View Full Version : Avoid Ye the Black Walnut....

04-25-2009, 08:49 AM

From: "Folklore and the Sea", by Horace Beck ISBN: 0-7858-1119-2
... Apple and holly were associated with faeries; oak and pine were trees of special import to pagan deities. Lest one think this is reaching too far, let us take a single example of ship construction from Chesapeake Bay as an illustration. Black walnut is a rich, easily worked wood that is resistant to water. It grows straight and tall, and the trees are often three or four feet in diameter. Sometimes planks thirty feet long could be milled from the log and show scarcely a single knot. Although it is now scarce, it was at one time common along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. In fine, it would seem to be an ideal wood for the shipwright, but it was and is not.
An old waterman once bought a very handsome skiff there for five dollars. From the day he bought it he had nothing but trouble. It sank, broke loose, was stolen, leaked; and whenever he went out in it, things went wrong. He caught no fish, lost oars, a storm came up. Finally he decided to repaint it and stripped off some of the paint. The skiff was made of black walnut! He did the only thing he could do--sold it to a tourist."'
So bad is the reputation of black walnut in this area that the whole boat need not be made of the stuff to bring trouble. One man fashioned a seat out of it and was plagued with misfortune. A crank boat was set aright when it was discovered that a squirrel had stashed some black walnuts aboard. Then there is a story of a skipper on one of the islands bound to Annapolis with cargo. An old lady asked him to take her along. He agreed and she came aboard with a paper bag. Scarcely had they got out into the bay when a violent gale sprang up. No matter which way the captain tried to go, the wind hauled against them and the sea grew wilder until it looked as if they would swamp. The captain knew that something was wrong and in desperation asked the old woman what she had in the bag. "Black walnuts." Instantly the skipper seized the bag and heaved it overboard. The storm abated and they landed safely in Annapolis a few hours later.
To the folk, the black walnut is a tree of ill omen. On the beach it is said to draw lightning, kill cattle and burn houses. The bark and the nuts stain your hands permanently. Somehow it is associated with the devil. The reasons for much of this lies in the tree. The wood is odd-colored-- purplish-- and heavier than many other woods. Because of its nature it grows tall and often in isolation. As a result, it is particularly subject to being hit by lightning. Since cows have a way of standing under trees in thunderstorms and these trees offer the most shelter, many a critter has been electrocuted under them. When near a house, lightning often is deflected from the tree and into the building. Just as a dog with a bad name gains the reputation of being a sheep killer, so does the black walnut become the scapegoat for every miserable boatbuilder and lubberly sailor in the area.

Jay Greer
04-25-2009, 09:00 AM
Great tibit based on superstition.
What fools we mortals be!

James McMullen
04-25-2009, 11:46 AM
As a enlightened rationalist, I am proud to say that walnut has never been a source of bad luck for me. The very first boat I was able to sell for a substantial profit had walnut trim and thwarts. I have also had some of the best sailing trips of my life start of a Friday, and I daily cross paths with a black cat.

I do have a coin under my mast step, though. Without that coin, no question about it, your boat will sink and you will die.

04-25-2009, 11:57 AM
It's a beautiful wood, but Black Walnut can be nasty to work with.
It's bad reputation may have to do with it's poisonous oils, which tend to kill anything that wants to grow around it.

As for luck, it might have been lucky to get the job building a raised panel black walnut study and a teak sunroom at Eastern Point in Gloucester.

04-25-2009, 01:56 PM
It's a beautiful wood, but Black Walnut can be nasty to work with.

I must offer a second opinion here. I have used black walnut extensively for the last 22 years building textile equipment. It is the second most popular wood with my customers after black cherry. It is an absolute joy to work. It dries with little degradation, cuts easily, glues well, holds fastening well, steam-bends very well, and takes a variety of finishes without complaint. Very few other woods offer such an array of exceptional properties. And certain trees produce the most amazing curly figure. What's there not to like?

04-25-2009, 02:11 PM
Allow me to clarify that I agree with you on the working properties and virtues,
including the relative rot resistance of black walnut over some other woods.
The dust, however can be toxic (irritant) to the eyes and throat. And the splinters are quite painful,
probably from the acidic resin that kills it's neighbors while in the ground.

04-25-2009, 04:06 PM
I worked with BW quite a bit back when I was doing it for money. I always wore a good respirator, and usually had dust collection. Its dust never bothered me, but cherry was a different matter. Irritating but nuthin serious; I broke out in hives whenever I was milling it. They'd go away after a few hours. Different physiologies?

Walnut is great wood to work by hand, and takes a beautiful finish. Cherry, a harder wood, also takes a beautiful finish.

Always wear a respirator (the disposable fabric ones with the two straps work quite well and are much more comfortable than the rubber monsters) when doing any extensive milling, especially when working indoors.

As to the superstition, no black walnut in my boats! Sailors need all the good luck they can get. LOL.

larry wave
04-25-2009, 04:49 PM
Anyone worked with California Black walnut. Does it compare to the stuff out east. My brother in law way be getting some short lengths that were from a walnut orchard. The black walnut was used for the root stock, with English walnut grafted on. I suspect that the root stock probably grew too fast( fertalizers) to produce anything of value, but I hope I'm wrong.

04-26-2009, 11:13 AM
Do ye not give a dram of libation to King Neptune before ye raise anchor, lest ye tempt Davey Jones?

04-26-2009, 12:23 PM
Anyone worked with California Black walnut. Does it compare to the stuff out east. My brother in law way be getting some short lengths that were from a walnut orchard. The black walnut was used for the root stock, with English walnut grafted on. I suspect that the root stock probably grew too fast( fertalizers) to produce anything of value, but I hope I'm wrong.
I think you are talking about Claro walnut, which I am told is used as the base trunk and Black walnut is grafted on. Claro is fast growing and is commercially used. It sometimes has a highly figured grain and fetches high prices in the lumber yards here in the east. It's difficult to dry especially in the thicker stock. Drying often creates voids within the wood and can cause deformation - warps twists and sucking in of the surface. I frequently buy it, but it is difficult to work the swirly grain with planes. For the same reason I think it would be a bad candidate for steam bending.

04-26-2009, 02:33 PM
"Juglans hindsii, generally found in the northern half of the state, is a large tree 30 to 60 feet high with a single erect trunk commonly without branches for 10-40 feet. Specimens commonly reach 5-6 feet in diameter near the base of the tree" (link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juglans_californica))

I have milled and worked with this variety for years. It is beautiful stuff with a large trunk suitable for big wide planks. For furniture, gunstocks, salad bowls, and the occasional knee or breasthook on small boats it is a delight. The contrast between the sweetwood and the heartwood is black and white.
It grows wild here and is occasionally removed for development, big trees and you have to assume there will be nails and junk in the butt.
I always have a little pile stickered up, another year maybe and it'll become furniture.

larry wave
04-27-2009, 01:27 AM
Thanks tapsnap and canoeyawl. We have some wild walnut around here, besides whats in the orchards, but I think it is the Juglands Californica, not the Hindsii. I'm East of Fresno about an hour, 3000 elevation. I suppose it's possible that it's Hindsii but just stunted by the climate. I haven't seen any over 18" in diameter, and the nuts are smaller than those attributed to the Hindsii. If I wasn't so far north of the range for the Juglans californica, I would say that that is what we have around here, just a little larger. I'm mostly interested because I'd like to plant some that could be usefull in my kids lifetime. The Hindsii is what I would like to plant, but I don't think it would really thrive in this climate. Guess I'll just plant a few and find out. I'll keep you posted....

04-27-2009, 02:12 AM
I have some pieces of Iowa Black Walnut. It has red through it.
As for superstition. I think if one believes in something, it is so. And visa versa.
Aaaaaaaahhh.....thump..twang. *&^#$*#(&*$ .. dang.

05-05-2009, 07:17 PM
I thought Black Walnut was bad luck because it's a coffin wood.