There are several varieties, depending chiefly upon the place of growth. That from Africa is the best, and is the only kind used for sextants. Pianoforte-keys are generally made of the East Indian variety. Ebony is often used for inlaying, in contrast with ivory; and it is also a favorite material for cabinetwork, turnery, flutes, door-handles, knife-handles, etc. It may be worked like any other hard wood, and with the same tools.
Other hard woods are often stained to imitate ebony; and when close-grained and well dyed it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them. Many samples of black ebony are not as black as is desirable, and to bring them to the required color it is necessary to dye them. A writer in The English Mechanic says that a good black ink is as effectual as any stain to blacken the sharps of a piano. It is, perhaps, not generally known that, though made of ebony, these keys always require staining, as true ebony is rather brown than black, and full of a yellowish grain. Old keys are probably saturated with grease: they should therefore be treated with potash first.
But while the real ebony has an indescribable richness which it is almost impossible to imitate, the demand for black wood so far exceeds the supply that recourse is extensively had to imitation. There are two methods of so-called ebonizing in use: one is a mere black varnish, the other is a veritable dye. The varnish never proves satisfactory, as it generally has a slimy appearance, and does not show the rich dead-black grain of the wood, which is the thing to be admired. Moreover, whenever the article gets scratched or cut, the color of the original wood shows through and shows the sham at once.
The old stain for ebonizing was simply a black iron dye made by first soaking the wood in a solution of logwood and galls, and then applying a solution of acetate of iron. A much finer effect is, however, produced by the use of nigrosine, - one of the aniline dyes. It is to be purchased ready made; and the solution is found in market, and known as "ebonizing liquid."