In the past, I have written about Walnut, but only in terms of several very specific variants of the Juglans species, Juglans hindsii (California Claro Walnut) and the nut-bearing Juglans regia (English Walnut). However the most common wood referred to as Walnut in the United States is Juglans nigra (Black Walnut) native to the eastern United States.
As I have indicated above, Juglans nigra is a wood of the eastern parts of North America, is native to eastern North America. It grows mostly on land adjacent to rivers or streams, so-called riparian zones. J.nigra is a widely dispersed species ranging from southern Ontario, west to southeast South Dakota, south to Georgia, northern Florida and southwest to central Texas. There is a small population of wild trees in the upper Ottawa Valley that may be an isolated native population or they may have derived from planted trees. The populations in Georgia and Florida are relatively isolated groupings cut off from the main stands and are best described as islands of walnut.
The vast majority, about 65%, of the domestic wild harvest of J. nigra timber comes from the state of Missouri. The city of Stockton, Missouri, in the southwest of the state, is a center for the processing of both the edible nuts of J. nigra as well as the timber.Specimens of J. nigra have been exported to Europe since the 17th Century as both decorative specimens as well as sources of beautiful timber. In addition, specimens of J. nigra can be found in other areas of North America outside of its native range due to specimen planting mostly for decorative purposes. J. nigra can grow to impressive sizes, reaching well over 100 feet in height.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to J. nigra from this point forward by its common name, Black Walnut.
The heartwood of the Black Walnut can range from a light pale brown to a dark chocolate brown. Occasionally the wood will feature darker brown streaks through the lighter colors which can add greatly to its appeal. Sometimes some viewers can discern color tones or casts that include grey, purple and red. The sapwood, which is not generally used except perhaps to provide contrast in small amounts when it naturally occurs in natural edge carvings or turnings, is pale yellow-gray to nearly white. As is true of some other domestic woods, notably Acer (Maple) species, figured grain patterns such as curl, crotch, and burl are also seen. When these figures occur, demand and price will rise dramatically and such pieces not uncommonly are used in the manufacture of very high-end gun stocks or knife handles.
The grain of Black Walnut timber is usually straight, but as can happen in most any tree, it can occasionally be irregular. Such irregular grain can increase visual appeal but also usually complicates the machining of the wood. Black Walnut is said to have a medium texture and moderate natural luster.
The end grain of Black Walnut is reported as porous and the pores tend to be large, closing with age but never completely disappearing. Mineral deposits are not usually reported in Black Walnut.
While I cannot imagine that it is greatly relevant for the majority uses that call for Black Walnut wood, it is reported to be very durable in terms of decay resistance. However, Black Walnut wood is susceptible to insect attack.
Black Walnut is almost always easy to work provided the grain is straight and regular. This ease of working increases the appeal of the wood beyond just its physical appearance. However, the proviso of having straight and regular grain is as true of Black Walnut as it is of most every wood. While irregular grain and/or high degrees of figure are quite attractive and command a high price in the marketplace, such features also greatly increase the likelihood of tear out during such wood working operations as planing or other surfacing procedures. Very sharp tools and patience are helpful in overcoming this tendency but it can still happen despite all attempts otherwise.
Black Walnut is easy to glue and finish. Black Walnut also takes a stain quite well but because of the natural color of the wood, it is rarely stained.
For applications that require non-linear shaping, Black Walnut also responds well to steam bending.
Most pieces of Black Walnut feature faint and mild odor when being freshly worked. Many wood workers find the scent to be quite pleasant and not at all irritating.
While Black Walnut is widely available it is also widely popular and that increases the price. Black Walnut is likely to be priced on the high side for a domestic hardwood. As is usually the case, any pieces that feature irregular grain, unusual or intense coloration, high degrees of figure, or burl pieces will command considerably more than pieces without these added features.
Unfortunately, available lumber sizes of Black Walnut tend toward the smaller side of the scale, but larger pieces are sometimes available, but they will command a premium price in the marketplace.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
West Penn Hardwoods, which has just completed a challenging move from New York State to North Carolina, has extensive stocks of Black Walnut, which they market as simply Walnut, in both bowl and spindle turning stock sizes, as well as guitar sets, pen blanks, regular lumber and thin dimensional sizes. They are even offering unique boards that command high prices due to the one-of-a-kind nature of the figure present. As a price example, a very large 8x8x3 bowl blank of Black Wannut currently sells for almost $50. However, special sales are common so check the website frequently and sign up for email alerts.
Bell Forest Products is selling up to 30 different sizes of Black Walnut, which they list and sell as simply Walnut, ranging from pen blanks to bowl blanks as well as spindle blocks and limited quantities of dimensional lumber. Bell Forest Products is currently offering a very nice Black Walnut bowl blank of 8x8x3 for slightly under $30. This is clearly a significantly better price than that currently offered by West Penn Hardwoods for the same size, however, the grade of material on offer may be different as well. This is hard to determine unless you see the pieces on offer from both dealers either in person, or in a high quality image.
While the two dealers above are personal favorites, Black Walnut is frankly very easy to find and is obtainable from many dealers in domestic hardwoods, including many fairly standard lumber yards, although I can’t imagine that much Black Walnut will be found in the so-called “big box stores.” But that’s OK because we don’t care to shop with them anyway when we can help it! There is quite likely a seller of quality Black Walnut wood or lumber near you.
If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Black Walnut, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
Black Walnut is used in many of the same applications as other highly colored domestic and imported hardwoods. It is commonly used in the manufacture of high end furniture and cabinetry. Black Walnut is also popular as interior paneling (this use has diminished as interior design moves away from dark colors but some people still favor this use) as well as for veneer work. More specialized uses include gunstocks and knife handles which often utilize the most highly figured of the Black Walnut on offer at considerable price for the buyer. Black Walnut is also an excellent turning wood. It also finds use in other small wooden objects and novelties.
Black Walnut is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. I have not heard any reports of stocks being substantially diminished at this time although the popularity of the wood would seem to indicate that at some point existing natural wild stocks would start to decline. In fact, the United States Forest Service indicates that much of the best stocks have been harvested forcing the remaining excellent examples to be used as veneer to stretch the increasingly limited supply of the best wood as far as possible.
Black Walnut is grown and harvested on plantations as well, particularly in Illinois. Plantation trees, under the most ideal of circumstances, can grow as much as four feet per year, making the growth and harvest of timber from plantations a viable option for future Black Walnut lumber needs.
I also realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon.
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Black Walnut has been reported as a sensitizer. This means that a person who has a reaction upon first exposure will often develop more severe and sustained reactions upon each additional exposure. The most common reactions include eye and skin irritation. Individuals who experience a negative reaction when working with Black Walnut, or any wood, should carefully consider their options when, and if, choosing to work with that particular wood again in the future.
In general, the dust generated by sanding operations poses the greatest risk of causing a reaction. Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, domestic or exotic wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with Black Walnut.
My Personal Experiences
While I have worked with small pieces of Black Walnut in the past in the making of pens, this was my first experience working with a bowl blank size of the wood, and the piece I worked with, while mostly Black Walnut, also included Maple.
After cutting the square blank to round on the bandsaw, I decided to turn it round between centers before attempting to attach a face plate. The blank was kiln dried and was quite stable but I find it easier to achieve a good round shape between centers before attaching a face plate. Given the preparation of the wood by the supplier it was easy to achieve a decent face plate mounting surface for further turning operations, including cutting the divot for the mounting of the Nova chuck and jaws, a 35mm in this case.
I found the wood to be moderately hard and dense, but it cut quite easily with the use of Easy Wood Tools. As always, I didn’t get in a hurry and was careful to listen to the sound of the wood while I worked it, listening for sounds that would indicate significant stress or tensions that could result in breakage. I don’t know exactly how to describe the sound of overstressed wood, but with experience any wood turner, I believe, will know the sound of imminent disaster.
I don’t recall detecting any significant odor with this piece although I am familiar with the sweet and spicy scent of Claro Walnut and was somewhat surprised it wasn’t present in Black Walnut as well.
As is true of my experiences with other Juglans species, the relatively open end grain and porosity of Black Walnut necessitated a bit more final sanding than is true of a closed grain and minimally porous wood such as the Maple that this Black Walnut was coupled with. However, by following my usual process and standard progression of grits of both sandpaper and Abranet screens, I was able to achieve a finish sand and polish down to 800 grit without a great deal of time or undue effort.
As is my habit when working with Walnut of any kind, for the final finish I routinely turn to Watco Danish Oil. I always use the “natural” color selection because I don’t want to obscure the naturally beautiful color of the Black Walnut wood with any tint or dye. I knew that the Maple segments would not take up the oil very much and would therefore not be darkened by the treatment. Maple in general is reluctant to take up any stain or dye and this proved to be no exception. The walnut soaked up the Danish Oil easily, especially along the end grain sections, so I continued to apply until I achieved an even finish.
These types of finishes are known as “hardening” finishes. They work by soaking into the wood and then undergoing a chemical reaction that causes the oil to harden on exposure to the oxygen in the air, creating a protective finish not just on, but also in, the wood itself. While this process can be inhibited in particularly oily wood, Black Walnut does not have a high oil content so these types of finishes work quite well.
I enjoyed working with the Black Walnut in combination with the Hard Maple. I found the combination to be a good one both in terms of color contrast and also in the close hardness measures of the woods which made for a more uniform experience in turning and sanding as both species required approximately the same amount of effort to achieve a pleasing finish for both the eye and the fingers. I would gladly work with larger pieces of Black Walnut as a single wood as opposed to using it in combination, but the laminated piece was what I had on hand and was choosing to work with, so it provided a good introduction to working with Black Walnut, which I hope to do more of in the near future.
I wish everyone out there happiness and safety in the wood shop and I hope that all your projects turn out exactly as you hope and plan. Until next time, cheers and do a good turn on my behalf.