Butternut often has been called the “white walnut” or the “other walnut.” A member of the walnut family, it has a rich, warm buttery tan color and a satin-like luster. In addition to a wide range of uses, including cabinetry, furniture, flooring, wall paneling, high-end joinery, interior trim for boats, boxes and crates, it can be sliced into veneer and is well-regarded as a carving wood. In addition, the trees yield a sweet edible nut, considered by many to be a delicacy, and syrup similar to that of maple.


 
Family Name: Juglans cinera of the Family Juglandaceae
Common Names: Butternut, white walnut, oil-nut  
Height/Weight: Butternut’s average height is 40 to 60 feet.
Its average weight is 28 pounds per cubic foot,
with a specific gravity of 0.45.
Properties
: The wood dries slowly with little degrade.
It has medium movement in service.
The wood has a low wood bending classification.  
Butternut screws and na
ils well. It also works well with hand and machine tools.
It can be easily worked with hand and power
tools. Because of the softness of the wood, experts recommend the use of sharp cutting tools.
The wood nails, screws and glues well. It also finishes very well.


The many wonderful attributes of this tree make it all the more tragic that it is under attack from a tiny airborne fungus. The butternut canker, known as Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum, was first detected in the United States in 1967, but scientists theorize that it was in existence here much earlier. A 1995 USDA Forest Service study estimated that the canker was responsible for widespread damage to butternut trees, resulting in the loss of almost 77 percent of the butternuts in the Southeast.

Botanists believe the fungus initially infects the trees through buds and other openings in the bark. The damage begins quickly, with the destruction of small branches. Spores are carried by rain to the stem, causing stem cankers that spread and kill the trees.

Salvaging the Wood

Efforts continue to harvest the dead or declining trees to salvage the quality wood. One such salvage company is Vermont WildWood in Marshfield, VT. ”Our business is forest-salvage,” said Rick Pope, office manager. “We work directly with loggers and foresters in order to get them to stop cutting the remaining healthy butternut trees. We then pay them a premium to bring out the diseased and dead trees. We only purchase the dead standing or dead fallen trees.”

Pope said dead butternut trees can stand for four to five years and fallen trees are salvageable two to three years after.

“Historically there hasn’t been a lot of butternut lumber or veneer available. The trees have a relatively short life of 60 or so years and the canker has made the situation much worse,” he said. “It’s a very popular wood because of its natural luster, color and beauty. As a carving wood, it’s outstanding and has a great history with the decorative arts.”

Tongue and groove flooring and wall paneling currently account for roughly half of Vermont WildWood’s sales, Pope said. In spite of last year’s slow economy, the company, which was founded 10 years ago by Parker Nichols, still had its best year to date.

“Butternut is considered a soft hardwood, but the floors will last 50 to 60 years and many people who love the look of the wood think that’s a great return on their investment,” Pope said.

“The material can often have a lot of character marks, and might be used in place of wormy chestnut. We like to call butternut ‘perfectly imperfect’,” he added.

A Sight to Behold
Ben Barrett, president of Berkshire Veneer Co. in Great Barrington, MA, also is a butternut fan. “The warmth and beauty of a nicely built piece of furniture or paneled office featuring butternut is a sight to behold,” he says. “From the veneer standpoint, butternut does come on the market from time to time, but as it is so limited in log form, it’s somewhat off the radar.

“Because it’s limited, people don’t often think of it for projects,” he added. “We have a flitch in stock that we’ve been retailing out for some time now, but we don’t sell a ton of it. It’s unusual in that this particular flitch is dead clear; so often it’s full of imperfections, blemishes and bark pockets.

“The one drawback to it is what makes it such a pleasure to work from a woodworker standpoint: It’s very soft. This might make it inappropriate for a tabletop or desk,” said Barrett.

Jim Dumas, owner of Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY, stocks butternut veneer. He noted the clearest material — without streaks or pin knots — comes from the largest logs.

“We are always on the lookout for large logs because the material it yields is often more clear. A recent purchase will give us 10-foot lengths clear in 70 percent of the wood,” said Dumas.

“Butternut is a warm, appealing wood with a natural luster. It is a wood that I describe as inviting, [although] it is in short supply because of the butternut fungus. You see it in paneling and cabinetry and a wide range of architectural jobs, including elevator cabs and entrance ways or behind service desks,” he adds.

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