The following is excerpted from “With the Grain,” by Christian Becksvoort.
It is, above all, succinct, easy to understand and perfectly suited for the furniture-maker. As important as what is in its 160 pages is what is not. It’s not a detailed analysis of cell growth. It is not a heap of tables and equations for figuring truss loads in residential construction. It is decidedly not a scientist’s approach to the material.
Instead, “With the Grain” contains the facts you need to know at the lumberyard, in the woodlot and in the shop. It gives you enough science so you understand how trees grow. It explains the handful of formulas you have to know as a furniture-maker. And it gives you a hearty dose of specific information about North American species that will inspire you. Becksvoort encourages you to use the trees in your neighborhood and makes the case that just because you cannot find catalpa at the lumberyard doesn’t mean it’s not a good furniture wood.
You’ll learn to identify the trees around you from their silhouette, leaves and shoots. And you’ll learn about how these species work in the shop – both their advantages and pitfalls.
Butternut, the closest relative to black walnut, is sometimes called white walnut, oilnut or lemon walnut. It is a rather short, spreading tree growing only to 30′-50′ (9-15 m) in the open, and occasionally reaching 60′-80′ (18-24 m) in the forest. The wood is not as strong as walnut, and branches are subject to wind and snow damage. The trees are short lived, seldom becoming more than 75 years old. Their natural habitat extends from New Brunswick through southern Canada into Wisconsin, south to Missouri and east to Virginia.
Several differences in leaf, branch and fruit structure make butternut distinguishable from black walnut. Butternut has 11-17 light green, sticky leaflets on its compound leaves, reaching a total of 15″-30″ (38-76 cm) in length. The twigs have a long terminal bud and a small, downy pad between the lateral bud and the leaf scar of the previous year. The pith in the twig is dark brown. The nuts have a green husk and are oval in shape, almost like pecans. The bark is gray-brown and ridged.
Butternut has light, creamy sapwood less than 1″ (2.5 cm) wide. The heartwood is medium brown and quite lustrous. It is very soft and light in weight, having a density of 27 lb/ft3 or .42 g/cc at 12 percent MC. The pores of this ring-porous wood are easily visible by eye and are filled with tyloses, while the rays are almost too small to be seen. The wood is used in cabinetwork, paneling, veneer, toys and millwork such as doors, sash and trim. It tools and machines well, and is a pleasant wood to work with. Unlike other woods, which darken or bleach with age, butternut tends to remain a medium-brown color.