Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes

Glossary -- Ebonising; Ebonised

(During the 19th century, the spelling is with "s", rather than "z". Also, in "Google Books Search", the term, "Ebony Stains" yield more hits.)

Staining furniture or other wood objects to resemble ebony. The process of producing a finish that resembles the wood, ebony, by dying and/or staining and polishing. As part of a decorative art practice, ebonizing furniture originated in the 16th century, but only in the 19th century did the practice become popular -- especially from 1875-1885, during the period of the so-called Aesthetic movement -- in Britain and America.

origin of ebonizing

Source: John Barrow, et al, Dictionarium polygraphicum, or, The whole body of arts regularly digested : containing the arts of designing, drawing, painting ... adorned with proper sculptures, curiously engraven on more than fifty copper plates. London : Printed for C. Hitch and C. Davis in Paternoster Row, and S. Austen in St. Paul's ChurchYard, 1735, [no pagination].


From Barrow's Dictionarium Polygraphicum , 1758:-- see definition from Barrow above.)

The methods -- well known in the 18th century -- were further popularized when the furniture designer/cabintetmaker, Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806), gave a receipt:--

using pear-tree wood and other similar grained woods, which were given a "wash with a hot decoction of galls, and when dry, adding writing ink, polishing it with a stiff brush and a little hot wax" (Sheraton 1803, p.205).

The so-called "German ebony" was made by steeping woods such as sycamore, fruit wood, and beech into a mix of blue or black aniline dyes, dissolved in alcohol.

In the 19th century -- where mechanization of woodworking technologies made furniture of rectilinear outlines more accessible -- ebonization was particularly used by designers working in the Aesthetic Movement style.

In the first half of the 20th century, ebon­izing continued as a simple way to give inexpensive woods an exotic look. [In the 1950s and 1960s black lacquered or painted legs and frames were supplied to cabinets and tables, often in combination with brass ferrules. These acted as a contrast to the glossy finishes of wood or plastic laminates that the cabinet or table was mainly con­structed from.]

Against Ornamentation

From architect A W N. Pugin came the idea that some architecture is moral and truthful and some is not, giving us a sort of "architectural morality and truth". In his analysis of Gothic buildings in True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) Pugin equates architectural truth with religious truth, by arguing that Gothic is a principle of building -- not a style --, that the "Gothic" principles of the medieval period are sssstill relevant to the 1840s.

Pugin elaborates further: All buildings reflect the society in which they are built, but the Gothic had particular lessons to teach us, lessons, Pugin argued, concerning what he labeled "constructional truth" and "material truth".

For Pugin, constructional truth meant that a building's construction should be obvious. To ornament was OK if, the ormament neither obscured the construction nor opposed what is appropriate in form and meaning.

Truth to materials meant that all materials should be chosen for their particular strengths and should not be treated to look like other material.


To greater or lesser degrees, John Ruskin, an Oxford University professor of architecture, William Morris and others in the Arts and Crafts movement, embraced these ideas, but the times -- more inclusive democracies, more rapidly expanding populations, the emergence of a growing middle class with more disposible incomes, technological developments, innovations in merchandising, all were forces against such purities. In other words, any resistance to ebonising, rectilinear furniture, or other formulations emerging from an innovative technology eroded the voices of a prescriptive authority.

What Can Account for Shifts in British Society that Made a Mass Market for Furniture Produced on a Mass Scale?

For answers to this rhetorical question, coal and iron are basic. Coal for industrial as well as for household purposes was used for most of the 18th-century, and iron was a standard material for tools for three thousand years. For Britain, in 19th- century, what changed was the increased scale in which these two basic materials were used. Seemingly, as new applications of steam power to iron machinery appeared, changes in scale catapulted into changes in kind.

Ex: in industries centered in homes, spinning wheels, wooden looms, powered by human muscles were a micro to the macro of the thousands of spindles and scores of steam-driven looms concentrated in an early Victorian cotton mill; and the cheapness, formity, and above all the quantity of the product far exceeded anything that hand-power produced.

Visualize technological innovations of similar impact -- in other trades like metallurgy or printing, or the rise of new occupations like engineering or railroading -- so that by 1850, in demography, in economics, in politics, the fabric of British society no longer reflects conditions that prevailed under the Old Regime.

In the first phase of modern industrialism, taken together, this progressive inventiveness helped Britain assume a commanding lead over other nations.

In political terms, similarly, a mentality shared by a growing democratization forced dismantlement of the rigidity of the aristocracy's lock on power.

Ebonising Against "Truth to Materials" Doctrine

Pugin's earlier exhortations for truth to materials and his recommendations for flat, formalized ornament instead of illusionistic motifs were taken up by the designers of the Art and Crafts movement, including the putative leader, William Morris. Shunning eclecticism and the excessiveness of over-ornamentation -- features that the increasing mechanization of woodworking made easier -- in favor of designs inspired by the past but rather than slavishly copying, Morris argued for simplifying designs and forging new links between craft and industry. To embrace these values, he argued, would raise standards of design and workmanship and make well-made goods affordable. His idealism was wrong-headed; the political, economic and social impact of market-forces became too strong for human efforts to influence.

Morris secularized the Gothic Revival, drawing ideas from 13th-century medieval sources. Rejecting the overblown naturalism of French design, Morris created wallpapers and textiles in simpler patterns composed of native flowers, trees and wild animals (see DYE, COLOUR PL. IV, FIG., and [not available online]). These provided a backdrop for furniture embellished with simple mouldings and panels by Pre-Raphaelite painters depicting medieval romances, thus reuniting the fine and decorative arts. William Burges's furniture of the same period (e.g. bookcase, 1859–62; London, V&A), copiously painted with emblematic animals and religious scenes and often capped with finials, represented a highly personal contribution to the decorative arts.

Source: The True Principles of pointed or Christian architecture: set forth in two ... By Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin


[41301.] Ebonising Wood. Perhaps this black stain will suit: liberal collection of logwood chips, boil in 1 quart water; lay on hot; make a second decoction of logwood, and add 1 oz. copper, 2 oz. verdigris, strain, and put into it liberally rusty steel filings, and give a second coat of this. E. K. Dalk.

cross-section for four-sided post

Ebony Stains.?1. Stain work with the black stain, adding powdered nutgall to the logwood and copperas solution, dry, rub down well, oil, then use French polish made tolerably dark with indigo, or finely-powdered stone blue. 2. Hold an ordinary slate over gas, lamp, or candle, until it is well smoked at the bottom, scrape a sufficient quantity into French polish, and well mix; then polish the article in the ordinary way. If there are any lumps gently rub them down and apply another coat. 3. Prepare a decoction of logwood by adding a small handful of chips to a pint of rain water. Allow this to simmer until reduced onefourth, and whilst the liquor is hot dress the work to be ebonized two or three times. To the remainder of the liquor add two bruised nut-galls, a few very misty nails, bits of iron-hooping, or a piece of sulphate of iron the size of a "walnut, and as much more rain water as will make about three-quarters of a pint of liquor. Apply this, which will be a black stain, hot as before, giving two coats, and when thoroughly dry, polish with ordinary French polish, to which sufficient powdered thumb-blue has been added to perceptibly colour the polish. Use a glazed pipkin in which to prepare the stain. Take care that no oil or grease comes in contact with the brushes used or the surface of the wood until ready for polishing. Let each coat of stain dry before the next is added, and rub down with well-used, fine glass-paper. Sycamore, chestnut, and plane-tree, are the best woods for ebonizing in the above manner. 4. Infuse gall-nuts in vinegar in which rusty nails have been soaked, rub the wood with the infusion, dry, polish, burnish. 5. Stain in the first place with a hot saturated solution of logwood, co&taining a little alum; and, when dry, brush it over with common writing ink.

Source: Ernest Spon, Workshop Receipts, for the Use of Manufacturers, Mechanics and Scientific Amateurs ... . London: E. and F. N. Spon, 1873, pages 418-419.

[41301.]Ebonising Wood. Make a decoction of logwood, and while hot apply it with a brush to the article of furniture, as in painting. Let it dry, and when so, go over it a second time. Crush a little sulphate of iron and dissolve in a portion of the decoction, which, applied when the second application is nearly dry, will produce a blue-black. When thoroughly dry, oil it over with linseed oil, and you will have a deep black. J. D.

Source: English Mechanic and World of Science : with which are ..., 31 August 27, 1880, page 603; for more on "logwood stains", see this contemporary definition