I have a client at the moment who wants the ‘Definitive Dining Table’. They occupy an exceedingly modern and beautiful house in North London and want a 4.5 metre long dining table in European Walnut. Now in fulfilling these lovely clients wishes I’m going to have a few problems, walnut trees, by and large, don’t grow that big, at least not over here in Europe. A really good, big walnut tree, and there are not many of those about, topped out at about 3.25 metres, but might be one metre in diameter so with luck and a good wind we may get our walnut boards a decent width but we’re not going to get the 4.5 metres we require. That is unless we use American walnut. Now American walnut trees are slightly different species, growing much taller. The timber is widely available in varying thicknesses and American Walnut trees grow to in excess of 4.5 metres in length. The problem with American walnut, and in fact American timbers in general, is that they arrive over here in container loads of kiln dried timber, sawn with two straight edges, dried to within an inch of their lives and randomly mixed, so we’d be very lucky to find three boards that came from the same tree let alone three adjacent boards. The boards we’d get would be 9 – 10” wide and clear as a bell, though it’s not quite what my client is looking for. Hey, these days people are using American Walnut for floor boarding and as this is a relatively soft and easily marked timber I can think of few things more foolish but people are doing whole rooms out with black walnut polished floorboards.
As far as I’m concerned Walnut is one of the most precious and most interesting of timbers. Yet we have lots of difficulties with it, mostly concerned with availability. For the moment I’ll concentrate on European walnut and later we’ll look at the American version of this lovely timber.
I love English Walnut. It cuts and planes like cheese, soft, silky with a finish that doesnt just shine up but glows. Also Walnut is one of the darkest native hardwoods we have. Although it’s not dark in terms of rosewood or ebony, it’s still a rich chocolatey brown. When you find a big tree it can be wide and, as I said, relatively short and it may well have been dug out of the ground so that the root ball has very largely come with it. This is because quite a lot of the most precious walnut has a dark smokey colouring that occurs near the defects around the root ball. This is the wood that’s most typically sold for gun stocks and the dark veining and smokey figuring is the most prized feature. We’re talking now about the heartwood of walnut, for on either side of this dark brown, sometimes featureless timber, is a pale brownish white sap wood. With some timbers one can use the sap wood, cherry and sycamore are examples of this, because a sap wood itself isn’t that much different in texture to the heartwood. Walnut has a sap wood which is soft, and sweet and very much loved by the woodworm fraternity so beware that when you’re paying £90 a cubic foot for English walnut up to a third of that walnut may have to go on the fire.
I am not being hard and fast here there are periods in History that have used Walnut sapwood decoratively contrasting the light sapwood with the dark heartwood but one needs to take into account now sapwood will sand faster and polish slower than its dark neighbour.
When we are buying walnut from yards, 90% of the walnut sold these days is described as European, for that read French. Most French Walnut is grown in the Dordogne and tends to be harvested a little earlier than English Walnut, so butts can be 15 – 18” in diameter so Walnut boards from Europe are almost invariably narrower than from an English walnut tree. The French have one other trick up their sleeves in that in the process of kilning they steam the timber. This takes some of the dark colouration from the heart wood of the walnut tree and it is absorbed by the sap wood so making what was less valuable sapwood into what you could at a squeeze almost use as Walnut heartwood.
Personally I stay well clear of using the sap wood from European walnut but if I were to use it I’d be treating it carefully with woodworm solution and watching how the softer sap wood took abrasives and polish rather differently to the harder darker heart wood. If we have to buy a French log for this ‘definitive dining table’, then I shall be giving myself a week in the Dordogne trundling around with an enormous trailer on the back of a borrowed Land Rover for my aim will be to find a complete log that has been cut but not yet kiln dried and steamed.
A student of mine, Andrew Williams, wanted to make a table recently in English walnut. His client had got this log and there was really very little of it to play around with. Some of the timber was relatively straight grained and clean but lacked the character of the dark smoky timber that I was looking for. There was however one patch of interesting figured wood that was not too far away from a whole load of defects including knots, splits, cracks and shakes, but that’s almost inevitably the case with walnut. As my dad used to say ‘the sweetest meat is nearest the bone’, and the stresses that occur in the life of the tree causing beautiful figuring and unusual markings are often the same stresses and strains that cause cracks, knots, splits and shakes. So in this case our strategy was to use the clear clean wood for framework around a whole series of veneered panels. The smokey dark timber was taken and sawn on our bandsaw into 2 mm thick veneers. These were then treated like little pictures and framed up by the blander solid wood frame creating a tabletop with interest and variance that could never ever be bought in a furniture shop.
Here Andrew used the contrast of dark heartwood with lighter sapwood as a design feature he also highlighted each band sawn panel by creating a little v -groove around each panel just to catch the light and show off his work. This is simple good intelligent workmanship and requires the designer to get out of the way of the timber. So often a designer’s Ego gets in the way and yet another arm waving attention seeking worthless piece of contemporary furniture is created.