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Questions re working with ebony

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by eh_train, Mar 14, 2006.

  1. eh_train

    eh_train Commercial User

    Jan 12, 2004
    Owner, Stand Up Guy Basses (Repair/Sell/Buy upright basses)
    Hi all,

    I have an old Selmer-Kay that I plan to install an ebony fingerboard on. The blank that I have is somewhat larger than required for a Kay neck. It's about 4" longer than the original, and there is at least 1/4" overhang on both sides (i.e, it's wider than required). I've seen that ebony can be quite brittle, and want to know the best way to 1) reduce the length (this requires cutting against the grain), and 2) reduce the width (a with-the-grain cut).

    I'm guessing that the board can be somewhat reduced, prior to installation, using a circular saw. then sanded to the correct width?? Any advice from someone who has done this - luthier or amateur - would be much appreciated!

    P.S., I know I am opening myself up to "get thee to a luthier" directives... Before you send such a message note that I'm working with a $300 bass and a $100 piece of ebony. My goal is to learn from doing the work myself, and not to spend $800-1200 on a professional job!

    Thanks for any help,
    Paul O'Connell
  2. nicklloyd

    nicklloyd Supporting Member/Luthier

    Jan 27, 2002
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    oy vey... :smug:

    Reduce the length with a bandsaw/table saw, then do a final sanding with a large disc sander or orbital sander.

    Reduce the width with a sharp block plane; sanding is a finishing/blending tool. finish up with 120, 220, 320, steel wool.


    Dry clamp the board on to the neck. With an awl scratch the outline of the neck into the ebony. Make sure that the board is centered over the body. You don't want to layout/glue up the board and have the end pointing too far to the treble (or bass) f hole.

    This answers your specific questions, but there is more to a new board job than what you've asked.
  3. mje


    Aug 1, 2002
    Southeast Michigan
    I'd also suggest you think about putting a maple shim between the neck and fingerboard to give that skinny neck a little more depth.
  4. Off-topic question: Is your Selmer Kay carved or plywood? Is the neck two-piece (with a seam down the middle)?
  5. mchildree

    mchildree Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2000
    Do I remember that ebony is one of those woods that can cause respiratory ailments if you breathe too much sawdust??
  6. mpm


    May 10, 2001
    Los Angeles
    and the sanding dust will stain your jeans. Just think what it can do to your lungs...
  7. eh_train

    eh_train Commercial User

    Jan 12, 2004
    Owner, Stand Up Guy Basses (Repair/Sell/Buy upright basses)
    Thanks, all, for responding:

    Nick, thanks especially for the advice re. the dry mounting and outlining the fingerboard... Re. the "oy vey", I'm guessing you meant "oy vey, what kind of a mess is this going to be?" rather than "oy vey, how will I feed my family if TBers keep replacing fingerboards themselves?" I know that getting the board on securely and centred is only one part of the job. I plan to do as much of the repair that I can on this one, then take it to my local luthier for his opinion and help. He'll be delighted to see me, no doubt. However, in my defence, I have given him a fair bit of work in the last few years...

    MJE, thanks for the advice. I have already used the wood from the pre-existing painted maple fingerboard to make a shim for the new board...

    Mike, it is a ply bass, without a seam in the neck. I think it's just a garden variety Kay with a slightly better neck (nicer scroll). The label says Selmer Manhattan rather than Kay. It's kind of cool looking, with a city skyline incorporated into the script.

    MChildree & MPM, I will try to stay well-ventilated when I get to cutting and sanding the ebony...

    Paul (Eh_train)
  8. nicklloyd

    nicklloyd Supporting Member/Luthier

    Jan 27, 2002
    Cincinnati, Ohio
  9. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    With the dusts of a lot woods -- especially tropical hardwoods, it seems -- there can be trouble. Some of it is long term trouble from long term exposure: cancer, silicosis. Some of it can be short term from not much exposure: asthmatic reactions. Short term probably is more of a concern for you and you may not want to find out the hard way -- I'd use my respirator if I didn't already know that ebony really doesn't bug me.

    The other way people have trouble with wood is with the skin. Some folks have allergies and reactions to stuff in the wood. If that one's a concern to you, then some gloves would be in order.

    Unless of course you have an allergy to latex.... Oy vey!!

    So were you really getting fixed to rip that board on your table saw?
  10. I'm watching this thread and I have a question about the shim suggestion. The new fingerboards are pretty thick and quite often you would end up planing some of the bottom of it off. Couldn't you just leave the original thickness of the new fingerboard for the added width? Curious...
  11. jonas


    Dec 9, 2003
    Frankfurt am Main/Germany
    Kontrabass-Atelier, Lando Music (Germany)
    I took me some time until I've recognized the relationship between fingerboard dressing and getting sick ... in my case, I often got a cold and headache for several days after brathing too much ebony dust. I always knew that ebony dust is sour, but I underestimated it's harmfullness to my health.

    Today, I'm always using a dust protection mask when I work with ebony. No problems anymore.
  12. JoeyNaeger

    JoeyNaeger Guest Commercial User

    Jun 24, 2005
    Houston, TX
    Bass Specialist, Lisle Violin Shop
    You could try spritsing water in the area that your working to prevent the dust from flying everywhere. I do this when working with carbon fiber because the dust is very irritating and flys everywhere, and the water does a good job of preventing that. A respirator is also a good idea.
  13. PB+J


    Mar 9, 2000
    arlington va
    I did a lot of woodworking for a while and while I really liked the look of cocobolo, the dust was just highly highly allergenic--got worse every time I worked with it. Now I can't sand it without a big deal dust mask, the kind with the cartridges and the full rubber mouth/nose piece.

    I'd get violent sneezing, itchy eyes, a comically runny nose, and a general overall feeling of wierdness/fatigue.

    My sense is that a skilled woodworker does much less sanding and much more planing, carving and scraping, which makes dust less of a problem
  14. Breathing the dust stings your nose and throat in the short term, I don't know about long term. Ebony dust is pretty obnoxious stuff so I try to make shavings instead of dust. Wearing a mask will help some, but using some lemon oil in the steel wool is a good idea too. I haven't tried wet sanding, but that might also keep the dust down. You really don't want to breath much of that stuff.
  15. Jeff Bollbach

    Jeff Bollbach Jeff Bollbach Luthier, Inc.

    Dec 12, 2001
    freeport, ny
    I've been wetpapering ebony for years, it's the ony way to go. A fingerboard job for me is =
    1. plane
    2. scraper
    3. 120 grit wp
    4. 220 grit
    5. 400 grit
    6. 800 grit
    7. 0000 synthetic wool with sealant

    No dust!

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