I am sometimes asked what my favourite wood is, because it’s known that I know something about wood, and that I’ve worked with it. It always strikes me as a kind of silly question, like what my favourite colour is, or favourite food is, or favourite music is. I don’t like to answer that kind of question, because the reality is usually complex.
What kind of food when? Sometimes it’s Japanese, but only if the fish is very fresh. My favourite music will be very dependent on the moment, but if I had to rescue a few songs from my burning iPod, I suspect that I would go with the Spanish composer Fernando Sor. But what if I’m not in that mood right then?
But when it comes to wood, it’s actually not so complicated. I like walnut. That’s not to say that I don’t like a lot of other woods too. Each in their own time, for their own purposes.
But when I work with a wood, few have treated me as well as walnut. I love the spicy smell. I love the clean way it cuts. It’s hard enough to not compress or to get furry. And still soft enough to easily take the tool and leave a clean crisp surface. The grain is pronounced enough to be easily legible, but subdued enough so as not to dictate form. It takes many finishes so agreeably, especially a hand-rubbed oil, that it’s hard not to flatter its compliant disposition.
Juglans nigra: the black walnut species of the Juglandaceae family of walnut trees. I used to wonder why it was referred to as black, since it always was: it seemed like a redundant description. But then I figured out that butternut was also part of the Juglans family (Juglans cinerea), and it was a whitish wood.
Research taught me that it was once known as white walnut, so the differentiation was necessary, between the walnuts, although now it no longer seems to be. The name is derived from two Latin words: Jovis, meaning Jupiter, and glans, meaning nut: the nut of Jupiter.
It’s a very fine colour. Deep and dark, like the expensive high-percentage cocoa solids chocolates that I have come to love as well, but with the wood, it’s actually many different colours, very close in hue, but varying from purple, to black, to many shades of brown, to hints of cream. It’s the range of colours, superficially taken as one, but intuitively read as many more that makes it look so rich.
If one were to establish an aristocracy of woods, walnut would be royalty. The reference to Jupiter is a reference to the king of Roman gods. It’s been prized as long as it’s been used. Black walnut, native to Eastern North America, was used in furniture there (here) as well as in England, which imported it and where it supplanted the use of oak for fine furniture, along with mahogany, beginning in the 17th century.
Since then, there has been a strong association with the darkness of any wood and its value. This is actually unfortunate as it has caused walnut wood to become scarce through its use in superficially stylish objects, which don’t necessarily reflect its noble character. And it has caused a lot of fine lighter woods to be undervalued.
It has been used for many purposes, but usually in a way to expose and celebrate its value. It turns well and is suited to bowls. It carves nicely with reasonable short-grain strength. It steam-bends well, making it adaptable for chair parts.
And it has especially had a very long history of use in the stocks of guns. If we now imagine a rifle or shotgun, we probably imagine it with a dark, walnut-coloured stock. Its weight to strength ratio, its “carveability,” and its princely appearance made it ideal for this application.
Post-18th century, both era and style, it may have been best brought back into high fashion by some of the notable Scandinavian furniture designers/cabinetmakers of the mid-20th century, like Hans Wegner. Now that that furniture is enjoying a renaissance, I’m delighted to see walnut back in use, in the best way: solid wood gracefully carved and with a polished oil or wax finish.
I don’t care so much for how it leaves my hands purple, when I work with it, but that seems a very minor price to pay. I usually get to feel a bit of pride, in this evidence of intimacy with such a fine companion.
Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.