PaintPRO , Vol. 7, No. 1
January/February 2005
PaintPRO Vol 7 No 1

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Related Readings:
Sprayed Finishes
Metallic Paints
Negative Glazing with AquaGlaze™
Decorative Gilding
Getting Started in Venetian Plaster
Chicago-based NASODA
Trompe L'oeil (pronounced tromp-loy)
Sepp Leaf Kolcaustico
Distressing Wood Surfaces
Faux Effects Techniques
Faux Painting Techniques, Marbling
More Metallic Paints
Refinishing Bathroom Sinks & Tubs
Faux Master Studio
Other articles in this issue:
Floor Treatments
Staining Shakes & Singles
Ebonizing Techniques
Low-VOC in the Northeast
Brush Basics
Estimating, Etc.
Contractor Profile: John Swartley
Manufacturer Profile: Kelly-Moore
Paint Industry News
Product News
Product Profiles
Toolbox: Tapes & Film
Painting Tips

Ebonizing with Rust Stain
A fairly traditional method for ebonizing wood that has a high tannin continent — such as red oak or walnut — is a recipe using steel wool and vinegar. Joe Gorleski, woodworker and owner of , especially likes it because it is something he can make from supplies he has around the shop, and “because it’s natural and organic.”

This method works because of the chemical reaction between the rust stain and the tannin in the wood. Here’s the recipe Gorleski uses and his recommendations for applying the stain:

Ebonizing with Rust StainIngredients:
Steel wool pad (#0000 works real well)
Nails (not galvanized) or other rust-producing items

1 Tablespoon of salt
1⁄2 cup of water in a spray bottle
Apple cider vinegar

Ebonizing with Rust StainUnroll the steel wool pad and place it in the bottom of a non-corrosive bucket or container. Gorleski likes to use a long, narrow plastic plant holder, like one you would use as a window box or hang on a porch rail. You can also toss in a few nails or other rusty items.

Pour the salt into the water in the spray bottle and shake until the salt dissolves. Spray the steel wool and nails with the salt water until the spray bottle is empty.

Ebonizing with Rust StainLet the project sit for a few days. If the steel wool dries out, lightly spray it again with plain water to reactivate the salt and promote as much rust as possible. Wait a week or more — the longer the better, Gorleski says — until at least 75 percent of the steel wool pad has degraded. Then, let the project totally dry out before proceeding to the next step.

When you think you have enough dry rust, carefully mix in 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of apple cider vinegar, depending on the size of your project. (Plain white vinegar doesn’t work as well, Gorleski reports.) Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes, and then strain it through a paint strainer. You are looking for the stain to have a thin consistency. The vinegar provides a medium for the penetration of the rust mixture and enhances the chemical reaction.

Gorleski advises using a foam or bristle brush to apply the stain. The chemical reaction will occur almost immediately. Apply several coats of the stain; letting each coat dry and lightly sand with 200- to 220-grit paper in between applications.

Ebonizing with Rust StainWalnut contains more tannin, and so will require fewer coats than red oak, Gorleski explains.

The only disadvantage to this ebonizing method is “you have to wait — it’s not the same as opening a can,” Gorleski says. But, if you want to have some rust stain on hand, collect the dry rust and save it in a jar. When you want to use it, scoop out as much as you think you’ll need and only then add the apple cider vinegar. If you save it with the vinegar already mixed in it’ll go rancid, Gorleski explains.

Gorleski says he’s used this recipe time and time again, and it’s a recipe hard to get wrong.

PaintPRO Archives



Faux Painting,
Ebonizing Wood

Real ebony has been treasured since ancient times, but using real ebony is usually not practical. Fortunately, it is easily emulated on wood moldings, furniture and other items using a variety of stain and faux techniques.
by Susan Brimo-Cox

Classic black. It adds distinction. So, too, can ebonizing.

Ebonized wood had its heyday in the late 1800s. “People who traveled to the Orient brought back ebony with gilding — and everyone wanted it,” says Cheryl Campbell, owner of Urban Revivals LLC in Washington, D.C. Ebonizing was a decorating rebellion, of sorts, and for furniture and decorative wood moldings, ebony was definitely “in.”

ebonizingAs a home accent, Campbell says, ebonizing is often associated with the furnishings of Charles Eastlake. Herter Brothers also set the standards for its use in furniture during the Renaissance Revival. But by 1905-1910, “decorating styles changed again and ebonizing fell out of favor.”

Now, 100 years later, ebonizing is becoming popular again, maybe because it complements contemporary furniture styles so well. Perhaps it is because in spartan rooms with neutral color schemes it adds just the right accent. Or maybe it just adds a rich, lustrous touch that is hard to beat.

It’s more than just black
Real ebony has been treasured since ancient times, but using real ebony is usually not practical. Fortunately, it is easily emulated on wood moldings, furniture and other items using a variety of stain and faux techniques.

ebonizing“When we use the term ‘ebonizing’ for finishing or faux, we are describing a dark black-brown stain or glaze,” says Bob Levey of Bob Levey Decorative Finishing Inc. in Basalt, Colo., near Aspen. “When a designer asks for ebony, they want a brown that borders on black.”

Other shades are often requested as well: deep browns and dark burgundies, for example.

Vic DeLor, an artist in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who has a background in the motion picture industry, points out that a painter using the right techniques can make the commonplace look expensive. “The motion picture industry relies on the faux concept rather than purchasing expensive items in most cases,” he says, “and there is no need to use expensive woods, or anything else for that matter, when the desired image can be created with paint effects. The painter must fool the camera eye with wood graining, marbleizing [and more].”


Ebonizing techniques vary
Ebonizing techniques range from extremely simple to quite complex.

The classic method of ebonizing from the late 1800s involved chemical treatments (based on copper sulfate and other chemicals) that reacted with the wood, Campbell says. “To recreate for period accuracy, this is still a technique that is used,” she says.

According to DeLor, there’s no right or wrong way. “You do whatever works for you,” he says. “Some use a black felt pen to color the smaller pieces of wood. Others prefer dyes.”

One inexpensive and time-honored method of ebonizing calls for steel wool and vinegar. (See sidebar.)

ebonizingLevey uses a two-color dye process. “I use a red alcohol dye and let that dry. Then I use a very dark walnut oil-aniline dye that won’t dissolve the red dye. Then I seal that. Then, depending on the wood, I apply a glaze of dark brown or black on top.” His final step is a lacquer finish, which could be glossy or matte. What his technique does is “give you a luminous, warm effect. It still looks dark brown to black, but it’s warm,” Levey explains.

Campbell has successfully used dyes in water-based solutions, but “you have to make sure there is absolutely no prior finish.” She points out that “any residue — the slightest film — will create variations in how the color saturates into the wood.” This technique is not for novices, she says. “You can mix your dyes to exactly what you want, weak or strong. The only disadvantage is it’ll raise the grain.”

For faux applications, Levey doesn’t use dyes. Instead he uses glazes. “I’d use a ground coat, red or brown, then use oil glazes to achieve the effect I want,” he explains. To add faux wood graining, he drags a comb through it. “From there I’d seal that and add additional glazes as needed; then lacquer on top,” he says.


Dry pigments are another option
“I prefer the use of dry colors, which are the basis of most all paints and stains,” DeLor says. “Dry colors work well with alcohol or practically any other vehicle, including vinegar, as a stain, with a binder or sealer used accordingly. However, stains made with Japan colors or dark UTC (universal tinting colorant) will do the job as well.”

Campbell also uses dry pigments from time to time. She mixes them in a clear oil-based stain. But she cautions, “These pigments don’t saturate as deeply as dyes.”

Campbell also describes a Japanese lacquering technique that people use when they want a shiny dark finish but don’t want to stain the wood. By putting pigment in lacquer you don’t have to have an opaque finish; rather you can achieve a finish that is dark and shiny, but like a veil, she says. “You can control the pigment in each layer, but it is a tough technique.” This technique is usually done by machines and sprayers, she adds.


A silk purse from a sow’s ear
What ebonizing does best is to make something inexpensive look as if it cost a million bucks.

“You can ebonize cruddy wood and hide a multitude of sins, but when you ebonize a nicely-grained wood — when it’s stylistically appropriate — you can still see the fibers of the wood, you can still see the variations of color in the grain, and it is beautiful,” says Campbell.

You don’t want ebony to dominate a whole house, “but for accenting, side tables, pianos and such, it’s very effective,” reflects Levey.

Rich, warm and lustrous: ebonized wood. As DeLor puts it, “It’s up to the painter to make it look expensive.”




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