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View Full Version : Working with Ebony: Are we having fun yet? Not!



sequoia
07-06-2016, 08:08 PM
I don't have a lot of experience working with ebony. I do know that it is the hardest wood on the planet. Just for the fun of it I bought a piece of the real stuff from Gaboon to make a fretboard. Hey, what the hell? Let's have some fun. Not! Now, I don't really think an uke needs an ebony fretboard other than for looks. Maybe yes for a total professional that plays their instrument many hours day, day in and day out, but otherwise rosewood fretboards are just fine. Maybe Jake needs an ebony fretboard.

This stuff just ate my lunch. Not only did it dull my tools unmercifully, but when I tried to fret it, I encountered a small nightmare. The problem was that the frets tended to roll when seating with nasty unpleasant effects. Plus, I had to pull a few failed frets and guess what happened? This stuff splinters like you would not believe. Never again!

Still, it looks cool and I finally got the thing fretted. I'm going to leave the grain. No more ebony fretboards here. Not worth it.

92412

dofthesea
07-07-2016, 05:24 AM
Might want to try filing an ever so slight "V" on the frets it helps with both issues. A lot easier to seat the frets and with the removal and splintering.

saltytri
07-07-2016, 06:06 AM
Might want to try filing an ever so slight "V" on the frets it helps with both issues. A lot easier to seat the frets and with the removal and splintering.

I keep a small triangle file with my fretting tools just for this purpose. Better yet, I use a slightly wider slot saw for ebony and other very hard woods. The standard width for fretting is .023", which works well for most other woods. A .025" blade is just the ticket for ebony and a few other, hard species. The StewMac frets that I use seat just fine in the wider slot. In this case, glue is an important part of the process for the reason that DennisK mentioned below: the tangs aren't going to bite into the wood very much, if at all. Thanks to Dennis for his input.

The frustrations described by the OP sound very familiar, as I've had all those problems and more. The particular routine that it takes to do an ebony board does have a real reward, as ebony (and many other hard woods) can make beautiful boards that that play well and are very durable.

Wildestcat
07-07-2016, 07:39 AM
+1 for putting a slight V in the top of the fret slot. I use a miniature square swiss file rather than triangular, but the effect is the same.

Allen
07-07-2016, 11:09 AM
Don't even think of using any of the Australian hardwoods if you think ebony is hard and difficult then. :-)

Always relieve the fret slot with either a triangular file or I use a pointed reamer that has 4 sharp edges instead of a round. Two scratches up the fret slot and the edge of the reamer acts like a scrapper.

DennisK
07-07-2016, 11:25 AM
I keep a small triangle file with my fretting tools just for this purpose. Better yet, I use a slightly wider slot saw for ebony and other very hard woods. The standard width for fretting is .023", which works well for most other woods. A .025" blade is just the ticket for ebony and a few other, hard species. The StewMac frets that I use seat just fine in the wider slot.
Yeah, StewMac uke wire has a .023" tang, so the barbs have to be entirely embedded in the wood with a standard size slot... not gonna happen with ebony.

And if you think ebony is a pain to work, steer clear of African blackwood. It's even harder, dulls tools even faster, plus it gums up abrasives. Apparently the solution is to use harder steel like O1, but I don't have any... Scrapers also work well, but you do have to sharpen frequently.

pointpergame
07-07-2016, 02:21 PM
An amusing account of your Ebony encounters. Rosewood isn't going to be much better. Or really hard maple for that matter.


Y...Apparently the solution is to use harder steel like O1... Scrapers also work well, but you do have to sharpen frequently.


Not necessarily. Harder = brittler = totally reconditioning a blade when it chips. Avoiding chipping means you only have to resharpen, not regrind.
It's all a trade-off. The best solution for ebony is really, no-foolin' sharpness. And before that, finding the hardness that gives you the sharpening duty cycle you can live with. If you have to stop once or twice in an hour to retouch an edge, that's just the price you have to pay. On something like a set of dovetailed drawers I like the slightly milder high-carbon chisels. I'm going to HAVE to touch them up a few times no matter what. The more exotic steels just take more time to retouch, to the point that I'm itching to get back to the project rather than sweating over the sharpening bench.

Ebony's hell on X-acto blades but with high-quality, thoughtfully-considered steel it planes beautifully, drills like a dream, and in my experience, it saws like nothing else, leaving a razor-sharp, crisp cut. If your fret saw is dull after cutting 10 to 20 fret slots, it might be time to upgrade your fret saw. I can't remember the last time I sharpened my chief fret saw, maybe fifteen or twenty fretboards ago? Well...had it sharpened by a professional. Even though scrapers take about a minute to re-sharpen, if putting a perfect finish on a fretboard is dulling a scraper, maybe something is amiss there.

Give it another chance. Ebony has redeeming qualities. Those super sharp-rimmed holes are the very reason you'd prefer to make a flute out of Ebony, for example. One or two easy scrapes and you don't need abrasives. One or two passes at the shooting board and you can get an edge that's so precise you can use it for a drafting ruler and it will stay like that for a couple decades. Buff it up just a little...doesn't that look fantastic?

BlackBearUkes
07-07-2016, 03:22 PM
On all ebony fret boards, I remove most of the barbs on each side of the fret tang, they go in much easier and do stay put. Also, is you have to remove the fret, with the barbs gone the fret comes out no sweat and doesn't chip the slot.

DennisK
07-07-2016, 05:17 PM
Not necessarily. Harder = brittler = totally reconditioning a blade when it chips. Avoiding chipping means you only have to resharpen, not regrind.
It's all a trade-off. The best solution for ebony is really, no-foolin' sharpness. And before that, finding the hardness that gives you the sharpening duty cycle you can live with. If you have to stop once or twice in an hour to retouch an edge, that's just the price you have to pay. On something like a set of dovetailed drawers I like the slightly milder high-carbon chisels. I'm going to HAVE to touch them up a few times no matter what. The more exotic steels just take more time to retouch, to the point that I'm itching to get back to the project rather than sweating over the sharpening bench.
Of course half an hour between sharpening is fine... I'm talking half a minute or less before the super sharpness has degraded to sort of sharp, which doesn't cut it for super hard woods. And I've used the same plane blade to thickness Malaysian ebony back/sides for long sessions without resharpening, so it's definitely not bad quality steel. Just the African blackwood eats it in no time. But someone on another forum once said that ABW planes beautifully, so I asked him what kind of steel his blade was, and he said O1, so I definitely need to give it a try sometime.

tparse
07-07-2016, 10:43 PM
I'm not sure why you are having these problems. I have never used anything but ebony on a fretboard. I do use a burnisher to open the fret slot a little and will help with a future refret job. As far as roll over when installing... that will only happen if you do not push or hammer it in straight. I saw all of my fret boards out of larger stock and it cuts fine. The only downside to ebony is that it is getting hard to find really nice pieces.

Graham Long
07-07-2016, 11:27 PM
I've just made a couple of Mandolins with Ebony Fretboards, and had the same issues, rolling frets, chipped fretboard.
To make it worse the fretboards were bound with shell purfling.
I actually tossed two fretboards, just too many issues.

While I think of it, I got a pair of tang removers for normal size fret wire, but they don't work of mandolin wire. I had to grind and file of the tang, what a prick of a job. Can you get tang removers for mandolin fret wire?

Timbuck
07-07-2016, 11:32 PM
I'm not sure why you are having these problems. I have never used anything but ebony on a fretboard. I do use a burnisher to open the fret slot a little and will help with a future refret job. As far as roll over when installing... that will only happen if you do not push or hammer it in straight. I saw all of my fret boards out of larger stock and it cuts fine. The only downside to ebony is that it is getting hard to find really nice pieces. Ditto..I dont have problems with it either...apart from heat bending it.

Graham Long
07-08-2016, 12:27 AM
Maybe we are using different species of ebony, because the stuff I've been using bends easily. I used it for bindings on the same instruments.92434

Michael N.
07-08-2016, 01:54 AM
Of course half an hour between sharpening is fine... I'm talking half a minute or less before the super sharpness has degraded to sort of sharp, which doesn't cut it for super hard woods. And I've used the same plane blade to thickness Malaysian ebony back/sides for long sessions without resharpening, so it's definitely not bad quality steel. Just the African blackwood eats it in no time. But someone on another forum once said that ABW planes beautifully, so I asked him what kind of steel his blade was, and he said O1, so I definitely need to give it a try sometime.

01 isn't especially hard at all. Some of the steels like HSS and A2 last a little longer with woods like Ebony. The downside is that they take longer to get them truly sharp, especially the HSS. I use old vintage blades, mostly. They are probably closer to 01. The only real way to deal with Ebony is sharp. sharp, sharp.
It's hardly my favourite wood. In fact these days I tend to buy bog Oak as a substitute. A little easier to work and I don't have the same reaction to it's dust.
Rosewood is perfectly acceptable as a fretboard wood. It will last a lifetime or two on a Uke and you could easily argue that it's a more interesting looking timber.

DennisK
07-08-2016, 06:26 AM
I've just made a couple of Mandolins with Ebony Fretboards, and had the same issues, rolling frets, chipped fretboard.
To make it worse the fretboards were bound with shell purfling.
I actually tossed two fretboards, just too many issues.

While I think of it, I got a pair of tang removers for normal size fret wire, but they don't work of mandolin wire. I had to grind and file of the tang, what a prick of a job. Can you get tang removers for mandolin fret wire?
You can make whatever size you need from a cheap sheet metal nibbling tool. Grind a slot in the face for the fret crown to fit into, using a dremel wheel or whatever.

pointpergame
07-08-2016, 08:34 AM
Of course half an hour between sharpening is fine... I'm talking half a minute or less before the super sharpness has degraded to sort of sharp, which doesn't cut it for super hard woods.

Dennis, what I was trying to say is you have to actively seek and perfect the tool for the wood. If your steel is either crumpling ( too soft ) or chipping ( too hard ), you have to find the spot in between that likes that particular wood. Obviously, the current state of that 30-second tool isn't right for THIS piece of ebony. Rather than forging and tempering a new plane iron, I generally sort through my collection until I find one that likes the wood.

I don't mean to stir up a debate, but hardness is a matter of tempering, not completely a matter of steel composition. Although things have changed a little in modern times with powdered-steels, it's only a little. And the ones I've used are way over at the difficult-to-sharpen edge of the spectrum. You only get to play with three variables: Edge retention, sharpen-ability, and corrosion resistance. Ron Hock, the tool maker, has an excellent essay on these three variables and what the trade-offs are from one steel to another. You can find it on the internet if you want to figure out your options. If Ron Hock and Lie-Nielsen could find a silver bullet, you'd know about it. You constantly see fevered "what's the best steel" threads on woodworking forums, but there is no magic steel. It's just a question of how easily you can obtain what you want or how easily you can manipulate a given steel among those three variables.

Graham Long
07-08-2016, 11:31 AM
Thanks fir that, I'll find one and modify it, cheers

mvinsel
07-08-2016, 12:50 PM
My peeve with ebony is with the sanding, smearing black onto the lighter wood of the neck, or worse.
Once a piece of sandpaper has touched the ebony, it's a danger for anything else.
It's easy to see on the light sandpapers but on the black paper it's bit me a few times.

-Vinnie in Juneau

sequoia
07-08-2016, 07:17 PM
Ditto..I dont have problems with it either...apart from heat bending it.

I was looking for a emoticon that had a picture of a tongue wagging with a big wink but couldn't find it. Ken, I am not worthy. Really. You are the Man. Oh and by the the way, I've had problems heat bending this Wood From Hell before too. Interestingly, I wonder why am I attracted to this stuff since it is such a pain in the (ass)? The reason is, I find it a strangely beautiful wood for some dark reason.

Timbuck
07-08-2016, 10:34 PM
I was looking for a emoticon that had a picture of a tongue wagging with a big wink but couldn't find it. Ken, I am not worthy. Really. You are the Man. Oh and by the the way, I've had problems heat bending this Wood From Hell before too. Interestingly, I wonder why am I attracted to this stuff since it is such a pain in the (ass)? The reason is, I find it a strangely beautiful wood for some dark reason.
There would be a lot more of it available for ukuleles, if it wasn't for those poachers who hunt it down for pool cues, piano keys, guitars, violins, flutes and clarinets, and other woodwind stuff.:mad:

tparse
07-09-2016, 08:38 PM
Timbuck.
I had some initial problems heat bending ebony bindings. They would tend to crack on the tight bends. I started wrapping the bindings in aluminum foil and a short soak of water out of a spray bottle. I use an electric head pad. I have not had a cracked one in years. I now bend all of my wood this way. It works for me.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
07-09-2016, 09:32 PM
I have no problem fretting ebony boards without taking any special precautions. I know one builder who wipes the fret tang with a bit of soapy water to facilitate insertion in the slot. As far as bending goes ebony can be fairly easy to bend or seemingly impossible depending upon, amongst other things, grain orientation being on of the most important. I've had some that has had serious runout or extremely curly grain (yes, curly ebony) that would fracture under the slightest pressure. Generally I have good success bending inside a dampened canvas envelope, two wheat blankets and three spring steel slats. Bound by so much support on both sides, the ebony doesn't have much choice but to conform to the mold. Save the stiff, brittle stuff for binding fret boards. Even highly respected builder David Hurd (Kawika) finally gave up on ebony bindings and refused to use them any more.

jcalkin
07-10-2016, 03:53 AM
We quit using ebony binding at Huss & Dalton, too. If it isn't bent precisely right it can't be coaxed to fit into the binding rabbets, so it's pretty gappy.

This thread has made me realize once and for all that I am a heathen woodworker. I own no hand tools that aren't luthier-specific, don't know anything about steel, and can't be bothered with such details. If the grid ever goes down I'll have to close my shop and burn my wood for heat.

Wildestcat
07-10-2016, 06:50 AM
Just wondering if anyone on this forum has tried this ebony substitute for bindings: Rocklite Ebano? It is available from Tonetech in the UK in 6 mm x 2 mm binding strips. I bought some a while ago to see if it avoided the typical problems with ebony bindings mentioned above, but I haven't actually tried it out yet!
The Rocklite website states "Rocklite is a man made product, engineered entirely from real, sustainable wood ....... RockliteŽ Ebano is an ebony type product that can be used very successfully in lutherie as fingerboards, head veneers, bridges, and guitar backs & sides" Doesn't mention bindings though ...
It is a UK manufacturer, so not sure of availability in the rest of the world.

Michael Smith
07-10-2016, 09:02 AM
After I was informed some ebony just won't bend and I stopped being down on myself for breaking plenty I got a quart of Super Soft II. I wet the ebony thourly then promptly wrap in aluminum foil and let it sit preferable over night before making the bend. This has solved 90 percent of my ebony bending problems.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
07-10-2016, 01:44 PM
After I was informed some ebony just won't bend and I stopped being down on myself for breaking plenty I got a quart of Super Soft II. I wet the ebony thourly then promptly wrap in aluminum foil and let it sit preferable over night before making the bend. This has solved 90 percent of my ebony bending problems.

Interesting. I gave away my gallon of SuperSoftII after I realized it wasn't doing any good for me. Maybe I should've done as you did. I've heard ammonia will do much the same thing but haven't tried it yet.

dofthesea
07-10-2016, 04:00 PM
I don't understand peoples issues with bending ebony.. I bend a lot of Ebony binding with no issues whatsoever. What is everyones process? I spritz with water wrap in aluminum foil then stack blue steel,wood,blanket,blue steel then I bend with blanket on a full form ( I don't like the 1/2 rods with a form on either side method) at 300 degrees. takes about 4 minutes to bend then I let cool off for 10 minutes then reheat to 285. then if I can let sit in the form over night I will or remove and place in a form and clamp to form. I bend 4 sets at time usually with little to no spring back.