The Definitive Wood Guide: Walnut
The history of Walnut wood is rich. The advent of furniture made from this timber came about in the Middle Ages. New technologies of the time made it possible to craft furniture from this hardwood.
It was developing woodworking techniques that created the entire profession of cabinet making. Cabinet makers became the master builders of furniture.
Over time, tables joined cabinets using walnut. Leisure developed and woodworkers used walnut to make tables for cards and tea.
By the Victorian consumer revolution, people used this wood to make all furniture types.
- Characteristics of Walnut
- Types of Walnut
- Solid, Veneer & Laminate
- How Does Walnut Age?
- What Are The Most Common Finishes?
- Care and Maintenance of Walnut
- Popular Walnut Pieces
- Is Walnut Eco Friendly?
Characteristics of Walnut Wood
Black Walnut wood has a dark hue. Its feel is hard and dense. The grain is tight. Woodworkers love it for its strength and range of colours. When polished it has a smooth finish. Colours range from creamy white sapwood to very dark chocolate heartwood. There are also some blonde or yellow shades as well.
Over time walnut takes on a shiny patina. It is the only domestic species of dark-brown wood. As a result, the following of woodworkers and furniture fans is large. Today, walnut makes cabinets, natural wood flooring, gunstocks, and kitchen fittings.
It is a very durable wood. It doesn’t often warp even when there are changes in the humidity and the heat. It’s also resistant to rot. But all wood tends to deteriorate when exposed to the elements. This is why it is not recommended to place walnut furniture outdoors.
There are examples of treated woods for outside furniture. Maintenance of the finish needs doing every year.
When buying walnut furniture be sure it’s the real deal! There are examples of furniture sold as walnut because it is a similar colour to the natural wood.
Types of Walnut
Walnut timber derives from the Juglandaceae tree family. This is native to the Americas, Southeast Asia and Eurasia. Black Walnut is from the Juglans nigra tree. It’s also called North American Walnut because that’s where many are grown. But Black Walnut is also cultivated across Europe. Its typical use is for woodworking.
Much English and European varieties are from the related Juglans regia tree. It’s also known as:
- English walnut
- Persian walnut
- Carpathian walnut
- Madeira walnut.
The Common variety is especially prevalent in the UK. This latter example is an Old World walnut tree species. It is also native to a region that stretches from the Balkans to the Himalayas and southwest China.
Solid, Veneer & Laminate
Walnut as a solid hardwood offers durability and a good look. It has a natural appearance that is ideal for traditional styles of furniture. But it has limitations. It can be subject to warping over time. The wood can expand and contract with the seasons. This means it needs a lot of skilled maintenance to keep it pristine.
Because walnut is dearer than many other hardwoods, people use it as a veneer. In this guise, walnut offers the look while saving on material costs. But, veneers can work out more expensive. This is because the trees that are chosen to make them can be more interesting and better quality.
What is more, veneer cutting is more eco-friendly than cutting solid wood. It is possible to extract about 32 veneer sheets for every plank of solid timber with no waste sawdust.
To make veneers a waterproof adhesive attaches thin layers of hardwood to a core. This is often made of MDF or plywood.
Veneer wood allows for intricate placement of wood grains. It also enables the incorporation of more varied grains. This means there is more scope for design when producing a piece of furniture.
The cheapest option when it comes to furniture is laminate. Laminate also offers designers more scope. There are so many colour variations available. These include wood effects along with other patterns and textures.
Laminate is very durable. It doesn’t fade in the sun and the finish does not wear off. Maintaining laminate involves wiping it with a damp cloth. It does not stain. And because it contains no wood on the outer layer, it’s cheaper to manufacture.
How Does Walnut Age?
When walnut changes colour, the effect is most dramatic in the first year. It can even happen in the first few months. It’s well worth moving new walnut furniture around. This is so it doesn’t end up in these early months with spots that are darker or lighter.
Many things change walnut’s natural colour. The elements for one will tend to lighten dark wood and darken light wood. Sun exposure can cause walnut wood furniture to fade.
Some people use a stain on walnut wood. It maintains darker hues for longer. But people tend to choose clear-coated or oiled furniture. Clear coats don’t stop the colour changing altogether. But they can minimise the problem. Especially if maintained regularly. Oil-finished pieces need regular oil applied. This gives furniture richer hues over time.
Harvested wood keeps living and breathing, even when shaped into furniture. It continues to respond to the environment. Wood expands and contracts with humidity changes. It also changes colour when it’s exposed to sunlight and air.
What are the Most Common Finishes?
As well as furniture, woodworkers use walnut to make knickknacks and carvings. They also make walnut gunstocks. But, it’s particularly popular for furniture. This includes cabinets, wood flooring, all manner of tables and chairs. Walnut veneers are also popular.
In general, walnut is straight-grained. It can sometimes have waves and curls that enhance a piece’s character.
Craftsmen prize walnut’s chocolate colour. It is among the softer of the hardwoods. It ranks only five on a hardness scale (the hardest is 10). Its open pores respond well to all types of finish.
Linseed oil penetrates and hardens in the pores of walnut wood. After sanding, use a cloth. You should saturate this with penetrating oil. Then allow the oil to soak into the wood for about 30 minutes before wiping it off. After 24 hours, repeat by wiping the surface with oil and again wiping it immediately.
Then once a week for a month, apply further light coats of oil, wiping immediately. Six months later apply another coat of oil. This will protect and finish the wood. Regular maintenance of oil-treated furniture is very effective.
Lacquer is a good choice for finishing walnut. It not only dries fast, but it only needs two coats to seal and protect.
Choose airless or pressurised spray equipment. Begin by filling a spray gun with the lacquer. With the gun eight inches from the walnut and at a 30⁰ angle, spray an even coat of lacquer on the wood. After 30 minutes, sand the walnut by hand with a piece of folded 180-grit sandpaper. Finish with another spray coat of lacquer.
Although two coats are enough, four coats would give a deeper lacquer finish. You only have to sand after the first coat.
To maintain lacquered surfaces wipe the surfaces with a soft cloth. This should be wrung out with clean lukewarm water daily. Lacquered furniture is not affected by daylight. But, the furniture does darken with time.
Be careful when positioning anything that is going to be on the furniture. And don’t use cleaning agents or other chemicals on the wood.
Care and Maintenance of Walnut
You need to look after walnut furniture. To guarantee the greatest enjoyment it needs proper care. The way to do this depends to a large degree on the type of wood finish that is sealing the wood.
All walnut pieces need a good regular dusting. It’s best to avoid commercial cleaners. These can leave residue on lacquered wood or damage oil and wax finishes. Oil finished furniture does best with the application of natural linseed oil once a year. If you live in a warmer climate this you may need to do this more often.
Solid wood is a living material. Daylight, humidity and temperature affect it. Perfect relative humidity for walnut is generally between 30% and 60%. The furniture should never sit close to sources of heat. So position the furniture away from radiators or wood-burning stoves.
Daylight matures wood. This means it’s important to move items like vases and candlesticks. It will stop them creating undesirable colour differences. There are several methods for keeping your walnut furniture healthy. These include applying linseed oil and lacquer to make the most of the finishes.
Popular Walnut Pieces
Proper walnut furniture is easy to spot. Authentic pieces generally have some colour variation. This is the case even within individual boards. It’s because walnut is rarely stained. Also, it has a straight grain, with a few curls.
There are many popular walnut tables. These include the Case Furniture Dulwich Extendable Table. It is a bold, sophisticated table that Matthew Hilton designed in 2009.
Its slim legs make the most use of legroom making it enjoyable for six to ten people to sit at. Storage of the extension leaves is inside the table.
Also sought after is the Ethnicraft Slice Dining Table. When the extension moves so do the robust legs. This allows the seating space to cater for whatever number of people are in attendance. The table is available in two sizes.
Another striking table available in walnut is Børge Mogensen’s BM1160 Hunting Table. Designed for the 1950 Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild Furniture Exhibition the table incorporates elegant metal brace bars. It seats between six and eight people.
Walnut is not only a popular choice for tables. It is also the wood used in the Gubi C-Chair Un-Upholstered Dining Chair
This is among designer Marcel Gascoin’s most famous pieces. Designed in 1947, the chair represents the practical power of Gascoin’s designs. It also reveals the designer’s social conscience.
Created out of necessity, the C-Chair fitted into the new sizes of homes that were being built at the end of World War II. Gascoin chose to make up for the lack of space by making simple, functional furniture.
His clever design demonstrates great attention to detail. The chair’s elegant shape is sturdy. The construction’s roots are in Gascoin’s minimal but strong design language. Its voluminous legs juxtapose with a seat made in a lighter material. This is a high-quality wood craftsmanship.
Another chair available in walnut is the Carl Hansen CH24 Wishbone Chair. It was the first model designer Hans J. Wegner created for Carl Hansen & Søn in 1949.
Is Walnut Eco Friendly?
Once quite abundant, walnut trees take over 100 years to mature. The species is not endangered, but there are far fewer trees today than in the past.
The best furniture makers get their wood from sustainable sources.
And when it comes to eco-friendliness, it’s a good option. Harvests are overseen by tight regulations. This means that tropical deforestation is not a concern.
Because the wood is durable, each piece of quality furniture lasts at least 50, and often many more, years.
< Back to all articles