Walnut continues to be a solid seller among domestic hardwoods, both in lumber and slab form. Furniture makers and cabinetmakers are the primary buyers at both the retail and wholesale levels. For some dealers, walnut sales have dropped slightly because of the housing crisis, while others say sales of the dark wood remain robust. In the world of cabinetry, color seems to be cyclical, with light woods in favor for a while, followed by darker woods. Walnut has been popular for the last year to three years.
"In general, for the last dozen years, people have wanted lighter woods," says Michael Johnson, owner of Johnson Creek Hardwoods, a retail and wholesale dealer in Mount Carroll, Ill. "We've sold tremendous amounts of red oak and things like that. But sometime last year, the walnut sales really began to pick up and we've sold - for us - a tremendous amount of walnut since probably last July and it has continued. Sales have been good."
"I would say it is probably one of our better species," says Christ Groff, a retailer and wholesaler with Groff & Groff Lumber in Quarryville, Pa. "We're selling it to furniture makers and cabinetmakers. Two years ago, it was really strong. It's still going pretty strong, but two years ago we sold more walnut in two years than we did in the previous five.
"We're not getting a lot of homeowners doing cabinets. It's more or less the real high-end guys, the furniture makers and especially out West in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado."
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 a 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.
"We do a lot of slabs - natural edge bookmatched slabs - all kiln-dried and surfaced," Johnson says. "It's not a big seller, but we always sell some and occasionally we'll have a large sale. We recently had a truck go out to a builder in Colorado and they filled up a one-ton and they were ecstatically happy to have the kind of stuff that we have out there at our prices [$4.75/bf retail]."
Black walnut’s specific gravity: .51 to .55
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 a 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").
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.
"We get a lot of walnut from people that are trying to sell their trees and also from town trees," Johnson says. "We sell a lot of town trees that are veneer quality. You frequently have to work around a few nails, which is why the veneer buyers won't touch them, but we're happy to do that to get the quality. We have bookmatched 8/4 walnut to 23" a side clear. Even if I have veneer logs, I don't sell them to buyers. I'd rather have that quality wood for our customers."
"We have widths pushing 30"," Groff says. "That's in 8/4 and 10/4 planks. Our regular 4/4 lumber doesn't usually go over 14", 15"; 5/4 you might go up to 18" to 20"; 6/4 we might push it up to 24" to 26", and anything bigger than that we get it thicker. That way, if you need to flatten anything out, you have something to work with. But walnut is pretty forgiving since it dries real flat."
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.
There is no doubt the economy is having an impact on domestic hardwoods, even on walnut. Loggers aren't logging and sawmills are closing.
"The guys that stay in business will get more business, but guys are going out of business and not selling anymore," explains Groff. "I expect quite a few more of them drop out before it is over. There are all kinds of sawmills around here, but they can't get logs.
"We probably have the lowest inventory of logs we've ever had. We get some decent stuff in, but nobody is logging. The problem is that some of the prices at the finish end are dropping, but it still takes the same amount of money to make it. Guys aren't going to go into the woods and log for the same prices they made in 1980."
Retail prices for 100 bf of kiln-dried, 4/4 Select & Better black walnut, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $5.20 to $6.05/bf in the Northeast; $5.70 to $6.10/bf in the Southeast; $4.75 to $5.50/bf in the Midwest; and $6.75 to $7.25/bf in the West.
Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 Select & Better black walnut ranged from $4,700 to $5,200/mbf in the Northeast; $5,300 to $5,450/mbf in the Southeast; $4,550 to $5,000/mbf in the Midwest and $5,950 to $6,700/mbf in the West.
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.