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American black walnut: the heirloom wood.

It would be wrong to say that American black walnut is making a comeback since it really never went away.

Walnut translates beautifully into a variety of "old favorites." It has been featured in many classic furniture designs, among them Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish, 18th century English, Early American and Colonial pieces. It works well in contemporary designs, too.

Walnut comes of age

Historically, walnut earned its fine furniture reputation during the Renaissance, but went in and out of favor with the political whims and leader-preferences of that time. In the days of the Puritans, it was out of style but the Huguenots loved its artistic interpretations. In "Encyclopedia of Wood," the unusual ties between politics and furniture are cited: "Indeed, Flemish and Continental styles were banned after the execution of Charles I in 1649, but the installation of Charles II" returned the wood to favor.

From 1660 to 1720, the English style of walnut furniture became world renowned. Veneers also gained popularity and cabinetmakers became adept at using the fragile, highly figured wood against a less popular hardwood substrate.

Larry Frye, executive director of the Fine Hardwood Veneer and the American Walnut Manufacturers Assn., calls American black walnut the aristocrat of fine hardwoods. It is, he added, "the most respected of North America's fine hardwoods with a reputation that dates to the 16th century."

Hank Grant, a spokesman for Hickory Chair, said walnut has figured into his company's design plans and is included in its product line.

"We use walnut because of its beautiful wood grain. We are using walnut in two collections -- the French Collection and the European Country Collection by Mark Hampton. Both feature walnut veneers in a pin knotty style that gives a very traditional, rich look," said Grant.

A tough tree to crack

With its reputation for toughness, walnut has a long history as a gun stock and its use for rifle butts. It is an excellent choice for this application because of its weight, elasticity, and smooth finish.

Among walnut's other fine qualities, it is workable, easily finished and hard to dent. It is a moderate-weight wood with both warmth and beauty. "As the years go by, the wood develops a lustrous patina," Frye said.

The heartwood is beautiful, ranging in color from a deep dark brown to an almost purple-black. Its grain is usually straight but can be wavy. It has a coarse but uniform texture.

Walnut is considered a delightful wood to work with and is renown for its fine finishing properties. It is slightly tricky to dry as checking and degrade can occur.

Pluses about this species include the fact that it is one of the United States' "faster growing fine hardwoods," according to Frye. Its growing range stretches from Vermont to the Great Plains and south to Louisiana and Texas; its range also includes Canada, specifically Ontario. The highest growth concentration is in the central United States: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and surrounding states. The trees seem to mature best in the central states, whether growing singly or in scattered groves. It is common to harvest walnut logs one at a time from a variety of growers, said Frye.

The nutty neighbors

The tree is native to Asia and was first exported to Italy. The Romans named the tree after Jupiter, calling it jovis glans, which translated means Jupiter's acorn.

Its English roots date to the first century A.D. Its Old English name, wahl, roughly translates to "foreign." Other trees may bear the name walnut --Queensland walnut for example -- but true walnuts are confined to Juglans of the Family Juglandaceae. The species native to the United States is Juglans nigra. Close relatives include Juglans regia, English walnut, known as the better nut producer, and Juglans rupestris, a tree that grows in Texas. Juglans sieboldiana yields Japanese walnut.

Its wonderful fruit is another bounty of the tree. The nuts ripen in September and are well protected by a smooth outer shell over the furrowed inner shell. In some countries the ancient method of harvesting the walnuts still exists: the nuts are literally beaten off the tree using a long pole with a metal end. "Beating" the trees allegedly helped, rather than hurt, both nut production and the quality of the timber.

Other byproducts of the valuable walnut trees are: tannin from the leaves for medicinal purposes; mouthwash; and cattle laxative, when mixed with linseed oil. The oil from the seeds is used to make salad dressing and also as an ingredient in oil-based paints.
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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month; nomenclature, sources, properties and uses
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:757
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