© 2011 syd

Ebonizing oak with steel wool and vinegar

***Note: I am not a scientist nor am I perfect. If there are questions about this article or input, please email me. I will make corrections after evaluating the information*** One aspect of woodworking that I love is how each species or wood will have certain characteristics that makes them better or worse for finishing. Some methods of finishing can only be done on a few species of wood. Oak is one of the more interesting species when it comes to finishing, and today I want to talk about how to ebonize (turn black) oak using steel wool and vinegar.

First, just a little bit of science. Oak naturally produces a moderately high level of tannins which can also be found in many other things such as coffee, soil, certain fruits, and beer. If you’ve been doing some woodworking, you might have noticed that whenever you let the steel clamps touch the wood when gluing up panels, the area turns black and it’s hard to sand off. Also, you may have noticed that when you put a cold glass of water on an oak table top, the condensation creates a black ring. This happens because the tannins are reacting with the iron and water (there’s some iron in oak and in the water). To be more specific, it’s Iron Acetate that reacts with the tannins to create this ebonizing effect. Most of the time, these black spots are troublesome and hard to remove. You could use oxalic acid to ‘bleach’ the black spots. more on that in a later post.

Woodworkers, being the clever beings that they are, have thought of ways to use this naturally occuring phenomenon to their advantage. Iron Acetate is naturally created when you mix water with Iron, but there’s only a small amount of the molecules that actually gets turned into Iron Acetate. To maximize the amount of Iron Acetate, you need a different concoction. Iron + Vinegar. (maybe this could be my new rock band name) I’m not going to explain the reason why vinegar works better. If you reallllly want to find out, you can google it yourself.

Anyways, to create this Iron Acetate solution, get a mason’s jar (anything will work as long as its not paper or metallic) fill it up with vinegar, and then stick some steel wool in there. Now don’t get anal. There’s no exact measurements here. If the solution turns out to be too weak, you could always put more steel wool in. If it turns out to be too strong, you can dilute it with distilled water. You want to make sure to let the steel wool soak for about a week shaking occasionally to get a strong enough solution, but you can keep the steel wool in there as long as you like. When you need more, just fill her back up.

One week later, or whenever the Iron Acetate is ready, filter the steel wool out of the vinegar by using a cheese cloth and transferring the solution to another container. Get a cheap brush and brush the surface of the oak that you want ebonized. And presto! In a matter of seconds, the oak should start turning black. If it isn’t, you did something wrong. One thing to note here: Applying Iron Acetate on wood will raise the grain as with any other finishes. The ebonizing is only surface deep so when you go to sand the raised grain down, sand with caution using a fine grit sandpaper. Here’s another helpful hint: If you want really super black, then try brushing on tea or coffee on the oak first. This increases the tannin level of the oak, and makes the reaction with the Iron Acetate much higher.

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