The extraordinary strength and deep black colour have made ebony wood often the topic of myths and legends. It has been used to repel evil spirits. Even drink glasses have been made from ebony wood to protect the user from being poisoned.
Various species of ebony trees grow native on dry and intermediate zones in Western Africa, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Southern India and Indonesia. Historically, this exquisite wood was available only to master craftsmen because of the nature of the material and its great expense. The use of it has a long history of use in cabinetwork, decorative items, crucifixes – and in a wide array of musical instruments.
Ebony is one the very few wood species that does not float on water, but sinks to the bottom. It is heavy, dense and has superior bend strength as compared to any other wood species. Ebony finishes extremely smooth and it is very durable. It is the only fingerboard wood that can take decades of wear and tear in violins and other fretless instruments.
Whereas a fretted instrument doesn’t necessarily need a fretboard material so extremely resistant to wear, ebony does have unique qualities that make it a fantastic material for fretboards and certain other guitar parts.
Certain wood species, such as spanish cedar, are extremely responsive and vibrant.
Responsiveness is a great thing, but in certain parts of the guitar – such as neck – it needs to be controlled, too. The fretboard (regardless if it’s made of ebony, rosewood, maple or birch) adds a laminated structure to the length of the neck and makes the neck stiffer.
There is another part in my guitars where ebony serves well. See, the headstock of a guitar vibrates, too. Perhaps you’ve noticed that all my spanish cedar necks have a thick ebony overlay on them. In this particular use, ebony does miracles to even out the resonance peaks of the neck by adding bend strength and density to the headstock. So, the ebony headstock overlay is not there just for aesthetic purposes – it serves an essential structural function.
When compared among our choice of fretboard materials, an ebony fretboard could be described as slightly brighter sounding than rosewood, but not quite as bright as maple or arctic birch.
Check out our online Maintenance Guide for detailed instructions how to clean and maintain your ebony fretboard in good condition.
As a result of unsustainable harvesting, many species yielding ebony have become endangered. Africa, as one example, has had most of its indigenous ebony cut down illegally over the past centuries.
The use of ebony in certain parts of high end musical instruments has proven to be extremely difficult to find a substitute for. The search goes on. We take part to research projects trying to find new, sustainable materials, and use local wood as much as possible in whichever guitar parts it is suitable for.
The true solution to the exploitation of our forests and other natural resources of our planet is obviously to consume less. Changing from one material to another doesn’t help as long as the total amount of consuming keeps on growing. It will be a hard lesson – perhaps one of the hardest ever – for the human kind to learn.
In this regard, I believe our tribe – the individual luthiers, living simple lives, making small numbers of high quality musical instruments to be loved and played by their owners and bringing joy over generations – can show an example.
With careful planning and responsible actions, ebony can remain in our choice of wood options for years to come. We buy tropical wood only from FSC (Forest Stewardship Counsil) certified suppliers, with whom we’ve worked with since the 1990’s.
All the ebony parts of Ruokangas guitars are made of FSC certified African ebony (Diospyros Ebenum). Ebony wood does not yet require CITES documentation, but this is expected to change.
We, among our peers give a warm welcome for this change. Ebony, just as all the other endangered tropical wood species, need protection – and we want to take part in protecting whatever little is left of our beautiful planet.