Walnut is definitely one of those species that offers some extra challenges. Many customers are surprised that this domestic species can sometimes be more expensive than exotic options such as Genuine Mahogany. Of course, Walnut doesn’t have as far to travel as Genuine Mahogany, but travel is only one of the many factors that affect lumber pricing. Availability is also a significant factor.
The downgrading of Walnut has definitely made people curious about this unique lumber species. While sometimes we look at the past through rose-colored glasses, when people think today’s Walnut is simply “not what it used to be,” they’re actually right.
Adjusting Expectations for Walnut
High-quality Walnut lumber is definitely available; however, “high quality” is a relative term. And when it comes to a specific lumber species, the definition of “high quality” needs to be considered when compared to other lumber of that same species — not that of another species or even the same species as it existed decades ago.
The National Hardwood Lumber Association, or NHLA, offers complex grading standards that apply to all domestic hardwood lumber species. However, they’ve altered these standards for Walnut. You can check out this post for the details on those alterations, but the general idea is to make the grading system work for Walnut in a way similar to how it works for other species.
Essentially, if the same requirements were applied to Walnut as are applied to other domestic hardwood species, virtually no Walnut boards would make it into the top one or two grading categories; grading would essentially become less helpful in distinguishing one board from another.
Understanding Limitations of Walnut
What makes Walnut so much more limited than other species? Compared to the Mahogany tree, the American Black Walnut tree has a far shorter growing season as well as a much smaller size. When we compare the Walnut tree to other domestic species with similar growing seasons, we get another side of the story. Maple trees are larger and heartier, largely because Maples are more aggressive; as a result, Maple trees often starve Walnut trees as well as other species. Because Walnut trees demand light but fail to thrive in windy areas, they’re further limited.
When Walnut trees are surrounded by aggressive species such as Maple trees, Walnut trees don’t grow as tall as they otherwise might. Topping off somewhere between 30 and 70 feet in height, Walnut trees often fail to yield many long boards. Add to that the fact that Walnut trees tend to have a greater number of low branches than Maples or Oaks, and you have an even smaller chance of getting Walnut boards with straight grain that have no knots or other “defects” — the kinds of boards that would typically make it into the FAS grading category.