What is Ebonite?
Hint: It’s not plastic!
Ebonite is a natural hard rubber and its name comes from the fact that it was invented as a substitute for Ebony the African hardwood. The potential of this food-safe material was discovered by flute makers not long after it was patented in the 1800s. It is often used for saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces and because it is durable and not affected by moisture it has many advantages for woodwind instruments and has tone reminiscent of dense rosewoods.
It is significantly more costly than wood as a material. The beautifully colored types of ebonite costs about ten times as much as African blackwood.
Richard Rockstro (1826-1906, the famous pupil of Richard Carte) endorsed the material in the following comments:
1. Firstly, then in the matter of endurance it may be pronounced perfect for it is practicably indestructible.
2. Secondly, as it is absolutely non-absorbent of moisture no change in the dimensions of the tube ever occurs, and a metal head-ling is unnecessary.
3. Thirdly, an ebonite flute invariably improves by judicious use.
4. Fourthly, this substance possesses just the amount of rigidity necessary for the retention of the enclosed air-column in its proper shape and dimensions, while its own vibrations sympathize so readily with those of the air within, that the sound is produced with as little expenditure of the breath as on a metal flute.
5. Fifthly, this material is so bad a conductor of heat that ebonite flutes are far less affected than any others, in their pitch, by alteration of temperature.
6. Sixthly, its appearance excels that of the finest ebony, and it generally retains its original lustre with very little attention, though sometimes it loses its extreme blackness.
Ebonite is a pleasure to use. It is beautiful, stable and sounds amazing.
I also have other motivations for using it. Now more than ever our rain forests are endangered, and many instrument makers are facing tough decisions in the face of new regulations that restrict the use of tropical timbers. As a professional flute maker I’ve seen these new regulations impacting my fellow instrument makers and it seemed to me that the time had come to change direction.
Ebonite is an all natural blend of rubber sap, linseed oil and sulfur and is a very sustainable alternative to wood.
To that end, I will be using up all of my stocks of tropical hardwoods over the course of the next year and not replenishing them. This stock will be replaced by a variety of high quality, non-threatened domestic woods, and of course Ebonite!