me & walnut don’t agree

wainscot chair half done

Having worked wood essentially as a mono-culture since the late 1980s, I have little experience with woods that aren’t oak. But you have recently read a couple of posts that show me working with black walnut. The high chair I have underway is the first project I have done in this timber since I-don’t-know-when. I remember making a post-and-rung chair from it before; and I carved two dovetailed boxes that I never made lids for…(they sit in my shop, full of junk, maybe to be completed some day, maybe not.)

 So I am getting a bit of a feel for the walnut, and am missing the riven oak that I know so well. So far, walnut is not for me. I understand that many woodworkers and many furniture users, collectors, etc really go for walnut. I have felt like some deranged woodworker, complaining about one of the most popular woods going…but then I get over it very quickly, and go back to complaining.

What I don’t know is the factor that makes me dislike this wood. Because I have changed too many variables, I can’t pinpoint the problem. This stock is a.) flatsawn from a log that wasn’t particularly straight, b.) kilndried and c.) walnut.

Well, I have worked flatsawn oak before and although it’s not as good as riven oak; it’s still oak. I have never worked kiln-dried oak before, and don’t want to. What it comes down to is that I am very lucky, and spoiled, to use the quality of oak that I get.

Here’s some of my walnut woes:

torn out plowed groove


In this short rail, I had to plow a panel groove for the back of this wainscot chair. I didn’t select the stock carefully enough, and tried to plow into the rising grain. Tore the living daylights out of this thing. It was trash in seconds. I made a new rail, chosen from a better pieces, and deeply scored the edges of the plowed groove with a sharp marking gauge before plowing. Lesson learned. I should have seen it coming, but didn’t think as I picked up the plow.

carving walnut

 Carving it doesn’t work the same way oak does. I never learned carving from anyone, just developed my techniques based on studies of period works, and trial & error in the shop. I blam away, doing a lot of work with a mallet. A while back I compared notes with Al Breed who carves a lot of mahogany. He often makes relief cuts outside his layout, and sort of sneaks up to the finished elements. Says the wood can break off if he tries to go right to the layout…that’s the same sort of thing I have been finding with the walnut. So what I can do in oak in a matter of minutes takes a good deal longer in this walnut.. Maybe if I were to stick with it, I’d get quicker at working it. I found it feels a little crispy, like it breaks where the oak would slice…some of this I attribute to the kiln-dried aspect more than the flatsawing. Now of course, all my whining is absurd, people have been carving walnut quite nicely for centuries. I guess the real point here is that the methods I developed in isolation apply to oak quite agreeably, and don’t transfer all that well to walnut. for me.

Mortising was the most distinctly different, I’d say. I could take much larger chips out of the oak than I can of the walnut, but this I blame on the crooked grain of this particular selection of boards. Here’s some pictures of mortising.

small bites

I’d expect to take a chip 3x that size in oak…tried it in this walnut and quickly backed up and took smaller bites. Here’s the thrust of the problem though:

layout of mortise in runout grain

Turning is the place where the walnut has it all over the oak – almost. Over red oak anyway. Good white oak can turn like this, nice & crisp & burnished. But the walnut really turns like a charm.

So I am plodding along, and to make matters worse, I decided in the midst of this project to make my first windsor chair in about 10 years. Smart move. But fun…

Now what is the morale of the story? I think of House of the Rising Sun, telling youngesters not to do what I have done… (“you young woodworkers, learn many different timbers, don’t just stick to oak…”) – but then I say, Nah, go with Mark Twain: “Put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket.” Oak or pine, that’s what Daniel O’Hagan once told me. All you need…


8 thoughts on “me & walnut don’t agree

  1. Peter,
    I wonder if your issues are more with the way the wood is prepared than the wood itself. Get a walnut log and work it the same way as you do your oak and I bet you would feel differently.

  2. Peter Peter Peter….Stop trying to make Oak furniture in walnut. Walnut rewards when you make elegant, light frames with the carving flowing across the parts joining them together visually.It has a wonderful grain and colour(English variety) It finishes smoothly so we can take the next step in furnitures progress and enhance the surface with polish. Look at the chairs of Daniel Marot, he put down oak and emmbraced Walnut with a completly new form. I could go on and on, but It’s difficult typing into this little box . There you’ve got me complaining now Rodney

  3. LOL @ Stop trying to make Oak furniture in walnut.
    Yeah, i think that might be right, applying the same woodworking technique for green/ tree wet oak to dry walnut is bound to cause issues.

  4. I have carved both air dried walnut and kiln dried. The air dried walnut is alot easier to work. Much more like hand split oak. Alot less brittle than kiln dried.

  5. It is an interesting question/observation, this whole oak vs walnut idea. Beyond the differences in working the two materials, the appearance, when carved is very different. The boldness of the 17th century carvings, the strong shadows produced, just doesn’t look as striking in the walnut. Maybe it is the darkness of the wood creating less contrast. The woods just have different qualities. For example, Walnut looks great with a high polish, whereas oak usually looks out of sorts (to my eye at least) with a high polish. Sort of like John Wayne getting a manicure.

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