Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

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Fig. 2-7. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) 60′ – 100′ (18-30 m) tall


This is an excerpt from “With the Grain: A Craftsman’s Guide to Understanding Wood” by Christian Becksvoort. 

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The walnut family also includes butternut and the hickories. Juglans means nut of Jupiter, nigra, or black, refers to the dark wood. Its natural range is from New England through southern Ontario to South Dakota, south to Texas, and east to northern Florida. Walnuts grow best in the deep rich soils of river valleys and bottom lands, where they reach a height of 60′-100′ (18-30 m). The tree generally has an open crown with thick, sturdy branches. Walnut leaves are compound, 1′-2′ (30-60 cm) long, with 13-23 lance-shaped leaflets. Leaves grow alternately on thick, stubby twigs. When cut, the twigs reveal a light brown pith, about the thickness of a pencil lead. Overall, the light green foliage is scant, giving the tree an airy appearance. Early in the fall the leaves turn yellow and drop, leaving a distinctive 3-lobed, notched, leaf scar. The nut matures at about the same time, enclosed in a thick, green, pulpy husk about the size of a billiard ball. The deeply grooved black nut is very thick and hard, but well worth the effort of extracting the meat. The dark brown bark grows in broken, crossed ridges.

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Black walnut is as close to a perfect cabinet wood as can be found in North America. The light sapwood, 10-20 rings wide, is often steamed commercially to make it blend with the heartwood, which is a medium chocolate to purplish-brown. The wood is medium hard (with a density of 38 lb/ft³ or .61 g/cc at 12 percent MC), strong and works well with both hand and power tools. Classified as semi-ring-porous the vessels (containing tyloses) are large enough to be seen on any surface. Walnut is very decay-resistant, and was once used for railroad ties. Many early barns, houses and outbuildings in the Appalachians and the Midwest were constructed with walnut frames. Its color, beauty and workability make it a prime cabinet wood. Gunsmiths use it for stocks because it moves very little once dried. Top-quality veneer logs will sell for thousands of dollars and will panel miles of executive offices.

Meghan Bates

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9 Responses to Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

  1. Jeff Hanna says:

    Eh, I take down barns and reclaim wood full time and walnut is a rare find. Most of it comes from ohio (prime walnut country) and even there it’s not common. Walnut trees tend to have a lot of branching which generally makes them a poor choice for hewing a timber frame beam. Forget rot resistance, when hewing a timber frame, you’re looking for the timbers that grow the straightest; species is less important.

  2. Really I five trees in my yard all well over 60″ high. Two are about 4 to 5 in diameter. One is about 2 feet in dis. and clear and straight for over 20 heet up. So what can I get for the wood if and I mean if I cut them down?

  3. duckfarmer27 says:

    I live in upstate NY, along the PA border. Walnut here was also used for fence posts – we live on part of the family farm bought over 100 years ago. In clearing fence lines I have found many of the very old posts to be walnut, and in surprisingly good shape. And still several large trees growing in the old fence lines and along the creek

  4. Hi Meghan,

    Great excerpt of Christian’s work…Thanks for sharing this and opening the conversation.

    J. nigra is a great species to share as an example of a very under utilized wood and botanical (today). From medicine, to tanning methods, textiles and of course in our love of woodworking. This species also reflects the change a species can have in just a few generations do to harvesting modalities; kind of like Dandelions in a mowed lawn getting shorter and shorter. Historically (in some regions even today in rare patches) this species can grow very tail and straight. This is both due to growing conditions and variants in the species itself.

    It has been a rare and uncommon gift to find, over my life, several old Log Cabins, and related timber framed vernacular structures like Barns, Farm Houses, Out Houses, and Smoke Sheds, etc. that where constructed almost exclusively with Black Walnut. An entire barn was located in southern Ohio just last year (!!!) that was 100% Black Walnut. These structures reflect not only the rot resistance and durability of the wood found in Black Walnut, but also the immense size this species can attain, with timber Sill and Rafter Plates in excess of 10 meters and cross section greater than 400 mm with few knots. The larges I have milled was over 6 meters in length and over 2 m in width DBH, with still available (rarely now but growing well for the future!!) very tall specimens for future timber frames.

    • Jeff Hanna says:

      Sorry, but I’m skeptical. I have literally taken down close to a thousand barns since we started in 2009 east of the Mississippi. Only ever found a hand full of walnut beams and most of them are small (usually purlins or knee braces, which could justify the idea of picking a species for rot resistance being that they are along the roof). Rarely, you can find a swing beam made of walnut or cherry, but swing barns themselves are uncommon. Being that walnut doesn’t grow in stands, I am guessing the barn that was entirely walnut was probably a later barn with sawn timbers from a mill (not hand hewn from timbers on site).

      Most people can’t identify the species of a rough beam; they see the patina the beam has acquired over the years, its dark so they say it’s walnut. I get at least a dozen calls a week with someone telling me they have a 40 x 80 barn made entirely of chestnut when it’s 80% oak. (By the way, chestnut isn’t at all rare around here, people just seem to think that when they find a piece or two they’ve won the lottery).

  5. Skepticism can be a fine thing Jeff…Nothing wrong with that :)…

    Yet I have been in and around the traditional arts both in craft and folk architecture since the 60’s, and apprenticed with Old Order Amish (et al) from the age of 13 learning to be a traditional Barnwright. There is a vast and amazing world out there, and what Black Walnut has to offer is barely scratched by contemporaries in both understanding and application, when compared to the indigenous and our other forbearing cultures/ancestors and what they knew and had to work with materially…

    My first J. nigra timber frame was in 1978 that I got to see and be part of relocating which was a repurposed barn to house/workshop in southern Illinois of Cherry and Walnut exclusively (~50/50 mix), with more since including a full on timber frame house addition in the 80’s. Further, all the frames I referenced before are hewn…not sawn…accept in a few with stock Sash Sawn brace in a in some specimens.

    There is a lot out there Jeff in the world you (may not?) haven’t yet seen??? 2009 (comparatively) really isn’t quite yet a blip on seen of traditional arts…let alone the acient work of Timberwrights…or the work we do…Just a suggestion.
    😉

  6. I live in an old house (1797) two story where the rafters are hand made and put together with wooden nails (pegs). The wood is so tough now, I think it’s petrified. My land surrounding the house has some cedar trees over 200 years old. But there area several (old) large black walnut trees here also.
    I read you talk about the barns, would they have made this house with walnut 200+ years ago?

    • A timber frame structure with a 1797 circa date could very well have Black Walnut frame components. That would not be unreasonable at all, or even that rare in some regions of species prevalence.

      I have found entire hewn log cabins of Black Walnut, though rare, they do exists. I have also found this species, because of its strong rot resistance, to be relatively common in Sill Beams of timber frame structures in areas where Black Walnut is more commonly found, (or may have been historically for a region.) This species can be found in a wide range, and even today with regional variances in size and growth characteristic. Northern Kentucky, Southern Ohio, Indian, and Illinois is still known for some very large variants. Yet so is parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan on into Canada.

  7. pinusmuricata says:

    Just one thing to add to the description: walnut has “chambered pith”: if you cut through the pith you’ll see it’s hollow with tiny septa, making tiny regular hollow spaces between. Not terribly important but wonderful in a way.

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