For those who believe that the domestic wood markets are in the pits, think again. Maple is holding its own, cherry remains strong and, according to several dealers, black walnut is at the top of the heap. Solid supplies, stable prices, consistent quality and a trend toward darker woods have brought walnut back to the forefront of domestic woods. For those doubters, read on.
"Walnut is moving and has probably been the top seller for us during the last couple of years," says Christ Groff, owner of Groff & Groff Lumber in Quarryville, Pa. "We sell to furniture makers and cabinetmakers. It's anywhere from 4/4 to 12/4, big slabs, you name it - as long as it is walnut. We haven't had any supply problems. I dried 10,000 board feet each month all summer long, while everybody else had quit buying and drying it because sales were way low, so I'm in good shape."
Black walnut (Juglans nigra) primarily grows in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. The trees reach heights up to 100' with diameters of 3' to 4'. The sapwood is nearly white, while the heartwood is brown to chocolate-brown. Walnut is often steamed at a mill or kiln to darken the color of the sapwood to match the color of the heartwood. Walnut only represents about 5 percent of U.S. hardwoods.
Although the housing market is down, U.S. homeowners continue their cyclical change from lighter woods to darker woods and then back. It would appear that a trend back to darker woods is under way.
Black walnut’s specific gravity: .51 to .65.
Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water.
Black walnut’s radial shrinkage: 5.5 percent.
Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces.
Black walnut’s tangential shrinkage: 7.8 percent.
Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces.
Example: A 12" wide flatsawn Black walnut board will shrink .21" (about 7/32") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .08" (about 3/32").
"I do think it is changing," says Michael Johnson, owner of Johnson Creek Hardwoods in Mount Carroll, Ill. "We've been selling red, slippery elm; we've been selling more walnut and it has been very hard to keep up with our cherry [demand]."
"I think there is a trend back to darker woods," Groff says. "I'd say about 15 years ago we sold some walnut, but not a whole lot. It is a lot more popular now. Cherry has always been pretty hot, but building has slowed down, so cherry has slowed down. For some reason, cherry and building go together. But walnut is really moving; it's doing well."
Black walnut is a superior furniture and cabinetry wood, and is also used in architectural millwork, interior trim, decorative panels, boatbuilding, musical instruments, turning, carving, flooring and veneer. Black walnut's beauty, stability and ability to take a fine polish have made the wood a staple for gunstock.
"Walnut and cherry are my two favorite woods to work with; walnut probably edges it out by a little bit," says Dave Stine, a furniture maker from Dow, Ill., who owns 350 acres of private woodlands that includes some massive walnut trees. "I find it real easy to work with. You can find all kinds of different patterns and colors in it depending on whether it has been steam-kilned or if it was just air-dried.
"I also like the way you can use it as a contrasting wood. I use it a lot with cherry, I use it a lot with maple and I like to sort of mix and match that way. It's one of the few American woods that is that dark."
The wood is straight-grained, although occasionally wavy and irregular. Walnut produces a large variety of figure including crotch, stripe, ribbon, mottle, swirls and, occasionally, burls. The wood is moderately dense, but strong in relation to its weight. Black walnut works well with hand and power tools, holds nails and screws satisfactorily, and glues without a problem.
"Our sales are pretty steady on walnut," adds John Greeley of Northwest Timber in Indianapolis. "It's one of our top sellers and I haven't seen any slowdown in it. There might be a slight supply problem in the upper grades, but it seems like our suppliers have plenty of it."
Retail prices for 100 bf of kiln-dried, 4/4 Select & Better black walnut, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $5.15 to $6/bf in the Northeast; $5.75 to $6.20/bf in the Southeast; $4.65 to $5.45/bf in the Midwest; and $6.70 to $7.35/bf in the West.
Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 Select & Better black walnut ranged from $4,650 to $5,200/mbf in the Northeast; $5,300 to $5,550/mbf in the Southeast; $4,500 to $5,050/mbf in the Midwest and $5,900 to $6,750/mbf in the West.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.