Over the past five and one-half years, at least ten mid-south trees have been awarded their own feature article in Wood Spin, which is high honor indeed. The question arises, why not black walnut?

Perhaps because walnut is such an obvious choice. American black walnut is revered by woodturners around the world and when international turners are asked to select the most desirable North American wood, they almost always choose black walnut. Therefore, it has been more fun to write about persimmon, black locust, sweet gum, osage orange, hickory, and several other trees than to pile on the expected accolades for beautiful black walnut.


Or, perhaps I have ignored walnut because of my love/hate relationship with this tree and its wood. I have always had to balance the inherent beauty of walnut with the irritation I experience when coming into contact with walnut dust. Walnut is the one domestic wood that gives me significant problems, and since I rarely turn those oily exotic woods (cocobolo, etc.) walnut is my #1 problem wood from a health perspective.

Beyond the irritation experienced by many woodturners and caused by the juglan family of chemicals within walnut wood, some people respond with a true allergic reaction and one which may include serious respiratory difficulties. Horses seem to be especially sensitive to the walnut sourced chemicals and deaths have been reported even when horses used walnut sawdust as bedding material. I am not sure about the scientific validity of the cause/effect relationships of these equine deaths but anecdotal reports abound. There is no question that juglans are toxic chemicals as crushed walnut hulls have been used for centuries to stun fish so they can be collected from streams and other small bodies of water.

Back to woodturning issues. When a woodturner needs a native dark wood, walnut is the best choice and almost the only choice in many locations. Some sweet gum wood looks like some walnut,  darkest walnut. Walnut wood coloration varies tremendously and not just between sapwood and heartwood. Walnut exists with many different appearances: brown, rich dark brown, even greenish purple. Also, different patterns are encountered --fiddleback, swirls, ripples, to name a few.

A happy find is walnut with almost white sapwood and very dark heartwood as all sorts of “vanilla & chocolate” drip turnings become possible. Other striking interspecies contrast exist when walnut is paired with holly, maple, or some hickories. Here is a takeaway fact -- walnut sapwood is usually far softer and rots much quicker than the heartwood which may remain for years after the sapwood has disappeared. This is in contrast to the admittedly unusual situation with hickory where the sapwood is harder than the heartwood.

In terms of ease of turning, walnut is intermediate on my scale. More body than poplar, soft maple, box elder, pine, and other woods on the soft end, but not in the same category as hickory, persimmon, black locust, cherry, osage orange, sweet gum, and several other woods that are more fun to turn and which hold profiles better. Walnut is one of those woods that can be burnished with a gouge to the point liquid finishing chemicals don’t soak in well, thus requiring the unusual step of roughing up the wood before applying finish, or, just leave the burnished wood as is.

Some woodturners use bandsaws to slice cross sections of walnuts and use the brain-like circles as interesting inlays. Other offbeat applications for the walnuts is to grind them up and use the dust as crack fillers. Coarse ground walnuts have been used as abrasives.

A final point to expand on my aversion to walnut. When I was a youngster, I recall trying to collect the tasty “meat” from black walnuts, an undertaking which always proved to be a frustrating experience. First, a specific walnut tree will only bear nuts one to three years out of every five, so the nuts are not always present. Then, a walnut is encased in a thick hull that is impossible to remove until the hull has dried and then it is still not easy to separate hulls from nuts. The favored method in those days seemed to be to place the black and rotting hulls into a gunny sack and run over the sack several times with a pickup truck. At this point, the extremely hard nuts could be separated from the hulls via a messy manual process. After the nuts dried and you finally got most of the stain off your hands, the fun was just beginning as the extremely hard nuts had to be cracked with a hammer and the meat picked out with a nut pick. It seems that the meat made up about 5% of the nut.

I learned it was easier just to go purchase a black walnut ice cream cone. I could make the 5 or 10 cents required by receiving one cent deposits on bottles I picked up along the road.

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Saturday the 20th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.