Chestnut wood doesn’t refer to wood from a single tree, but rather from a family of trees. The most well-known is the American chestnut, which can appear in various shades from a pale white through medium brown, which develops a reddish hue with age.
Once an absolute staple in American lives, the American chestnut was prized for its delicious nuts and impressive wood. Early pioneers appreciated that it was incredibly durable and one of the most rot-resistant options. Many pieces crafted more than 100 years ago are still in existence today. Plus, it grew in great abundance, earning it the title of “redwood of the east.”
Unfortunately, imported Chinese chestnut trees brought chestnut blight with them, a fungus which the American chestnut is highly-susceptible to. Chestnut blight all but decimated American chestnut trees in the early 1900s, and they remain on the brink of extinction today. Other varieties of chestnut are used in its place, but they are not quite as robust, workable, and rot-resistant as the American chestnut. Instead, craftsmen will often use an alternate variety of wood and stain it to look like chestnut or will source wormwood or reclaimed wood instead.
Wormwood comes from an American chestnut which succumbed to chestnut blight and bears the markings of it, including wormholes and, in many cases, old nail holes when a piece is crafted with reclaimed wood. European or Sweet Chestnut is a closer match to the American version, but it isn’t native to the United States, and as such, only grows in a few areas here.
Authentic American chestnut wood is incredibly rare, even speaking in terms of pieces crafted with reclaimed wood or wormwood. Because of this, it’s important to learn about its characteristics in order to identify an authentic piece and become familiar with alternatives.
The heartwood, or innermost part of an American chestnut tree, produces a light to medium brown wood which develops a reddish hue as it ages. The sapwood, or outermost part, can also be light brown or may appear as a pale white color.
Nowadays, most chestnut wood is wormwood. This comes from American chestnut trees which developed chestnut blight and died. With American chestnut being so rot-resistant, even dead trees will remain standing for decades, but they tend to become habitats for worms and insects. Some trees in this condition are still being harvested today, so they’ll host worm tunnels and discoloration from the elements as well.
In the case of wormwood, it’s due to insect activity, disease, and exposure to the elements. However, with pieces crafted from disease-free trees, the darkening and reddish hue comes from exposure to UV rays and oxygen. This is seen in most hardwoods. Darker varieties will become lighter while light varieties will darken.
Pioneers used American chestnut wood for virtually everything. Homes, barns, and floors were constructed from it. Much of today’s reclaimed wood comes from these purposes. It was also used to make shingles, telephone poles, fences, piers, furniture, and boats. Because it’s so rare nowadays, it tends to get used with more care. Reclaimed wood and wormwood is used mostly in furniture and cabinetry, though if someone has an ample budget, it is used in flooring too.
Of course, it wasn’t just the wood early settlers prized. Lyrics from the Christmas Song mention “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” a piece of Americana. The nuts were soft, sweet, and delicious; unlike any chestnut trees currently produce. The tannins, which gave the trees their superior rot-resistance, was also extracted from the bark and used from tanning leather.
Generally speaking, chestnut is straight-grained, though some pieces are spiral or interlocked.
Hardwood and softwood refer to the type of tree the wood comes from. Hardwood comes from dicot trees and softwood comes from gymnosperm trees. Chestnut is part of the dicot group, along with cherry, oak, maple, ash, and walnut, which makes them all hardwoods. This is as opposed to varieties such as fir and cedar, which are softwoods.
The Janka Scale is used to provide wood with hardness values. During testing, a small steel ball, like a BB, is pressed into the wood until its embedded halfway, and the amount of force needed to do so is measured. It takes 540 pounds of force to do this with chestnut wood, so it’s rated 540 lbf or 540 Janka.
For comparison, this makes it a much more resilient option than something like pine, which is only rated 380 Janka, but it sits well under options like black cherry at 950 Janka, black walnut at 1,010 Janka, ash at 1,320 Janka.
Here in the United States, most chestnut wood still comes from the American chestnut tree, also known by the scientific name Castanea dentata (Marshall) Borkh. However, new healthy trees are not being cut down, and so most new chestnut furniture is fashioned from reclaimed wood or wormwood.
Dwarf chestnut trees, also called Allegheny chinquapin, American chinquapin, or by the scientific name Castanea pumila, are native to the southeastern United States. They share many properties with the American chestnut, such as superior workability and rot-resistance, but they’re also much smaller. Because of this, they don’t get much commercial use, though their wood may occasionally be used by artisans.
Chinese chestnut trees, which were responsible for bringing chestnut blight to the United States, and Japanese Chestnut trees, are both resistant to the fungus and grow well throughout the country. However, they are mostly grown for their nuts. The wood is rarely used because it doesn’t share the traits of the American chestnut.
On the other side of the ocean, European or sweet chestnut trees are prized for lumber. Some of these trees have been transferred to the United States as well, but they don’t grow in abundance and are not routinely used here. Occasionally, a piece of furniture made in America may come from a European chestnut tree, but more often than not, a piece crafted with authentic European chestnut wood will have been made in the UK.
There are only six types of Castanea trees in the United States and only three are native. All tend to prefer the eastern side of the country, though the dwarf variety grows as far west as Texas.
Historically, American chestnut trees have been Goliaths, reaching up to 98-feet tall and nearly 10 feet in diameter. This is rarely seen today. Trees which have succumbed to chestnut blight will still produce shoots, but by the time they reach 10-20 feet tall, they, too, succumb to the fungus. It’s estimated that there are fewer than 100 trees more than 24 inches in diameter in existence today.
Chances are, any new piece of furniture produced today in the United States is not authentic chestnut wood. It will be another variety stained to look like chestnut wood or a wood-look product. The exceptions to this would be if it’s reclaimed wood or wormwood. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes even difficult for experts to determine if a piece is made with authentic chestnut wood, so the only way to guarantee authenticity is to purchase furniture from a reliable authority; either someone with considerable expertise or a craftsman who sourced reclaimed wood from a structure with a known history.
If this question was asked 150 years ago, the answer would be “absolutely!” Today, the answer is “absolutely not!” While chestnut wood is incredibly resilient and would ordinarily be a great choice for outdoor furniture, it’s so rare and valuable now that the last thing anyone would want to do is put a piece in jeopardy by exposing it to the elements.
Those looking for outdoor wood furniture would do well to check out Vermont Woods Studio’s all-weather Polywood collection. These pieces have the look and feel of natural wood, but are made from recycled high-density plastic, so they’re not only perfect for outdoors, but are maintenance-free and come with a lifetime guarantee.
The American chestnut tree is on the brink of extinction. Scientists are working hard to reengineer it with traits from the Chinese chestnut to give it resistance to chestnut blight. They’re on the right track, but haven’t made it there just yet. There are serious conservation efforts underway too, including protections from US federal and state governments.
Still, chestnut wood, unless reclaimed, is not an especially eco-friendly solution for wood furniture, given the increasing rarity of american chestnut trees.
Wormwood and reclaimed wood are ideal for those who appreciate the rustic look, but for those who prefer a more polished appearance, finding an alternative to American chestnut wood is essential. In these cases, oak is a great option. The grain is similar and it naturally comes in a variety of hues. Black walnut can also be a great option too. It doesn’t look the same at all, but it works quite well in colonial-style homes.
For more information on chestnut alternatives, see our page on Wood Types.
Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types: