Black walnut is not as readily available as it once was, but it is still highly regarded as an excellent hardwood by most woodworkers.
One day many years ago, a regular customer — we’ll call him “Harvey” to protect the guilty — came into my father’s cabinet shop with a production woodworking job. A local bank needed about 60 blocks of black walnut machined to hold brass name plaques for its big muckety-mucks. As I understood the job, it required slicing up 10/4 walnut lumber into a fairly complex geometry, sanding them mirror smooth and then routing a recess for the brass plaque. A good quality sealer, followed by a clear coat (we sprayed nitrocellulous lacquer) would finish up the name plaques. We also needed to glue green felt to the bottoms of the blocks to protect the banker’s desks — very classy! For such small pieces, they turned out to be ridiculously expensive, and I held out slim hope of landing the job as I called and gave Harvey our bid. To my surprise, the only question he had was: “How soon can you get them done?”
[caption id="attachment_11415" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Most black walnut trees growing right now are focused on food growing, as their nuts are harvested regularly.
I was lucky and the lumber that I ordered was revealed to be exceptionally beautiful as it came out of the planer. On occasion, black walnut can be a bit gray and lack figure — but this stock was richly colored with myriad reds and browns blended together in a curvaceous grain pattern. I could not have been more proud of the finished pieces as I handed them over to Harvey early in the next week. And he was frankly impressed, not a common reaction in the “just get it done” world of production woodworking.
[caption id="attachment_11416" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Black walnut trees are easily identifiable by its leaf growing pattern as well as the clusters of nuts that grow at the ends of the branches.
To my surprise, the following morning as I got to work, Harvey was waiting for me and all the name blocks were in boxes by the front door. I felt my stomach go a little queasy.
“Is there a problem with the job,” I asked?
“Not really a problem; the customer wants some additional finishing,” he said, not making eye contact. “They want them painted chocolate brown ...”
[caption id="attachment_11417" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Black walnut wood creates a very attractive look in projects like this highboy, though some consider it too "old fashioned" looking for more modern projects.
As Harvey related the long, sad story to me later, it turned out that the designer in charge of the office makeover thought the clear-finished walnut was too old-fashioned looking. So he came up with the brown enamel as a means to “save the day.”
Grudgingly, and for an extra couple of hundred dollars (which I think came out of poor Harvey’s pocket), I sprayed a nice, smooth coat of brown paint over that stunningly beautiful walnut. But I must say that I was not at all proud of the product as I handed them over for delivery this time around.
Easy and Beautiful
Black walnut is a great wood to work with, so much so that it is hard to know which characteristic to like more — its beauty or its workability. It is fairly common, and good quality black walnut lumber is not hard to find. With that said, there is no getting around the fact that you will pay more for walnut than for other domestic hardwoods. For that reason, some woodworkers treat it more like a rare exotic lumber — saving it for accent pieces or small components in a bigger piece.
I like to finish black walnut with a clear finish, and I think it looks especially good with a rubbed oil finish — like a natural Watco oil. If you run into walnut that has a grayish tint (I find this often in the cathedral grain of plainsawn walnut), try sprucing it up with a bit of thinned cherry-colored oil stain. I find that this adds life to an otherwise dead-looking patch of wood.
If you have never worked with walnut, I’d encourage you to save your money and give it a try — just leave the brown paint in the can!