In the Studio: Restoring an Ebonized Elephant Table

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Vintage mahogany table with elephant base, before and after treatment.

Recently we received a call from a new client with a furniture problem. She had inherited a table with a base carved in the form of an elephant. The finish was black and badly damaged. I went up to meet the lady, her table and, it turns out, her dog Sadie.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie has no idea how all those scratches got there.

Sadie is a charming young dog with good taste in furniture. She adopted the elephant table as her own with visible consequences. She even chewed the tail off the back of the elephant. Now, we TreasureTrackers are highly dog-friendly so this was not shocking. Sadie helped me examine the table, I took some photos, then I took the table back to Center Art Studio for treatment.

When I inspected the table closely, I found some surprises. First, I noticed that the eyes and tusks were actually ivory even though they were now black. I also saw strange drips in the black finish under the top. Clearly someone had painted over the ebonized mahogany to “restore” the black. Remember that “ebonizing” is not the same as painting wood black to resemble ebony. Proper ebonizing is done with black or brown-black stain (nowadays we use aniline dye – I get good results with Solar-Lux by H. Behlen). This produces a thin but strongly colored finish that allows some sense of the wood grain to show through. I determined to remove the black housepaint with solvent to expose the wood, allowing me to then recreate a proper ebonized look.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

Left: after removing black housepaint. Arrows show ivory details. Right: the black aniline dye is applied, yet the mahogany shows through slightly.

For the top coat I chose amber shellac, applied with a brush. The first coat was very thin, to soak deeply into the wood. The final coat was applied more thickly, then lightly sanded. Then paste wax applied with steel wool and buffed with old rags, and I was ready to return Sadie’s table.

Sadie was out, but the family cat took a test drive.

Sadie was out, but Baby took a test drive.

As it turned out, Sadie was out but the family cats, Baby and Angel, took advantage of her absence and inspected my work.

Happily scratches in an ebonized finish are easily touched up with a Q-tip and some aniline dye (available at a paint store). Some people use black shoe polish, but I recommend trying to find the dye (or contacting us!).

I may see this table again.

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7 responses to “In the Studio: Restoring an Ebonized Elephant Table

  1. christal weicks

    Hello, interested in finding a elephant table like the one you redid but larger. Need to be 60″ round or 60″/50″ oval

    • You may have your job cut out for you. “Our” table was a unique piece, probably adapted from a free-standing elephant sculpture. I have only seen one like it.

      I suggest you start by searching for a wood elephant statue, maybe even a new product (I found a few candidates during a brief internet search). Once you find the elephant, you can have a carpenter add the base and top. You can also strip and ebonize it to get our look. This way you are also more likely to get the size and shape of top you like.

      Let us know what you find, and contact us if we can help!

  2. Thank you for the helpful step-by-step instructions for re-ebonizing damaged furniture.
    As I live in the UK it is not possible for me to bring you my pair of beloved ebonized side tables for restoration!
    Please give me more information about the shellac process to finish the restoration job.
    Many thanks
    Suzanne Berger London

  3. I lived in Ghana, West Africa from 9/70 to 9/73 and while I was there I had two small “ebony elephant” tables made. The table resembles the one shown above. They do not appear to be painted but while I asked for ebony I have no proof that is what I got. The table top is two pieces of wood as they told me ebony is the center of the tree and generally not large enough for a one piece top. I would love to have it authenticated, I live in the Rochester, NY area can you suggest where I might have it looked at?

  4. Kathleen Mallozzi

    I have 2 elephant tables. Hand carved in Africa around 1948… My Dad was in the Merchant Marines and brought them home. They are Mahogany, I just recently decided to use them on my Living room and I am not sure how they will look. They were always in our living room and never abused. One has an oval top the other is shaped like a hexagon. They are just like the ebony ones that had to be restored. Any hints would be appreciated.

  5. I have 2 end tables and a I guess you would call it a coffee table just like this and I was wondering how much they were worth to see if it was worth getting i redone

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