No matter what else you put in a room—the textiles, the accessories, the window treatments, even the paint on the walls—the thing that mostly defines any room is the furniture that we choose to put in it. One of the major elements that will determine the durability, visual appeal and overall value of furniture is the material from which it's made. And when it comes to long-lasting, beautiful furniture with a timeless appeal, there are few materials that have as much to offer as walnut.
Walnut is an excellent choice for making traditional-style furniture, but it has also made its way into some more intriguing and modern designs. Walnut is a durable hardwood that maintains a beautiful finish for years. And it's been part of some of the most iconic furniture designs in history—a favorite material of furniture and interior designers alike for generations. The following hints will make finding and buying the perfect piece that much easier.
The Qualities of Walnut
Walnut is a deciduous hardwood, meaning that the tree loses its leaves in the fall and winter. Walnut includes any of the species from the Juglans genus of plants, though English walnut (Juglas regia) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) are the most common types used in furniture making. The grain of the cut wood is straight, although it becomes wavy as you get closer to the roots. The color of walnut can vary dramatically, from very light to very dark brown. The middle of the walnut tree produces the darker wood and the outer layer of the tree, just beneath the bark, produces the lighter wood.
Walnut is a strong, hard and durable wood that carves well and holds a good shape for a number of years. This makes it is an excellent choice for ornate furniture that requires intricate woodworking, such as a mantelpiece or headboard. It frequently was used to make cabinets and other pieces of furniture in 17th and 18th century Europe because of its inherent qualities. In contemporary furniture, the high cost of walnut means that walnut veneers are more commonly used than solid walnut.
Walnut furniture can easily last a lifetime with proper care and maintenance. Larry Frye, the executive director of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association, in Zionsville, Ind., observes that the durability of walnut is the primary reason that it has remained a popular wood for furniture makers worldwide, according to the Oakley Woods Web site.
What to Look For
When choosing walnut stock for furniture making, or when buying new or used walnut furniture, look for wood with a straight grain, which will be accentuated by a clear coat of urethane. The finish is simply a matter of taste, but be aware that stains may make the attractive grain less noticeable.
While older walnut furniture is likely to be constructed from solid walnut, newer pieces are more likely to be made from walnut veneer applied over core woods. The core of walnut veneered furniture is usually another, cheaper, species, but some walnut veneers are applied over solid walnut cores. Telling the difference between solid walnut furniture and furniture with veneers is not always easy, so ask a salesperson for assistance if this distinction is important to you. The difference may not be important since most people find it hard to tell the difference between solid wood and good veneers.
Getting a Good Value
Solid walnut furniture tends to cost more than most other wood furniture, so be prepared to pay more, even when value shopping. Judging value requires that you weigh appearance against the construction of the furniture. Solid walnut furniture will be very sturdy, but furniture made with veneer is often more attractive.
If purchasing solid walnut furniture, consider shopping at vintage consignment shops and antique stores rather than at new furniture outlets, where prices for solid walnut may be very high. The used walnut furniture you find may show some wear and tear, such as nicks or water stains, but a woodworker can usually refinish the item to look like new. Also, consider furniture clearinghouses. Items that haven’t sold well in chain stores and department stores may end up in a clearinghouse, where it is often at a steep discount.
If appearance is more important than the construction, consider purchasing furniture made with walnut veneers, looking for pieces that are most pleasing to the eye. You should still pay close attention to the construction of the furniture. Poorly made furniture may show signs of the veneer buckling or separating from the core wood. Closely inspect the veneer surfaces, especially along the edges, to make sure the veneer is uniform and firmly bonded.