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Winter 2013-2014

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Butternut

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Butternut

Tips for working with black walnut's blond cousin. 

By Tim Johnson


Butternut is one of our prettiest domestic hardwoods, but most people have never seen it. Butternut trees are rare in urban and suburban landscapes,and retail lumberyards don’t usually stock it. Even though furniture makers and carvers have valued it for centuries, butternut lumber has never been commercially important.

It’s easy to mistake butternut for another wood. With a natural finish, it can look like oak, or even birch. Stained brown, butternut is a dead ringer for black walnut. Shaker cabinetmakers colored it with washes of blue, green, red and yellow. Woodcarvers love butternut, but you’re more likely to admire their handiwork than the wood from which it springs.

Butternut lumber is affordable, beautiful and enjoyable to work with, and the trees are valuable members of our forests. Sadly, a deadly fungus is ravaging them.Our generation may be the last with an opportunity to get to know this great American hardwood.

 

Black walnut’s cousin

A member of the walnut family,butternut (Juglans cinerea) is often referred to as “white walnut,”because of its light tan to cinnamon-colored heartwood (Photo 1). Fresh-cut boards can have light and dark streaks,and pink,green or gray hues.These tones disappear gradually over time,as do the dark-colored pores.Antiques made of butternut have turned a uniform golden color.

Butternut’s plainsawn figure is nearly identical to black walnut’s,although its “cathedrals”are more likely to be multi-spired (Photo 2). Butternut’s texture is also similar to that of black walnut—more coarse than maple or cherry,but finer than ash or oak.The pores are visible, just like they are in black walnut.

Butternut grows from eastern Canada to Minnesota, through eastern Nebraska and as far south as Arkansas,Alabama and Georgia. Typically, it’s found growing widely scattered in mixed hardwood stands.

 

Buying butternut

Top-grade boards of 4/4 (1-in. thick) rough stock cost about $4 per bd. ft.Typical boards are 6 to 8-ft. long and about 7-in.wide.You may even find some really wide ones,over 12 inches.Wild-looking grain is common in butternut.You’ll find knots and other defects too,even in top-grade boards. Lower-grade No. 1 common boards cost around $3 per bd. ft.The biggest commercial use of butternut is to make paneling, using the lower grades.

If your local hardwood lumberyard doesn’t stock butternut, dig a little deeper. Check the Yellow Pages or your local woodworker’s group to find nearby sawmills and other small-scale lumber suppliers. These operations are likely to handle a variety of locally-available hardwoods. If you live within butternut’s native range,you might hit the jackpot.You can also find butternut on the Web.A good place to start is WoodFinder at www.wdfindr.com.

 

Working with butternut

Butternut is much softer than walnut and not nearly as strong. It dents so easily you can mark it with a fingernail (Photo 3). It isn’t a good choice for a fine tabletop, but it’s perfect if you want a distressed country look.

Butternut is also easy to move around.A 12-in.-wide, 10-ft.-long plank of kiln-dried 4/4 stock weighs only about 20 lb.A similarsize walnut plank weighs well over 30 lb.

The best working characteristic of butternut is the way it responds to hand-held edge tools, as long as their cutting edges are kept razor-sharp. It’s no secret why butternut was popular with pioneer woodworkers. It cuts easily,planes beautifully and carves like butter (Photos 4 and 5). If you want to try handplaning, a great place to start is with a straightgrained piece of butternut.

Ironically,machine tools can bring out the worst in butternut.This is one reason butternut isn’t used commercially.Surface-planing or edge-routing can tear the soft fibers from the surface without warning, leaving it fuzzy (Photo 6). The torn fibers are hard to deal with.They’re so stringy,you can actually peel them away from the surface, leaving unsightly channels.Planing by hand with a razor-sharp tool is the best way to remove them. It’s tough to sand torn fibers smooth.They either crush because they’re so soft,or tear because they’re so stringy.

 

Sanding butternut

Butternut is so soft, it’s important not to go overboard when you sand.Always use fine-grit sandpaper.Anything below 150 grit will tear the soft fibers. So will dull,worn-out grit.Don’t sand a torn-out spot with finger pressure.You’ll just create a divot. Instead, use a sanding block. Be careful when you use a random-orbit sander.Use fine paper and go easy.

I prefer to sand butternut by hand,with a good old corkfaced sanding block (Photo 7), starting with 180 grit.After 180, I go to 220 and finish off with 280 grit.

 

Finishing butternut

Shellac and butternut go together like a hand in a glove (lead photo, page 90). If you’re stuck with some fuzziness that you just can’t sand out, a wash coat of dewaxed shellac stiffens the fuzzy fibers and gives you another chance to sand them smooth before applying your finish coats.For a deeper amber tone, or really troublesome fuzz, apply and sand down a second wash coat.

Butternut stains like it sands—almost too well. If you don’t have the surface sanded uniformly,or if you’ve got some fuzzy spots,stains can look blotchy.I get the best-looking results when I use a wood conditioner prior to staining (Photo 8).

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Butternut looks like Black Walnut, only lighter. Genetic cousins, their figure patterns are similar.


2. Fluted growth rings are characteristic. They give plainsawn butternut its unusual twinspired cathedral figure.


3. Butternut is too soft for a tabletop, unless you want to get a distressed look very quickly! Even though it’s a hardwood, butternut is as soft as white pine.


4. Butternut planes easily by hand, which is one reason it was favored by 19th-century woodworkers.


5. Butternut is great for carving because its end grain and face grain are equally hard. It cuts easily and holds a crisp edge.


6. Machining can cause stringy tear-out that’s difficult to remove.


7. Use a sanding block to keep the surface level when you sand. Sand with fine paper only and replace it often.


8. Make butternut look like walnut with oil stain. Stain alone will make it really dark, because the wood is so porous. It’s best to start with a wood conditioner.




Butternut trees are threatened

It’s possible that butternut, like the American chestnut and elm, will disappear from our landscape. Butternut trees are dying as the result of a fungal disease commonly known as “butternut canker” (photo at left). First observed in 1967, butternut canker has become prevalent across butternut’s entire native range. Once a tree is infected, it will die.

There’s little controversy over using butternut lumber, even though the trees are threatened. Because there is no treatment or cure, diseased trees that aren’t harvested will simply be lost.Virtually all of today’s butternut lumber is harvested from diseased trees. Several states have outlawed cutting any healthy butternut tree found on public land.The cutting of healthy trees on private land is strongly discouraged.

In spite of butternut’s gloomy prognosis, forestry scientists hope to save it from extinction. Because the fungus is so virulent, any healthy butternut tree found amidst diseased ones is thought to have some kind of natural resistance. Cuttings from these trees are being used to try to develop disease-resistant hybrids.

Researchers seek additional healthy cuttings to widen the genetic diversity of the hybrids in their studies.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2002, issue #96.

October 2002, issue #96

Purchase this back issue.

Butternut canker threatens to wipe out the entire butternut population. Caused by a fungus, the cankers, which look like open sores, destroy the tree’s cambium layer. Eventually, the fungus kills the tree.There’s no cure.