Do you think ebony is a brittle wood?

Discussion in 'Hardware, Setup & Repair [BG]' started by roller, Apr 15, 2017.

  1. roller

    roller Supporting Member

    Mar 30, 2014
    Many consider the black heartwood of ebony to be a brittle wood (comparatively speaking).

    I owned a bass with an ebony fretboard back in the 90s. Fresh from the factory, the fretboard cracked. This turned me off on ebony I've steered clear of it ever since. I've never seen cracking issues with maple or the various species of rosewood used in fretboards.

    While ebony feels great and has its legions of fans, I'm merely curious what you folks think. Any similar experiences?
  2. Hurricane Jimmie

    Hurricane Jimmie Supporting Member

    I have an early 80s Carvin with an ebony fretboard... never any problems. Not sure why ebony doesn't have more use ... expense? availability?
  3. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Ebony is a brittle wood, as compared to other woods. It's also very dense and heavy. Because it's so dense, it takes a long time to dry out properly, and it has to be dried slowly and carefully. This is why ebony is notorious for having cracking problems. If the board is dried too quickly, or isn't fully dried evenly, and you make it into a fingerboard, it may shrink and seriously crack. However, if it is dried properly, it makes a wonderful fingerboard that will last just about forever.

    I'm a pro builder and I use ebony for the fingerboards on most of my basses. I've had serious cracking problems in the past, so I'm very careful where I buy my ebony blanks these days.

    If you are buying a bass with an ebony fingerboard, you are just going to have to trust that the manufacturer/builder has been careful. The serious cracking will usually happen within the first two years.

    Most other fingerboard woods don't have cracking problems like ebony.
    iruyle, saltydude, Chasarms and 2 others like this.
  4. roller

    roller Supporting Member

    Mar 30, 2014
    Superb explanation, Bruce... very interesting. Thank you!
  5. I remember reading a long time ago that, because of being harder and brittle, ebony fretboards can't be fretted in the machines most manufacturers use. It has to be done by hand. Don't recall where I read that so take it as a random internet fact.
  6. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Ebony fingerboards can be fretted using the same machines and methods as other woods, but some manufacturers will cut the slots a bit wider to reduce the force needed to press the frets in. That also reduces the risk of distorting or backbowing the neck.

    Overall, ebony isn't used as often simply because of the cost. As an example, at my level of quantity/price, a plain maple fingerboard blank costs me about $2. Pau Ferro is $10. Indian Rosewood is $18. Macassar ebony (my favorite) is $38. African ebony is $75 and climbing. Manufacturers will buy in quantity and get better prices but still, ebony is just too expensive for most mass production instruments.
  7. Badwater


    Jan 12, 2017
    Years ago I had some high end Martins and Taylors with Ebony. They were real tight grain very black ebony. Today, I see a lot of guitars and basses that claim to have Ebony wood, but I see color variation and streaks of lighter grain. At one time, there were grades for Ebony wood much like the grades they gave to spruce and rosewood. Thus the higher the grade, the higher the price. But, I doubt the crack was a result of the grade of ebony in question. More likely that some wood will crack over time due to bad luck.
  8. Turnaround

    Turnaround Commercial User

    May 6, 2004
    Toronto Canada
    Independent Instrument Technician
  9. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    As Bruce mentioned, it cracks because it isn't fully cured. When it's glued it to a neck made of another type of wood, it can't move as a whole because the other wood is more stable. The ebony has to crack or pop the glue joint. It's far more likely to crack.

    Almost all of the time, it's not a huge deal. A good technician can fill the cracks with ebony dust and epoxy and you'll have to know they were there to even see them.
    iruyle likes this.
  10. songwriter21

    songwriter21 I have an obsession for wood. The musical kind. Supporting Member

    Jul 31, 2005
    I'm not a fan of ebony boards, even though my US Peavey Cirrus has one. The previous basses had plain, black ebony, with one cracked and SPLIT (ended up selling for parts) while also having had razors for fret ends. The other just was waaaaaaaay too sensitive to climate changes, as it sucked in and spewed them out like crazy (neck moved a lot), so I got rid of it. My Cirrus, though, has Macassar (in pic), and I love that it looks and feels like Rosewood. Best of all, It's an 11-year old bass, and no cracks, splits, or sharp fret ends.

    Seems Macassar is certainly a step above the norm, which is...Gaboon?

    Attached Files:

  11. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    I'm not a wood species expert, but from what I understand, there are about 200 individual species of ebony. About 20 of them are commonly bought and sold. What's commonly called African Ebony is a group of species, which includes Gaboon, Madagascar, and others. This is the very hard, dark black ebony which is getting rare and very expensive. One of the big problems these days is that the available logs are small (and valuable enough) that they are only cut flat sawn.

    Macassar ebony isn't quite as hard African ebony, and it has some brown streaks (which you may or may not like). But it is more commonly available in logs large enough that fingerboard blanks are available quartersawn. That makes a big difference in getting the boards dried properly and minimizing the shrinkage that causes cracking and fret sprout. That's why I like it. And it's reasonably priced. I get my fingerboard blanks from LMI for about $38 each. I've been using LMI's Macassar ebony on all my Scroll Basses for about 12 years, and I've never yet had one crack or twist.