By Jo-Ann Kaiser | Posted: 10/13/2009 2:00AM
Juglans nigra of the Family Juglandaceae
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Although walnut is a tough hardwood, it is workable with both hand and machine tools. The wood has an oily nature that makes it easier to cut. Even so, black walnut is considered by many to be dent-resistant, which accounts for its wide use in flooring.
Walnuts are deciduous trees. The Latin name Juglans is believed to be taken from Jupiter glans, or Jupiter’s acorn, a reference to the fruit of the trees — “a nut fit for the gods.” It may be one reason walnut is considered the aristocrat of fine cabinet woods and often is used in high-end applications for homes, offices and commercial interiors.
And while black walnut’s name may at first seem a misnomer because of its light sapwood, generally creamy white, the light-brown heartwood darkens to a rich brown-purplish black tone with age.
Home on the Range
Walnut is one of the few American species that is planted, but it also regenerates naturally. Some 21 species belong to the genus Juglans, members of the Juglandaceae family. American black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of the largest hardwoods trees in North America. Black walnut’s range extends from Vermont west to the Plain states and south to Louisiana and Texas, with the majority of the trees found growing in the central portion of the country.
“People have wondered why there are so many veneer mills located in the Midwest,” said Scott Wright, product manager at Renaissance Specialty Veneer Products, Columbus, IN. “Part of the reason is that 100 years ago, the mills were built close to the best sources of walnut, as it was identified as a prime species to be sliced into veneer.”
American black walnut was such a valuable domestic veneer that it earned the nickname black gold, said Wright. “Black walnut, like most woods, goes in and out of favor with the public, but we are seeing increased demand for it as a veneer, along with other darker toned woods. Ten years ago, black walnut’s use had fallen off somewhat.”
Straight or Full Figure
Black walnut is typically straight-grained, although it can have a wavy or curly grain, with some beautiful figures such as fiddleback. Burrs and stumps of walnut may also yield highly figured wood and veneers for high-end applications.
Wright said that he is seeing renewed interest in the architectural-grade straight grained quartered black walnut. “People are using it in high-end architectural applications, such as elevator cabs, lobby areas and some is going into contract furniture. We are also getting requests for black walnut veneer for custom built homes. Least desirable features with our clients are pin knots and contrast with growth rings, although for some markets and uses, those ‘defects’ are qualities that are preferred.”
Artist and woodworker Joe Valasek of Heartwood Carving in Eugene, OR, said, “American black walnut is a fine all-around wood, but it is considered among carvers to be the best American carving wood there is. Black walnut is a wonderful wood to work. What we use is up to the client, but we are seeing more and more walnut and mahogany specified.”
Will Tait, a classically trained California artist with a history of woodcarving and woodwork, agreed. “Any experienced woodcarver will sing the praises of black walnut. It works exceptionally well,” said Tait. “What I do is very visual and I want a wood that is relatively plain and will look the same across the whole piece.”
The species has other desirable characteristics as well. In the book Know Your Woods, Albert Constantine Jr. writes, “Black walnut has long been considered one of the most desirable woods of this country, not only because of the beautiful wood of various figures that the tree produces, but also for the food value in black walnuts — a delicacy used in candies, bread and ice cream.”
In addition to Juglans regia, other walnuts of note include butternut or white walnut (Juglans cindera) and California walnut (Juglans hindsii), a fast-growing walnut along the West Coast. European walnut (Juglans regia) also is known as Circassian walnut or named for the country of origin, such as French walnut or English walnut. Japanese walnut (Juglans cordiformis) is also known as Kurumi. Manchurian walnut (Juglans mandshurica) is found in Korea and is similar in some respects to European walnut, although it is usually straighter grained.
About the Author
Jo-Ann KaiserJo-Ann Kaiser has been covering the woodworking industry for 31+ years. She is a contributing editor for the Woodworking Network and has been writing the Wood of the Month column since its inception in 1986.