Archive for January, 2013

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  • January 8th, 2013

The Most Beautiful Wood


By Joel M. Vance

                I set the depth on the planer, flipped the power switch and fed the nondescript board into the machine.  Not set quite deep enough, the blades barely skimmed the dust off the rough board that had been stored for more than 30 years. 

                I spun the depth wheel a half-turn and ran the board through once more.  The roaring blades sliced off the corruption of time to reveal what lay beneath. The wood under the dreck of three decades leaped into view, smooth and chocolate, as figured as the sinuous swirls of abstract art work.  I ran my hand over the now-smooth wood, admiring the satiny texture, letting my eyes appreciate the artistry of nature.

                The board was walnut, air-dried for a generation  It had waited for someone to uncover its beauty and it will become something fashioned by my hands, something to live with and love for my lifetime and that of others to come.  “Grandpa made that,” they’ll say.  “The wood came off his father’s farm down in Missouri, my great-grandpa.”

                Walnut is my wood-of-choice.  More than 30 years ago my father logged a number of walnut trees from our Missouri farm and sawed them into rough lumber of various dimensions.  We stored the lumber in an old barn and there they rested.  Now many of the boards have become our kitchen cabinets and much of our furniture.  Every moment of every day I am reminded of my father and his unusual legacy.  I am surrounded by it.

                Walnut is so versatile—it finishes to a deep luster and offers everything from straight grain to incredibly burled and figured wood.  Today it is so prized that veneer is more valuable than the solid wood.  You can realize thousands of dollars-worth of veneer from a single large log.

                The walnut tree, hands-down, produces the best shop wood in my home state, Missouri, and arguably the most beautiful wood of any native tree.  And that’s just one aspect of the most versatile tree in the forest.  If there is a tree that is the equivalent of the cliché about using everything on a hog but the squeal it’s the walnut.

                Walnut is the common name given to twenty species of deciduous trees in the genus Juglans, of which six species are native to the United States. The black walnut, Juglans nigra, which is native to Missouri, grows from Maine west to southern Michigan and south to Texas and Georgia. It’s the tallest of the species and can grow to 100 feet.  As a shade tree it’s a mixed blessing—it gives a fine, open shade in the summer but loses leaves early and offers only a moderately attractive yellow leaf color change.            The Missouri Legislature has designated the nut of the walnut tree as the state nut which is like throwing a hushpuppy to the drooling hounds when they want the steak you’re grilling—it should, in my opinion, also be the state tree, but the dogwood is.  Dogwoods are lovely in the spring and fall, give good shade, but the wood is not prized and there are no nuts.

                The walnut tree does everything but go out for a pizza and a six-pack when you’re locked into the Game of the Week.  Okay, it’s at best semi-attractive as an ornamental, loses its leaves early in autumn and kills just about everything that tries to grow beneath it, but picky, picky….. 

                Consider: If you have a gunstock with a sumptuous chocolately swirl that makes you want to lick it, you almost certainly spent as much money for the wood as you did for the metal parts.  The finest gunstocks are of walnut and appear on guns owned by people who also drive automobiles worth as much as most homes. 

                But my Army M-1 rifle also had a walnut stock, albeit Plain Jane.

                Gunstocks are just one use for walnut wood.  Walnut furniture is beautiful and most of it these days is veneer, a thin layer of walnut glued to a base of cheap wood like gum. 

                Solid walnut is too valuable. It wasn’t always that way.  Manh antebellum homes are built from walnut lumber cut from local trees and many a centenarian barn had beams of walnut, although most of those stately old livestock houses have been razed either for their lumber or to make way for a metal Butler building.

                We have a pie safe that belonged to some forgotten ancestor of my wife and her cousin.  It was taking up space in the cousin’s garage, covered with several layers of ugly paint and with the legs partially rotted. She thought it was worthless.  I thought otherwise, especially after shaving a sliver of paint to expose the wood underneath.  There was no mistaking the dark beauty of walnut.

                She gave the safe to us and I stripped off the layers of paint, a burlesque queen’s show stopping act applied to furniture.  The wood was more than a century old and as lustrous, when I got it finished, as a prime pearl. The top is one 24-inch wide walnut plank.  Try finding one of those these days.

                The pie safe has withstood more than 100 years of jostling and invading mice and today stands beneath a Vance family land grant signed by John Quincy Adams—perhaps the last President to personally sign all land grants (and it must have been near the end of a long day of signing since the handwriting is cramped).. There is history on and against our walls.

                Beyond gunstocks and furniture, the standing walnut tree offers fruit.  WalNUT, remember?  The tasty nuts begin to fall in September and October and you’d better be quick or squirrels will beat you to them.

                Good crops of walnuts seem to occur every other year and I prowl the county gravel roads, picking up walnuts that have fallen on public property.  We also have several good nut trees on our place.  After the hulls turn black I dump them on our gravel road and run over them with my pickup until the hulls are pretty well separated from the nutshells.

                I use strong rubber gloves to keep from staining my hands and rub the hull residue off the nut shell and put the nuts in a five-gallon bucket that has holes drilled around the bottom for drainage.

                Then I power hose the nuts until they are fairly clean and spread them out to dry (keeping a watchful eye for squirrels.  The nuts will last a long time in the shell.  Fresh, they’re moist and hard to pick and the nutmeats should be frozen or they’ll mold.  Just before you use them in a recipe, toast them in a dry skillet for a few seconds to bring out the oils and enrich the flavor. 

My nutcracking methods are crude but effective.  I use a hammer and a brick.  I cup the nut with thumb and forefinger, on its side, and whack it carefully until it breaks into several pieces.  If I’m lucky the nut pieces will be large.  I use a nut pick to get at the uncooperative pieces.  I eat about as many as I save.

                Nutmeats are among nature’s most health-friendly foods.  They’re high in fat, but it’s mostly unsaturated.  Studies show that almonds and walnuts have a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol levels.  The protein in nuts will help to prevent clots and walnuts, among other nutmeats, contain alpha-linoleic acid which protects against heart disease.  And nuts add fiber to the diet, always a good thing.  Add in magnesium, copper, folic acid, potassium and vitamin E, all present in nutmeats, and you have a top notch health food.

                Even though it’s beneficial fat, some think eating nuts will lead to weight gain, but a longterm study indicated that those who frequently ate nuts were leaner than those who didn’t.  Nuts tend to fill a person quickly.  If they prove irresistible, eat nuts that have to be shelled first.  It gives you something to do, provides mild exercise, and slows down the urge to gobble great quantities.

                As mentioned, walnut can stain—it was a staple dye until the development of synthetic dyes.  The green hulls and leaves, left to soak for three days, will deteriorate to an intense dark brown glop that will stain wool with a color-fast and light-fast brown (meaning the stain will not wash out or be faded by the sun).  For a list of recipes, check 

                Dye is not the only chemical effect of walnuts.  Walnut trees produce a chemical called juglone (also spelled “juglose”) which inhibits the growth of many plants, though not grasses.  Some plants like redcedar, oaks, hickories (in the same family as walnuts), black raspberries and most other hardwoods aren’t affected by juglone, but tomatoes, apples, pines, birch, potatoes, alfalfa and blackberries are.

                                Walnut sawdust and wood chips similarly affect some plants and shouldn’t be used as mulch unless or until thoroughly composted (mulch is among the newer uses for walnut shells–it compares favorably to traditional cedar mulch and sells for about $75/ton).  Dried nut shells can be fuel for a wood stove, but they have a more esoteric use—ground-up walnut shells are widely used as a non-corrosive cleaner for metals, including jet engines.  Blasted under high pressure, the shells strip paint, rust and dirt from almost any metal.  The Navy cleans its ships with walnut hulls.

                                Is there anything this Super Tree can’t do!

                                Missouri’s major nut producer (and shell producer) is the Hammons Company of Stockton.  In fact, Hammons is the largest walnut products company in the world and if nothing else would cement its reputation, this recipe for walnut-oatmeal cookies should do it: ¾ cup brown sugar, one teaspoon soda, ½ cup sugar, 1 ¼ tsp. cinnamon, one egg, ¾ tsp. salt, 1/3 tsp nutmeg, 1 ½ cup black walnut meats.  Hammons recommends its meats, not surprisingly.  Three cups oatmeal, optional is ½ cup raisins or chocolate chips, 1 ½ cups flour.  Mix the wet ingredients (Hammons mentions vanilla, but gives no proportions—use your judgment), stir in the dry, spoon onto cookie sheet and bake at 350 for about 10 minutes.  Allow to cool so you don’t burn your mouth as you dig in.  Makes three dozen cookies.

                                Hammons is in Cedar County, an oddity for a walnut outfit.  In fact there is no Walnut County in Missouri, despite the tree’s looming presence.  It is the Rodney Dangerfield of Missouri trees, not gettin’ no respect (there’s a Hickory County too).  Some towns (Walnut Grove, Walnut Shade) have recognized this Supertree.

                                Missouri’s other major walnut industry is wood for gun stocks.   Fajen Gun Stocks in Warsaw has been a national leader in fine and custom gun stocks for half a century.  Reinhart Fajen started the company which now is part of Battenfeld Technologies, located in Columbia, Missouri.

                                Not just any old tree can be a fine gun stock or a lustrous pie safe.  Like any tree, walnuts are subject to the scarring of time from many causes—disease, insects, woodpeckers, lightning strikes and thoughtless folks hammering nails in them.  And much of the wood is straight grain, attractive, but hardly unique.

                                It takes a large tree to produce good lumber because there is a rind of sapwood that surrounds the desirable chocolate interior.  A sawlog should be a minimum of six feet long and at least a foot in diameter.  A veneer log is even more demanding.  The top grade logs should be nine feet or longer, at least 14 inches diameter in the small end and free of any defects.

                                Foresters warn that only experienced loggers should cut high-quality walnut to insure the cuts are in the right place.  A misplaced saw cut could ruin a thousand dollars worth of veneer.

                                Walnut is slow-growing, so a large walnut tree once cut down is not replaced for at least a generation—something to think about.  On the other hand, landowners have realized thousands of dollars of income from logging large walnut trees and in some instances have lifted the mortgage with judicious logging 

                                One thing is certain: no one is building massive barns anymore with joists and beams of rough-cut walnut.  And in the very few historic barns that remain, the timbers that built them a century or more ago are like buried treasure, fine wood waiting to be uncovered by the flashing blades of a planer.


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