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Stories from Grandpa's Workshop
Black Walnut - An Old Friend
By Bob Rummer

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Yesterday I was breaking down some walnut lumber to make leg blanks for a coffee table. The end of the board was tagged "58-001". This is some of the last of the rough sawn lumber that Dad put up in the rafters about 60 years ago. My brother, Ken, said that Dad bought a pile of walnut and a pile of cherry for $25 each. Over the years it has turned into napkin holders, furniture, candlesticks, and mantel clocks. While I treasure other wood species, I think I have made more things from black walnut than anything else. Let me tell you about my old friend, walnut.

My very first woodworking project was a footstool for Mom. I found an oval sink cutout in the neighbor's trash pile and thought if I put 4 legs under it, it would be a fine footstool. At home, looking for suitable leg material, I pulled out some 2x2 from Dad's walnut stock. After managing to hack four approximately equal-length pieces I set about nailing the plywood cutout onto the legs. Walnut is hard stuff. On the Janka scale it is similar to maple or mahogany. White oak is about 30% harder. My junior woodworker skill set at the time consisted of pounding nails into the legs until they bent, then flattening them into the board with the hammer. When I presented my first piece of furniture to Mom, she said it was wonderful and maybe she could help me upholster it. Looking back, I suspect that was a way to cover up the rough wood and bent nails. Happy Mother's Day, Mom! Before you think only a rookie would use walnut and nails, I have some nice 2x8 walnut in my woodpile that was salvaged from an old house in Lawrence, KS. The ceiling joists in the house were roughsawn walnut!

When I was in high school, I got interested in forestry and I had plans to grow a black walnut plantation on the family farm. The Kansas Forest Service had a program on walnut cultivation, and I learned a lot about the silviculture of walnut. Black walnut (juglans nigra) is the primary native walnut in the US, growing in the eastern hardwood forest from Minnesota to Florida and New York to Texas. While it only makes up about 2% of total growing stock volume, it is one of our more valuable hardwoods. One estimate (Randolph et al. 2013) from 2009 put the value of black walnut growing stock at more than one-half trillion dollars. Walnut likes to grow in the sun, in deep soils, and is typically found in riparian areas where its large tap root can go down. Some loggers work to harvest the stumpwood because of the twisted beautiful grain patterns. Walnut is allelopathic, meaning it secretes a chemical (called juglone) that suppresses other plants around the tree. Don't try and grow your tomatoes near a walnut tree. Total volume of walnut in the U.S. is increasing as walnut fills in gaps, pioneers in woodland areas, and the growing stock matures. The American Hardwood Export Council has a neat interactive US map to view standing volume and removals of major hardwood species (see references).

Although American black walnut is the most abundant, there are other walnuts that grow in the U.S. Butternut (juglans cinera) is sometimes called white walnut because of its lighter wood tones, relatively rare. California walnut (juglans californica) and claro walnut (juglans hindsii) are native to California. Claro walnut is used as the native rootstock for English walnut plantations and is thus the source of a lot of walnut burlwood. Then there are a couple of scrubby walnut species in the Southwest (juglans major and juglans microcarpa). English walnut is an introduced species grown mostly for nuts.

Walnut is a prime agroforestry species with a wide range of products. Walnuts are a high-value nut (99% of US food walnuts come from English walnut (juglans regia) plantations in California) with excellent nutritional value. Eating a walnut-rich diet can reduce your cholesterol (Banel and Hu, 2009), improve your gut microbiota, and possibly prevent cancer. Start your day with walnut syrup on some pancakes. Add walnut oil to vinegar for salad dressing. Put chopped walnuts on your ice cream for the evening snack. If you have leftover walnut oil you can always use it as a food-safe finish for bowls, cutting boards, and kitchen utensils. If you fancy a liquid treat, nocino is a liqueur made from fermented unripe walnut husks. Buy it in the store or try a DIY recipe from the internet! While you are online you might want to check out how to dye cloth with walnuts. And consider using eco-friendly walnut shell abrasive in your sandblaster.

Figure 2 - Walnut salad dressing and chopped walnuts
are a healthy choice.

Then there are all the lumber and veneer products — dimensional stock, plywood, gunstocks, and veneers. I have sourced walnut from the stump, from the local sawmill, from hardwood lumber suppliers, and even from the big box stores when I was in a pinch for a nice board. Picking out walnut is an adventure in hardwood lumber grading and manufacturing processes. Kiln-dried, air-dried, steamed? Straight-line rip one edge? FAS or 2AC? Figured, mill-run, quartersawn? Burl, crotch, curly? The options are overwhelming, and the price differential is huge. Our Kansas sawmill sold roughsawn 4/4 in the yard for $3.50/bf. My last purchase of 4/4 FAS, S2S was about $15/bf from the hardwood supplier while the big box store package of shrink-wrapped clear S4S is about $30/bf. A live-edge crotch slab at my local hardwood supplier in Denver was $40/bf. Exhibition grade walnut gunstock blanks can be more than $500/bf. If you really want to think high-end, buy a walnut burl pen to match your Bentley Mulsanne ($6000). When you work with walnut you develop an eye for the difference between plain and fancy, firewood or presentation grades. When you luck across the nugget in the wood bundle it feels like you struck gold.

Figure 3 - Cherry blossom marquetry set in a walnut burl field.

Walnut is also valued for its workability. I have carved it, drilled it, milled it, and turned it on many projects, learning about its quirks and pleasures. Laboratory testing of wood properties shows that walnut cuts cleanly and precisely for mortising and drilling. It had the highest ranking in turning quality but came in middle-of-the-pack for planing and shaping operations. Walnut is almost as good for steam bending as white oak. Years ago, I worked on an industrial engineering project for one of the largest gunstock manufacturers in the U.S. It was fascinating to see the whole process from gunstock blank to finished product. First, the walnut blanks were registered in jigs to precisely machine the interfaces and borings for the metal parts. Then the rough blanks were passed along to a series of power sanding operations—pneumatic drum sanders, flat belt sanders, mop heads, spindle sanders — to shape the flowing contours of the stock. Power sanding steps were followed by hand sanding with hard blocks, soft blocks, and detail sanders to refine the form and take the surface through the finest grits. Then multiple coats of finish alternated with even more hand sanding to level the surface and even the sheen. One of the things I love about walnut is how it responds to such skilled craftsmanship. It is a Goldilocks wood — not too hard, not too soft. Tell it how beautiful it is, treat it with some respect, and it can be shaped into all kinds of wonderful things.

Figure 4 - Walnut carved and turned for an American Empire table.

When you get to the end of the project, walnut gives you lots of possibilities for finishing. It is classified as a semi-porous hardwood, meaning there are some large pores in the earlywood, but these aren't concentrated into growth rings. You can finish walnut with a rubbed oil finish (one of my favorites) and the texture of the grain adds character to your piece. Bentley calls this the "open-pore" veneer option for their luxury car models that lets customers better connect with the natural essence of the wood. Or you can fill the grain and layer on finish to create a smooth, glassy surface. A French polish for a walnut cabinet or tabletop is a classic. Beyond grain texture is the question of color. Walnut has natural color variations that are either a feature or a curse. The sapwood is quite light and I often work to trim it out or hide it on inner surfaces as much as possible. You can use stains or dyes to even out the color. Over time walnut naturally lightens to a honey-brown tone. Walnut is also a great candidate for ebonizing. A simple mix of vinegar and steel wool creates a chemical reaction in the wood to produce a deep black. I have used ebonized walnut for "ebony" plugs on Greene and Greene pieces and "lacquered" highlights for fancy boxes.

Figure 5 - A jewelry box with sycamore and ebonized walnut accents.

My old friend black walnut has such a rich personality, and it has been a joy to learn about all its moods. It is abundant, sustainable, and native. I can rely on it for solid structural use or count on it for those red-carpet glamor pieces. Plus, it tastes good and keeps my cholesterol down. What more could you ask from a friend? However, a final note, walnut is facing a serious threat. Thousand Cankers Disease (TCD) is vectored by the walnut twig beetle introducing a fungal pathogen into trees. It damages the phloem of trees leading to death. TCD was first identified in the Southwest but has spread across the U.S. At least 16 states that are TCD-free have quarantines to restrict the movement of green walnut (firewood, logs, untreated lumber). It is believed that people moving raw wood are the primary cause of the spread of TCD. The Kansas Forest Service offers some good tips for woodworkers: don't transport walnut logs, lumber, or firewood; don't buy logs, lumber, or firewood from unknown sources (like online sales). Could walnut trees suffer the same fate as our ash, elm, and chestnut trees (Emerald Ash borer, Dutch Elm disease, chestnut blight)? It is a real possibility. For now, I will hold my walnut stock close and enjoy time in the shop with an old friend.


American Hardwood Export Council. 2020. Interactive forest map.

Banel, D.K. and Hu, F.B. 2009. Effects of walnut consumption on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis and systematic review.. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90:56–63

Davis, E.M. 1962. Machining and related characteristics of United States hardwoods. Tech Bulletin 1267. USDA Forest Service. 71 p.

Oswalt, S.; Smith, B.; Miles, P.; and Pugh, S. 2019. Forest Resources of the United States, 2017: a technical document supporting the Forest Service 2020 RPA Assessment. GTR WO-97. USDA Forest Service. 223 p.

Randolph et al. 2013. Status of black walnut (juglans nigra l.) in the eastern United States in light of the discovery of thousand cankers disease.. Castanea 78(1): 2-14.

Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at rummersohne@gmail.com. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.

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