Tan to Gold. Butternut’s tawny heartwood ranges from a bronze tan to a golden brown. Occasional black streaks provide contrast and color. Its sapwood is a creamy white.
Black walnut's pale cousin
Even though it is sometimes called white or blonde walnut, to dismiss butternut as simply an under-pigmented version of black walnut is to do it a disservice. The grain structure of the two species is similar as is the appearance of the source trees, so you can see how the comparison was drawn. But there are some significant differences. Obviously, butternut’s tawny coloring is quite different from walnut. It is also softer, lighter in weight, a bit weaker, and less expensive. As I’ll explain, these differences are what set the species apart and make it worthy of consideration for a variety of projects. I am also saddened to tell you that this noble species is threatened across its range.
Where the wood comes from
Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is a denizen of eastern North America. While old-growth trees used to reach impressive size—4'+ in diameter and 100'+ tall, today’s butternut trees are smaller—up to 2' in diameter and 40-60' tall—and only grow in about 10% of their former range. The species is not listed on either the CITES or IUCN Red List, but that may soon change. The trees are suffering from a widespread fungal disease called “Butternut Canker” that is worrisome enough that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as a “species of federal concern.” When and while you can still find it, butternut is available as lumber in thicknesses from 4 /4 - 16 /4, in widths typically from 4-10" and in lengths to 12'. Pricing is generally under $10/board foot. Butternut plywood and veneer are also available.
History in woodworking
In the days when horses provided most of the power for transportation, butternut’s light weight made it a favored choice for carriage paneling. It was also frequently used for architectural detailing in fine homes. If you have the opportunity to visit Grey Towers, the Milford, PA, home of Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forest Service, you’ll find the entire library trimmed and paneled in butternut. And as the wood is quite soft and easy to shape, it was often used for heavily carved church altars and lecterns. These days you’re more likely to see butternut, in veneer form, incorporated into high end cabinetry and other millwork. Aside from woodworking, eighteenth and nineteenth century farmers also extracted a dye from butternut trees that they used to color their clothing. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were sometimes referred to as “Butternuts” for the brownish-yellow hue of their handmade uniforms.
Working and finishing
In many ways, butternut is a joy to work, especially with handtools. It carves extremely well, so is an excellent choice for sculpted work and its lightness makes it a good candidate for projects such as the tool box on page 32 that will be toted about. It is nearly as soft as white pine, and cuts with little effort when worked with the grain. Cutting against the grain, however, is a different story. The wood is so soft that it doesn’t resist being cut the wrong way. Instead, the stringy nature of the wood’s structure becomes apparent as the surface fuzzes and tears out in long fibers ahead of the tool. This fuzziness can make milling and even sanding a bit tricky. The wood abrades quickly with coarse sandpaper, but instead of cutting through the fuzz, the abrasive seems to emphasize it. So rather than starting with 60 or 80 grit, I found it worked better to start at about 120 and then to spend extra time with the finer grits. The wood glues and finishes well, with no special preparation required. Take care not to strip the holes when driving screws, especially with a power driver. And be careful not to bump it or place it on debris-covered surfaces as it dents readily. Because it isn’t especially strong and is a bit brittle, it isn’t a good choice for bending.
- Musical instruments
In the classroom
When I teach beginning woodworkers how to use hand planes, butternut is frequently my wood of choice. It is soft enough that even those without a lot of upper body or hand strength can immediately have success. It also gives immediate feedback as to how to read grain. Cuts made with the grain yield a silky smooth, shimmering surface, while those against it tear, although usually without the tool digging in too badly— perfect for giving beginners confidence in their budding skills. The wood is also nice for handsawing joints such as dovetails, though chopping out the waste begs for sharp chisels as the soft fibers crush and tear readily under all but the keenest of edges.
As for beginning projects, I am fond of using butternut for small pieces such as boxes though I tend to avoid it for larger furniture work as it dents so easily. That said, I have used it very successfully in hand-tool classes where students have made small Shaker-style end tables, planing all the surfaces and cutting all the joints entirely by hand.
Confidence booster. Butternut is soft enough that nearly anyone can get the hang of using a block plane and reading grain in a short amount of time.