Among folk musicians – and what are we fifes if not folk musicians – there seems to be a degree of confusion between the words Ebony, Grenadilla, and African Blackwood. Part of the issue stems from the perception that a wood that is black “must” be ebony. There are a few different types of ebony wood as you can see via this link. The most commonly utilized ebony wood for musical instruments, in my experience, is “Gaboon Ebony“, (Diospyros crassiflora), and it is wonderful for piano keyboards, stringed instrument finger/fret boards, detailing at the end of the bell of a bagpipe… Ebony has been used for centuries in one form or another, but it is less desirable for woodwinds; the regular introduction of moisture from the breath of the player can compromise the integrity of Ebony, increasing the likelihood of cracking, most especially with contrasts of temperature (think playing a Christmas parade in freezing temps).
The common use of African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) for musical instruments came about during the very late 19th century. Its popularity wasn’t so much for its colour as for its density and resistance to moisture. Its local name is mPingo wood, but it had become known to the western market by the brand name of “Grenadilla”. Its density makes it comparatively difficult to work with woodturning tools and must be treated more like machining a soft metal. It holds its dimensions for a longer period than many other exotic woods, and has been the standard for classical instruments such as oboes, clarinets, and piccolos, although far too heavy to be utilized for larger instruments such as a bassoon. Unfortunately, because of the success of this wood for woodwinds, a myth has arisen that it is the ONLY wood best used for woodwinds, or that its properties arise from its colour. Other woods have been coming into play that have proven every bit as good as African Blackwood: Mopane (Colophosperumum mopane), and Katalox (Swartzia cubensis), this latter fast becoming my preferred if African Blackwood is not to be used. What’s more is that CITES has toyed with pushing Dalbergia species to, if not the endangered species list, then to a restricted use list. This has made obtaining the material more expensive; African Blackwood, instrument grade, rose to a high of some 90$+ per turning square at one point. The price has come down, but it’s volatile; a growing problem has surfaced in which people are able to obtain lesser quality African Blackwood for comparatively little money and so balk at the prices we instrument makers speak of. The result is that instruments make of low-quality material run a higher risk of cracking, warping, failing. But the consumer is willing to take the chance, which in turn prevents people from buying instruments of actual instrument-grade material.
The favoured wood for woodwinds prior to African Blackwood being introduced to the market was Cocuswood (Brya ebenus) which really comes into common use just before the turn of the 18th century. It is an excellent, although not black, wood for woodwinds, but had been largely deforested and is unsustainable. It’s rare to find Cocuswood for instruments today, and it had been replaced by Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra); it’s rare that one ever saw examples of Brazilian Rosewood as dark as in the example shown in the link unless it had been chemically treated or Japaned. It’s forbidden to obtain this wood today, and the next Dalbergia that replaced it was Honduras Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii), which can still be had, but is generally more reddish brown and vibrant (with variations – some dark, some light).
We have been experimenting with methods for rendering certain woods black, but with mixed results. We hope to soon be able to offer sustainable woods that have been reliably “blackened” for that look many people wish to have, yet an increasing number of musicians have been opting for Katalox; it has a similar density, and darkens with use, sun exposure, and oiling.
Given all this, if you truly want your instrument to be black, you can decide upon paying the extra cost for the African Blackwood or take your chances with the Ebony. No wood is guaranteed from ever cracking, but for your money, it’s usually wise to reduce your risk.