Harvesting Walnut

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Daniel Burden
Program Specialist, Value Added Agriculture
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

photo of walnut leaves and nutsOur American Black Walnut grows throughout most of the eastern half of the United States.  The tree prefers moist, well drained soils, particularly along streams, and is usually found scattered in mixed forests.  It has many  common names:  American Walnut, Black Walnut, Gunwood, Eastern Black Walnut, Premium Black Walnut, Premium Walnut, and Tocte among others.  Other walnuts, Bastogne, paradox, Claro and Circassian may be encountered.  Bastogne and paradox are a naturally occurring, non-reproducing sterile hybrid of Juglans nigra and Juglans regia.  Claro is a subspecies found only in California’s Claro Valley. Circassian is English walnut from the Caucasus of the former Ottoman Empire and then the Soviet Union.  In Europe, closely related English or French walnut Juglans regia was the go-to furniture wood long before colonists settled in North Amercia. Juglans regia is Latin derived from Greek for “Jove’s” (Jupiter’s) nuts and regia “royal.”  Nigra is Latin for “black.” 

Walnut: the royal wood.  In North America the black walnut (Juglans nigra), straight-grained, open-pored, is the hallmark material of American commercial and hobbyist woodworkers.  Walnut wood is light, stable, strong and a pleasure to form with woodworking tools.  This has made it an excellent choice for fine furniture, veneer, gun stock and carving wood.  To other woodworkers, walnut is preferred material for interior applications that include wood sculpture, cabinetry, furniture, flooring, millwork and trim (moulding, framing), shipbuilding and turning.

No matter which species, subspecies or infertile hybrid, the best trees for the finest grades of wood are wild and slow-growing. Slow growth results in dense, heavy material with complicated and exotic grain patterns. The sapwood is whitish to a yellowish-brown. The heartwood varies from a pale brown to a chocolate brown in color, and can even have a purple tint. It is common of the wood to be steamed during the kiln drying process.  This darkens the sapwood to make it more of a uniform color with the heartwood. The grain is slightly open, but usually straight, with a semi-coarse but uniform texture.

Rough cut wood to be finished by the woodworker, can be obtained for $3.50 to $15 per board foot, again, depending upon the cut, grain pattern and overall quality.  It is quite common for veneer suppliers to make offers to homeowners on “yard trees,” often old substantial trees.  These trees, due to their height, often have highly figured grain patterns.  They also may have considerable problems with heart-rot and similar defects.  These veneer cutters usually offer to purchase a tree for $800 to $2,400 or so.   Although this may not seem like a large amount, it is important to note that the veneer supplier is handling the labor and material expense of removing the tree from lot, disposing of the unwanted material, transportation of the logs and clean-up of the site, possibly including stump removal.  If you have a large usual tree with defects that may be a better tree to sell to a local lumberman who will primarily be interested in unique wood for the specialty woodworker and craft-person market and has network connections in that area.

Most lumber pricing is based on what is called the “net tally” a measurement after kiln drying, based on 1000-board feet of lumber.  Dividing the net-tally pricing by 1,000 produces the “median per-board-foot price” for the particular species and grades.  Usually two grades are reported. FAS (firsts and seconds, typically the best grade of kiln-dried, hardwood lumber) and #1 Common (lower grade, often used in cabinet and furniture making where piece sizes are smaller and defects are accepted in the finished produce or can be eliminated or hidden by cutting, lamination, staining or other processing).  Reported prices usually are estimated distribution-yard prices for rough lumber; actual pricing highly varies by distributor and within supplier-distributor relationships.

For example, some recent net-tally pricing for rough-cut kiln-dried walnut at the following width/thickness was  4/4 FAS 4600 to 4900; #1 Common 2700 to 3000; 6/4 FAS 5000 to 5300; #1 Common 3550 to 3850; 8/4 FAS 5750 to 6000; #1 Common 3450 to 3750; essentially, $2.70 to $6.00 per board foot.

If you have trees on your acreage and are thinking of some selective harvest; it may best to partner with a local arborist or wood-producer who knows how to best take down the tree and maximize the wood products from it.  Many entrepreneurs in this area have their own “mill.”  These mills are portable sawmills; essentially large portable band saws., Many of which are quite sophisticated using computer controls and lasers to optimize cutting efficiency and minimize waste.  Some mill owners will bring the mill to your site, or you can transport your material to them for processing.  If you are thinking of keeping your wood for personal use or later sale, you should have a storage area where it can be properly stacked and stored for air drying and is protected from the elements.  The finest pieces should have the ends sealed to ensure consistent drying and prevent checking (end cracks).

As with many products, value-addition from preparation for hobbyist-ready material can greatly increase value.  In the case of fine hardwoods, carefully cutting (usually quarter sawing), kiln drying, and planning to a standard thickness can result in very expensive boards.  One on-line retail example has straight-grain American black walnut boards, 3/4 by 5 by 48-inches at $29.95 or $7.50 per foot.  Planks of greater thickness, for example, 4-inces or so, can run $15 or more per board foot.  Highly-figured for veneers, tone woods for musical instruments, or fine gunstocks, can easily retail from $100 to $1000 depending on the quality of the piece and any investment in its handling and climate-controlled storage.

If you would like more information, contact your NRCS or university-extension forester, or check the internet for your local wood-product manufacturers.  Here are some resources:

Date of Publication: 
September, 2016