Black walnut wood is dark, hard, dense and tight-grained. It's prized by woodworkers for its strength, grain and color. It polishes to a very smooth finish, and the color ranges from creamy white in the sapwood to a dark chocolate in the heartwood.
Over the years, natural walnut wood develops a lustrous patina. As the only dark-brown domestic wood species, it has a large following of devoted woodworkers and fine furniture aficionados. Walnut is also found in upscale cabinets, natural wood flooring, kitchen accessories, gunstocks, and more.
Although there are many varieties of walnut trees, just a handful are native to North America. Of them, the Eastern Black Walnut, also called the American Black Walnut or American Walnut, is the one typically used for woodworking.
Characteristics of Walnut Wood
Due to walnut wood’s unique qualities, people often have lots of questions about how it’s worked into furniture, its care, and its origins. A few of the most commonly asked questions about walnut wood are outlined below.
Most people are familiar with walnut wood in its darkest state, which can be a deep chocolate or coffee color. In fact, it’s the only dark wood native to North America. However, it’s actually only the center of the tree which bears the deep hues. This is called the heartwood, and it may also have lighter browns, purples, grays, or reddish tints. The outermost portion of the tree– known as the sapwood because it carries the tree’s nutrients– is typically a pale blonde color, though it can also be yellow-gray as well.
Unlike cherry, maple, and oak (which all darken in color as they age), walnut wood will actually lighten slightly over time. This aging process isn’t as dramatic of a change as some other woods we offer, and it can be stayed somewhat with an oil finish, which saturates the grain and adds a slight honey tint that comes out in greater detail as the piece ages and more oil is applied.
Many things can change the natural color of walnut wood. For example, the elements will often darken light wood and lighten dark wood, so sun exposure over a period of years will typically cause walnut wood furniture to lighten.
While some will use stain on walnut wood, which will make it maintain the darker hue indefinitely, it is typically clear-coated or oiled. A clear coat doesn’t stop the color change altogether, but it can minimize it if maintenance is performed regularly. On the other hand, an oil-finished piece needs to be oiled regularly, which will give it richer hues over time.
Some wood producers will also use steam in their drying process to try to even out the coloring between the heartwood and sapwood as well. This often brings out more grays in the piece, so it’s a practice our craftsmen like to avoid when selecting their lumber.
Walnut wood is commonly used in knickknacks, carvings, and gunstocks, as well as for cabinets, flooring, furniture, and wood veneers.
Generally speaking, walnut wood is straight-grained, though it can sometimes have waves or curls which enhance the character of a piece.
A common misconception about hardwood vs. softwood is that it somehow indicates the heartiness of the wood or its resistance to damage, such as scuffing or denting. In fact, the term “hardwood” simply means the wood came from a dicot tree, such as a broad-leaf variety, whereas “softwood” refers to wood which comes from gymnosperm trees, like conifers. Ergo, common softwoods are pine, fir, and cedar, while hardwoods include walnut, cherry, maple, and oak.
Those who are worried about durability of wood may also use the term “hardness,” though this refers to the Janka hardness test. During this test, a steel ball is placed on a block of wood and force is applied until the ball is embedded halfway. The force is measured in pounds-force (lbf) or represented as a number followed by the word “Janka.” Wood types may receive a rating based on their “side hardness” which involves a test run perpendicular to the grain, or may be tested on their “end hardness.”
Walnut wood rates 1,010 lbf or 1,010 Janka. For comparison, cherry is 995 Janka, and hard maple is 1,450 Janka, while white oak is 1,360 Janka and red oak is 1,290 Janka.
There are many types of walnut trees. At Vermont Woods Studios, our craftsmen work exclusively with fine Eastern Black Walnut (juglans nigra).
Black walnut trees love direct sunlight and well-drained soil. They grow throughout the eastern United States and eastern Canada, but the healthiest and most renowned walnut trees are found in the American Midwest especially Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.
These trees grow taller and thicker than in other growing regions are the lumber produced is richer in color and has more uniform grain patterns. It is from this region that the lumber for our walnut wood furniture is sourced.
Eastern black walnut trees reach maturity at about 150-years-old. At this age, some are as tall as 150 feet, with diameters reaching 8 feet. Their root systems are also quite immense and give off a chemical which can prevent the growth of vegetation around them for as much as 50 feet from the trunk.
The best way to tell if a piece of furniture is made from real walnut wood is to purchase it from a reputable furniture maker, simply because many types of wood look quite similar or can be altered to mimic another type. That said, there are a few tells associated with fake walnut wood.
For starters, an authentic piece will generally have some color variation, even within the individual boards, simply because walnut is not usually stained. Additionally, it will have a straight grain, perhaps with some curls.
Because walnut wood is more expensive than some of the other hardwoods used to make fine furniture in the U.S., it is often used as a veneer. Using walnut as a veneer allows you to get the look of walnut while saving a bit on material costs. Be careful how much you’re looking to cut down on costs, though. A high-quality walnut veneer will be put on top of another solid hardwood. Steer clear of laminate veneers and particle board interiors– what you’ll save will quickly dissolve when the furniture degrades in 9 months.
Our solid walnut furniture is guaranteed to last a lifetime.
On the one hand, walnut is a very durable wood. It doesn’t usually warp despite changes in humidity and heat, plus it’s rot-resistant. However, all wood deteriorates when exposed to the elements, so we recommend that you avoid placing walnut furniture outside. Some consumers do choose specially treated wood for outdoor furniture and they maintain the finish on an annual basis. Because of the intensive care required, we recommend a maintenance-free alternative, such as our all-weather Polywood outdoor furniture. Made from recycled high-density plastic, these pieces offer the look of natural wood, but don’t require maintenance and come with a lifetime guarantee.
Walnut trees were once quite abundant, but they do take more than 100 years to mature. Early settlers readily took to the wood for building homes, cabinets, and fence posts, while later generations used it for virtually everything, including building railroad tracks and plane propellers.
Although not endangered, there are far fewer trees than before, so mindful companies like ours obtain the wood from sustainable sources; most often from states like Ohio, Indiana, and their neighbors.
In terms of eco-friendliness, it is a great option. By choosing a sustainably-sourced domestic variety, materials spend less time in transit, reducing the carbon footprint. Moreover, harvests are overseen by tight US regulations, meaning tropical deforestation is not a concern. It’s also worth taking into consideration that walnut’s durability ensures a piece will last 50 or more years when designed by a quality craftsman, whereas a person could easily toss 10 cheap particle board pieces in the trash in the same amount of time.
The biggest mistake people make when buying walnut furniture online is purchasing a piece of furniture that isn’t actually made of walnut wood. Many retailers label their products as “walnut” simply because the color mimics that of natural walnut wood. If you’re looking for real walnut wood furniture, here are some things to look out for:
The care of your furniture depends largely upon what type of wood finish is used to seal the wood. While all pieces benefit from regular dusting, it’s generally best to avoid commercial cleaners as they can sometimes leave residue on pieces with a lacquer finish or damage wax and oil finishes. Pieces with an oil finish generally do best if a natural Danish linseed oil is applied at least once per year, though those in warmer climates may need to do this more often.
The color of natural walnut wood cannot be duplicated, simply because there are slight color variants and depth within each piece.
Moreover, stains tend to wash out the grain, removing bits of character. For this reason, a natural walnut wood product is rarely stained. Instead, walnut furniture tends to get a clear coat finish; either of some type of varnish, wax, oil, or lacquer.
Those hoping to get the walnut look in a quality-made piece of furniture without the premium cost of walnut wood may instead be happier with cherry wood furniture. Natural cherry wood carries a similar grain pattern and can be stained to mimic the chocolatey color of walnut.
For those who want to purchase authentic walnut wood furniture made by expert craftsmen and topped off with a lifetime quality guarantee, Vermont Woods Studios is the place to shop. Pieces are typically made to order and can be customized to suit. With a wealth of positive reviews and testimonials, ethical practices such as sustainable local harvesting, creating earth-friendly products, and American craftsmanship, it’s easy to order with confidence.
Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types: