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Black Walnut Tree

Learn About Wood Series, Part 3
Black Walnut Tree
Black Walnut Tree

Notes on the American Black Walnut,
written by Robert King.

Originally published in Wood News Issue 3,
April 1978.

Black Walnut Tree

There are many kinds of trees whose characteristics have caused woodworkers to a regard them highly. When judge both on their beauty of their wood and their useful usefulness to man, however, few are more universally esteemed with better cause than the American Black Walnut, Juglans Nigra. The name itself gives honor to the tree -- "Juglans" is a corruption of Jovis glands", or "the nut of God".

J. Nigra is a native of the United States east of the Mississippi. Indians sometimes fished by poisoning the water with walnut husks, although European settlers were more interested in the cash value of the wood. Walnut was exported from Virginia to England as early as 1610. In the remote low-technology conditions of the colonies, the strength and durability of walnut, combined with its relative ease of working with hand tools made it valuable at home too. Cradles were once almost exclusively made of walnut, for the above above reasons and also because of the wood's resistance to splintering. (Thus, babies could chew on their cradles in safety.)

Its ability to resist decay when in contact with soil made walnut a favorite material for pilings, fence posts, and split rail-fences. It is a resilient wood with excellent dimensional stability and a favorable strength-to-weight ratio. Walnut gunstocks transmit less jar on recoil and do not warp or shrink. Since the wood readily takes an oil finish, no matter how long such a gunstock is carried in the hand, it will never irritate the palm. Many millions of board feet of walnut have been used for crossties, and many million more have been cut, piled, and burned in land clearing operations.

During World War II, troops of Boy Scouts were organized to hunt for suitable walnut trees, and it was one's patriotic duty to surrender the finest ones to the war effort. Not only was walnut in great demand for gunstocks, it was the best material for high quality airplane propellers. Mahogany, an acceptable substitute was not so readily available, and the only other suitable wood was quarter-sawn white oak, although Birch and Cherry were used for training.

Walnut is also a beautiful wood for furniture and cabinetmaking. In the early and middle Georgian period, walnut was one of the predominating cabinet woods, J. Nigra being much preferred over its paler European cousins. Relatively few walnut pieces survive from this period because the precious walnut was usually used as a veneer over a softer and less durable core, while contemporary mahogany pieces were solid.

In his book review in the Spring of 1978 issue of Fine Woodworking, George Frank compares woodworking to a tree having two branches-- the "industrial production" branch and "fine craftsman" branch. During the "Age of Walnut" (circa 1830 to 1880) the "industrial production" branch prospered. Thousands of solid walnut pieces were churned out by assembly line operations, pieces within indifferent styling assembled with a minimum of craftsmanship.

The walnut supply was seriously diminished by the turn of century. Since walnut lasts very well in contact with soil, furniture makers were able to utilize the seasoned, beautifully grained stump wood of trees sawn many years before. For fifty years articles appeared bemoaning the disappearance of the black walnut. The authors did not realize, however, that quietly, from Massachusetts to Minnesota and south to northern Florida and Texas, doing the best near the bottom of gentle slopes where the soil was rich, the water ample, and drainage adequate, more walnut trees were growing, and are still growing.

The largest walnuts are found on the western slopes of the Appalachians in North Carolina and Tennessee, reaching heights of 100 to 150 feet and diameters of 4 to 6 feet.

In California walnut orchards, English walnuts are grafted to black walnut root stock, since the Juglans Nigra is more hearty and resistance to disease. There are no black walnut orchards since the trees do not thrive in homogeneous stands. The only major nut crop that is not grown commercially, black walnut processing plants are supplied by independent, part time gatherers, often families, who find extra income lying on the ground.

If you own and walnut tree, you have probably wondered about its commercial value. Though very much the exception, some trees suitable for veneer cutting have brought fantastic sums. In 1971, a 100 feet tree sold for a record $12,600, and from its over 90,000 square feet of 1/28 inch veneer was cut. For saw timber, a realistic pricing rule of thumb for North Georgia is a dollar and foot 4 trees at least a foot in diameter.

If you would like to grow your own black walnut lumber from scratch plan on waiting 60 to 70 years for the trees to become big enough to harvest.

Explore more of Highland Woodworking's early years in Retro Woodworking our archived collection of woodworking articles, woodworking tips and woodworking nostalgia:

Learn About Wood, Part 1 General information about wood and wood terminology
Learn About Wood, Part 2 Learn About Wood Characteristics
Learn About Wood, Part 4 A Tribute To American Chestnut
Learn About Wood, Part 5 Predicting Wood Shrinkage

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