on the market, such as Brazilian, East Indian, and Honduran.
Each type of rosewood tree comes from the same biological family of trees, which is Dalbergia. This gives Brazilian rosewood the scientific name of Dalbergia nigra. The tree is a native of Brazil, where on average it grows up to 130’ high with a trunk thickness of 4’.
Rosewood, and products made from it, have become heavily restricted in recent years due to huge exploitation and illegal logging practices. This material became extremely popular with woodworkers because it looks beautiful, it’s strong, stable, and has great tone for instruments.
What Is Ebony?
It is hard to find a more striking, and expensive, timber than ebony. There are several species of ebony tree that all come from the Diospyros genus. The heartwood is black and very heavy. The color, durability, hardness, and high polish that the wood can take are the main reasons it is so highly sought after.
Ebony is usually at least two times more expensive than rosewood, if not three times. The tree is relatively small, growing on average up to 60’ tall, with a 3’ trunk diameter.
In this article, when referring to ebony, the reference is specifically to Gaboon ebony. This tree also goes by the names African ebony, Nigerian ebony, and Cameroon ebony. Scientifically the tree is called Diospyros crassiflora. As the different names might allude to, the tree is found along the equator in West Africa.
Rosewood vs. Ebony: What Are the Differences?
Understanding the key differences between rosewood and ebony will help you decide which is right for your project.
The Janka hardness score for rosewood is 2,790 lbf, with a crushing strength of 9,740 lbf/in2. Comparatively, ebony has a Janka hardness score of 3,080 lbf and a crushing strength score of 11,060 lbf/in2.
Side by side, these scores show that ebony is considerably stronger. It is well known that this wood is extremely strong, stiff, and dense. However, temperature and humidity fluctuations can cause some issues. Despite not scoring as highly as ebony, rosewood is also an exceptionally hard timber that is stronger than a large majority of other woods on the market.
The appearance of ebony is maybe its biggest appeal, even more than its exceptional strength. The heartwood is jet-black, with very occasional streaks of dark brown or gray. When finished and polished by a skilled craftsman, ebony can get a mirror-like finish.
Rosewood can contain a beautiful mix of colors. The primary color of the heartwood is brown, however, other colors, such as reds, chocolates, purples, and black, can all appear within a board. Alongside this, the sapwood contrasts heavily against the heartwood as it is pale and yellow.
Grain and Texture
Sometimes, rosewood’s grain can be interlocked, or even wavy. However, the majority of the time, it is straight and uniform. This wood can also have a unique feature called either ‘landscape’ or ‘spider-webbing’, where black streaks create patterns in the grain.
Comparatively, ebony grain is also straight with occasional interlocking. The grain is very fine, even, and close. The closeness of the grain is one of the characteristics that makes ebony polish very well and come up with a high sheen. On particularly dark boards, the grain can be barely visible.
Ebony is not the easiest timber to work with because of how hard and dense it is. Blades can get blunted quickly when cutting the wood’s fibers. Alongside this, if the grain direction changes in interlocked areas, tear-out can occur. This is particularly emphasized when the grain is difficult to see.
The wood has a particularly high natural oil content and caution must be taken during glue-ups. As already mentioned, ebony takes a finish exceptionally well. There are some instances, however, where ebony causes quite severe allergic reactions. Some of the most frequent reactions to this material are eye, skin, and breathing problems.
Comparatively, rosewood works very nicely with both hand and power tools, despite its hardness. Like ebony, blades will get blunted quickly and must be regularly sharpened. This wood can also be transformed into beautifully turned objects. Finishes take well to properly prepared surfaces, however, oil can cause some issues with the glue setting.
Working with ethically sourced materials is vital to make sure wood resources are preserved for the future. Unfortunately, both rosewood and ebony are under restriction and must be worked on within the laws.
Ebony is on the IUCN Red List and the CITES Appendix II. The tree is classed as endangered because, over the last three generations, it has experienced a decline of more than 50% in the population.
Rosewood is also a heavily restricted timber and is on the more severe CITES Appendix I, as well as the IUCN Red List. Over the last three generations, exploitation and habitat loss have caused the population to reduce by more than 20%.
When to Use Rosewood Wood?
Rosewood can be used for a lot of different projects. However, because of its cost and stock levels, it is reserved for higher-end projects. Some of the most common uses for rosewood are cabinets, veneers, ornaments, furniture, and instruments.
When to Use Ebony Wood?
Like rosewood, ebony is reserved for only the most luxurious jobs. However, in the past, it has been used for many different purposes. Most frequently, ebony will become piano keys, pool cues, violin fingerboards, and ornaments.
Alternatives to Rosewood and Ebony
These two trees are heavily restricted and are endangered. Because of this, we should try to find alternative resources wherever possible. Below are some different wood species to consider instead of rosewood or ebony.
Walnut is another exceptionally nice timber that gives off an air of sophistication, works well, and will polish to a high sheen. Stocks of walnut are also considerably higher than ebony and rosewood.
Cherry is a close-grained hardwood, with reddish hues. These trees are not endangered at all, the timber is a pleasure to work with, and the results can be exquisite.
Rosewood and ebony are exceptional materials. They are strong, beautiful, and long-lasting. However, as woodworkers, we have a responsibility to preserve natural resources and not exploit them into extinction. If possible, alternatives to ebony and rosewood should be sought out. If ethical sources of the timbers can be found, they should be used with the utmost respect.