Deering® Banjos & Ebony

Lets Talk About Ebony

Like many musical instrument manufacturers, Deering regularly turns to nature for much of its material. Woods such as walnut, maple and mahogany, while often aesthetically pleasing are vital to the construction and tone of the instrument, whereas abalone and mother of pearl are regularly used to enhance the look of the instrument.

Over the years, we have seen natural materials become much harder to acquire. Brazilian rosewood, once considered one of the finest musical instrument woods, is near impossible to obtain and mother of pearl and abalone are becoming harder and harder to source as the species becomes scarcer. Indeed, Deering is no stranger to adapting to these ever changing circumstances - in 2010 Deering introduced a synthetic alternative to mother of pearl into its Boston, Sierra, Eagle and Deluxe model fingerboard inlays in order to offer newly enhanced engraved inlay patterns to customers at no price increase because  of dwindling availability (and subsequent inflated price) of the popular shell.  

Next in line in the ever-growing scarcity of natural materials looks as though it could be ebony, more specifically Gabon Ebony (Diospyrus Crassiflora),  which is identified by its distinctive jet black appearance. Ebony has long been used in the stringed instruments world and with good reason. It is a very heavy, dense wood making it ideal for withstanding string wear, while its tight grain, when processed offers a very smooth playing surface on fingerboards in particular. It also yields favorable tonal properties. While other traditional fingerboard materials like rosewood will offer a much warmer tone, ebony, in contrast, offers a bright, snappy tone with a smooth and clear sustain.

However, as functional as ebony is in the stringed instrument world, it is equally famous for its glassy, jet black appearance that makes any instrument simply ooze with class. Just look at the plethora of violins, violas and cellos in a typical orchestra pit, all of which will most likely feature an ebony fingerboard, tuners, string pegs, tailpiece or any combination of these items.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone in our industry that the organic materials that we use are not in infinite supply and ebony is no exception. The hard fact is that we have come to a point where the supply of jet black ebony that the Western world is so familiar with is in jeopardy. 

Where did it all go?

The issue lies in the fact that black ebony has been harvested so heavily, predominantly to appease the demand of the Western world, that nearly all the black ebony in the world is gone. What is left is in drastically short supply. In recent years, ebony was still available from Madagascar, Kenya and other parts of Africa. Today, Cameroon is the last remaining source of black ebony.

Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars explains in his very popular video, “The State of Ebony,” that  pure black ebony is all but gone. The majority of the ebony that the forest has in any significant quantity is mostly streaked by Mother Nature’s touch. Until recently, this “unsightly” wood was not welcome. Instead, the trees were cut and left to rot on the forest floor. Mr. Taylor knows a thing of two about ebony, so much so that he formed the Taylor-Madinter company (a joint venture between Bob Taylor, Kurt Listug and international tone wood distributor  Madinter Trade, S.L) which purchased an ebony mill in Crelicam, Cameroon.

Taylor-Madinter has since been entrusted by the Cameroonian government with the harvest and export of 75% of all ebony legally cut in Cameroon. A journey that started out as a smart business investment quickly turned into one of discovery and moral understanding. What Bob saw on his many trips to Cirilicam lead him to make a decision that would challenge our industry as manufacturers and our perceptions as musicians. That decision was to begin using ALL ebony, regardless of its aesthetic qualities. Ever since, musicians the world over have started to see instruments with streaking in the fingerboard, varying dramatically from light brown streaks to vibrant flickers of light brown and greys. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the future of ebony and it is a reality that we must all face.

This is the video that started it all.

What does this have to do with Deering?

While our instruments are predominantly made of maple, mahogany and significantly more metal than a guitar or a cello, Deering does use ebony for the fingerboards on ALL Deering and Vega banjos. Like any wood, we use a grading system to match the wood to a particular price point of instrument and until very recently, our lowest grade ebony has still been a very respectable grade, with minimal, dark brown streaking. However, we are beginning to see more and more streaking of brown, grey and even blonde colors running through the fingerboard. The response has been varied, with many folks insisting that the streaks are ugly and demanding jet black ebony, while many others appreciate the beauty of nature in all of her glory. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So what happens now?

We have limited options to help us overcome the fact that there simply isn't enough pure black ebony in the world and it is nearly impossible to cherry pick the wood that we want to guarantee all black, all the time. It then becomes a question of responsibility when making decisions about how we source our materials. Do we blindly continue contributing to the decline of the ebony forests until every last tree is gone? We don’t make as many instruments as some of our guitar wielding brethrens so does Deering really have that big an impact? Or do we consider alternative options that will allow us to continue to offer the aesthetics that our customers expect without jeapordising the quality or playability of our instruments?

The small quantities of black ebony that we do receive we continue to reserve for our upper line instruments however, we are also beginning to explore alternative solutions, namely staining and synthetic materials which will be explained in more detail in the chapters that follow.