This steel wool and vinegar method for ebonizing wood is appropriate whether you want a dark, graphic look or tones of gray, blue, and purple
Synopsis: This steel wool and vinegar method for ebonizing wood is appropriate whether you want a dark, graphic look or tones of gray, blue, and purple. The difference is the amount of tannin in the wood and the strength of the solution. Michael Robbins demonstrates how to make and use the solution to bring out the dark tones in wood, and then provides methods for getting your darks darker or your blues and grays beautiful and cool.
Ebonizing wood is a wonderful way to create a dark, graphic look that emphasizes the form of a piece. The steel wool and vinegar recipe I use gives depth and darkness to heavy-tannin woods like walnut and oak, while still allowing for aspects of the grain to shine through. Since this is a reactive finish, it penetrates deeper into the wood than a stain or dye that sits on top, creating a natural, durable black tone. On low-tannin woods, it produces lovely grays, blues, and purples. The ingredients cost very little and can be bought at any hardware and grocery store. You can easily experiment and develop a recipe that’s right for you.
Make the solution
The recipe calls for a 12-pad package of No. 1 steel wool, a gallon of white vinegar, lacquer thinner, and a few clean containers. The goal is to make the purest solution possible, so I remove the excess oil that’s present in the steel wool by rinsing it in lacquer thinner. I use a three-container method, rinsing the steel wool in consecutive containers, each with a few ounces of lacquer thinner in it. The first container is the dirtiest, and by the time it reaches the third, the steel wool should be relatively clean. Once I’ve cleaned a full bag of steel wool, I store the used lacquer thinner from the two cleaner containers for future use. I discard the dirtiest batch of thinner.
Set aside the pads on a clean surface for about 20 minutes to allow the thinner to evaporate. Clean a bucket (the cleaner the better) to make the solution in. I have a specific bucket that I use only for this process. Place the clean steel wool pads in the bottom and carefully pour the gallon of white vinegar over them, making sure the pads are completely submerged. The solution should begin to bubble, a sign the vinegar is reacting with the steel wool and beginning to break it down. I stir the solution every couple of hours, making sure that the steel wool is still submerged in the vinegar. I allow the solution to brew for 24 to 36 hours, stirring occasionally when possible.
Once the time is up, I strain the vinegar solution into a clean container through a few layers of fresh white rags. If my cleaning process was thorough, the strained solution should be perfectly clear or close to it. The leftover steel wool can be discarded at this point. The solution is ready for use immediately after straining.