American Chestnut Coming Back from the Brink of Extinction
posted on June 1, 2008 by Rob Johnstone
American Chestnut tree in Wisconsin This American chestnut tree growing in Wisconsin is one of a very few that has survived to grow to full size.

It was a great prospect for our refinishing book. The classic-looking little cabinet was obviously handmade, but more important to our work, it was covered with many layers of hideous paint and who knows what. But we ran into a curious problem after the cabinet’s wood had been exposed. The guys working on the project could not figure out what the heck it was made of. My coworkers were baffled, so as I walked across the shop, I sensed the opportunity to show off a bit...to demonstrate the scope of my nearly encyclopedic knowledge of wood and wood species. (Honesty forces me to I confess I may have spoken a bit disparagingly of my fellow shop rats’ skills and knowledge as I made my overly dramatic stroll to the rescue.) Unfortunately, when I paused to closely examine the wood, I, too, was unable to tell them what it was. (Needless to say, my buddies enjoyed my embarrassment.)

That was my first experience with chestnut lumber. Although I had been actively involved in woodworking for nearly 20 years by then, I had never seen a single piece of unfinished chestnut.

Which was curious, because chestnut lumber had once been one of the most common species available in the United States. Chestnuts were the dominant trees of North American Eastern forests. It was said that a squirrel could travel from Georgia to Maine on the limbs of chestnut trees without ever touching the ground. When the trees blossomed in the spring, hillsides looked as if they were covered with snow.

Large piece of chestnut lumber Large boards of unused chestnuts are still available for purchase through some sources, for a price.

There was an entire rural economy developed around the American chestnut. As described by Tim Knight: “Farm life was difficult in the mountains and hills of the East. Settlers in the Appalachians relied on hunting, fishing and chestnuts for their livelihood. Chestnut wood was durable, highly resistant to rot and decay, straight-grained, easy to split, saw and work. Unlike most other woods, the sapwood was as decay-resistant as the heartwood so the tree was used for split-rail fencing, posts, poles, logs and siding for cabins, shingles, furniture and many other products. When the tree was felled for all of these products, the bark was removed first and sold to hide-tanning enterprises due to its high tannic acid content. The industry of bark sales was known as the “penny business,” as it was sold for pennies per 100 pounds. The nuts were plentiful and sweet and were a major source of autumn food and income for the mountain people. Chestnuts sold for as much as $12 per bushel in New York and Boston (although the people who collected them could expect little more than 10 cents per pound for their efforts).”

But the blight that killed American chestnuts changed those circumstances forever.

Gone But Not Forgotten
Burrs and nuts from an American Chestnut tree. The chestnut tree grows large burrs, which contain the actual chestnuts.

You may be asking yourself: why write about a type of wood that literally died off around 60 years ago? There are at least two reasons. The first is that because chestnut was so plentiful in its heyday, and is so durable in nature, there are still significant quantities to be purchased and used — of both stockpiled but never used lumber and reclaimed stock. The second reason is that, thanks to years of dedicated work by The American Chestnut Foundation (www.afc.org), 60 years from now, we may have some mature stands of American chestnut growing in the once-blighted regions of the East. For the last 25 years, they have overseen a breeding program to develop a blight-resistant genetic strain of American chestnut. In fact, last fall they began harvesting nuts that they believe will produce blight resistant tree stock. Due to the slow growth of chestnut trees, the testing phase may last until 2020. I, for one, find that a hopeful and exciting prospect.

How Does It Work?
Tool Chest made from American Chestnut Reclaimed and found chestnut wood still exists on the market and is used in new projects like this toolbox.

While I have never personally had the opportunity to work with chestnut, field editor Chris Marshall reports, “If you’ve worked with red oak, you have essentially worked with chestnut. It is almost identical in its machining characteristics.” Perfect for everything from outdoor furniture to a fine dining room table, American chestnut might be just the ticket for your next project.

posted on June 1, 2008 by Rob Johnstone
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Comments

One thought on “American Chestnut Coming Back from the Brink of Extinction”

  • Mike Bruno

    I am an ISA certified arborist in Oregon and I have just taken down a dead chestnut tree that was over 7' across . One 12 foot branch maxed out my truck at 12,000 lbs . I cut a dead branch of this same tree and milled into slabs a couple years ago. That branch was a 7400 pounder. Very stable, does not split or cup. I really like the curly stuff.

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