How to Identify Walnut Wood
Learn about Black walnut, it's color, grain patterns, common applications, hardness, and how to purchase it.
Walnut, even though it's domestic, is considered by woodworkers and builders, to be one of the more exotic hardwood species commonly available. Typically referred to as Black walnut, it's grown and harvested in the Eastern United States and is commonly used for fine-furniture, trim and specialty projects.
You can recognize black walnut by it's rich chocolate-brown color. While mostly consistent, walnut may have streaks of white, but are usually culled out from saleable lumber. Some woodworkers prefer the multicolored white streaks, with the opinion that they add character, but others prefer the straight, consistent brown grain. Walnut doesn't need stain, but it can be enhanced with stain for richer colors, typically leaning to reds, such as oil-based cherry, to bring out even more beauty in the wood's grains.
Walnut grain is typically fine and straight, but may contain irregular patterns with swirls and curves. Highly-figured patterns, sometimes referred to as burls, originate from defects or knots in the walnut. Highly-figured or burled walnut is prized by woodworkers and commands premium prices.
Density and Weight
Walnut is about mid-range for hardness. It ranks 1,110 on the Janka Hardness scale, which is slightly softer than red oak's position on the scale at 1,290. Walnut has a lightweight feel when handled or compared to other hardwood. It cuts, mills and carves easily with ordinary woodworking tools.
Walnut is considered dimensionally stable; it resists twisting and warping to a moderate degree. Walnut is very durable with respect to rot and decay, but it has only moderate resistance to bugs such as the powder-post beetle.
Look for walnut on gun stocks, fine furniture, veneers, exclusive paneling, turned or carved objects and specialty items such as knobs, handles and turned items. Walnut is also frequently used as a marker material in conjunction with a lighter wood such as maple. Look for these walnut markers in bowling alley lanes, as a material on chess and checker boards, butcher blocks tops and marquetry inlays.
Hardwood is priced per board foot -- which represents an area of lumber that measures 12-by-12-inches. At the time of publication, a board foot of walnut averages about $10 and up for 3/4-inch-thick material. Red oak, for example, averages about $5 per board foot. Cherry is walnut's nearest exotic competitor; it averages about $7 per board foot.
If at all possible, purchase rough walnut to save money. Rough walnut is inconsistent, and has a fuzzy, unfinished appearance. It may be available at a sawmill or lumber yard that specializes in hardwood. If you have the means to plane or sand rough walnut smooth, you can significantly over the cost of sanded, dimensioned walnut because of the premium prices you pay at a home supply or improvement store.
Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.