Walnut in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries

English or European Walnut (Juglans regia) and Black, Red or Virginia walnut (Juglans nigra) were two of the most important furniture timbers during the latter half of the seventeenth-century and the first half of the eighteenth-century.

In truth, were this timber [Juglans regia] in greater plenty amongst us, we should have far better utensils of all sorts for our houses, as chairs, stools, bedsteads, tables, wainscot, cabinets, &c. […] [1]

To render this wood [Juglans regia] the better coloured, joiners put the boards into an oven after the batch is forth, or lay them in a warm stable; and when they work it, polish it over with its own oil very hot, which makes it look black and sleek, and the older it is, the more estimable […] [2]

European Walnut (Juglans regia).

English, European and Mediterranean walnut had long been favoured for the finest chairs, cabinetwork, veneers and panelling. The most highly prized walnut was said to have come from the rich alluvial soils around Grenoble in south-eastern France, but an unusual combination of natural and socio-political events restricted the availability of the French bois at the beginning of the eighteenth-century. However, English cabinetmakers already had their eyes on supplies of new (and some would argue, superior) varieties of cabinet woods to take the place of the European wood: Increasing quantities of the darker walnut from Virginia began arriving on British shores.

[…]  the black [Juglans nigra] bears the worst nut, but the timber is much to be preferred, and we might propagate more of them if we were careful to procure them out of Virginia, where they abound, and bear a squarer nut; of all others the most beautiful and best worth planting : Indeed, had we store of these, we should soon despise the rest ; yet those of Grenoble come in the next place, and are much prized by our cabinet-makers.[3]

Walnut has been universally considered the premium wood for gun stocks because of its relatively light weight and resistance to compression. The French, being somewhat adverse to hot English lead fired in their general direction, placed an embargo on walnut shipped to England in a futile attempt to frustrate the production of gun stocks there.[4] But in any event, severe frosts killed off much of France’s stands of walnut trees in 1709, resulting in a total export ban in 1720.

Despite walnut veneers being imported from the prodigious Dutch sawmills, strenuous efforts were made to increase domestic walnut production to meet the demand for veneers and timber. Markets were changing though, and with the introduction of the Naval Stores Act in 1721, reduced tariffs saw walnut arriving from Virginia in greater quantities. From its introduction, Virginia walnut was the favoured of the two varieties for chair production and other uses where strong, straight-grained wood was required.

Formerly the English Walnut-tree was much propagated for its wood ; but since the importation of Mahogany and the Virginia Walnut, it has considerably decreased in reputation.[5]

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra).

In 1733, Sir Robert Walpole abolished taxation of all imported timber, increasing the trade in Virginia Walnut. However, in 1776, the War of Independence curtailed the export of walnut and to all intents and purposes spelled the end of walnut as a British furniture timber. The situation was compounded by escalating imports of mahogany from English-held Central America,  which was one-fifth the cost of walnut.

Evelyn appears to have been a flocculent individual yet he noted one other dividend of the bounteous walnut “[…] distillation of its leaves with honey and urine, makes hair spring on bald heads”. [6]


[1] John Evelyn, Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p. 168.

[2] Ibid, p.172.

[3] Ibid, p.164.

[4] Clive Edwards, Eighteenth Century Furniture, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 76.

[5] Evelyn, p.149.

[6] Ibid, p.173.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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7 Responses to Walnut in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries

  1. Jack- The black walnut is still going strong here in Pennsylvania, US. The Champion Walnut tree of PA had to be taken down (due to damage) and was recently milled at Hearne Hardwoods. It may or may not be destined for a high-profile piece of furniture with a famous woodworking family, but no matter what, it was pretty impressive. If you are a Facebook person, you can check out the milling on the Hearne Hardwoods site.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Black Walnut from America resumed popularity again in Britain during Victorian times and is still going strong as a furniture timber both in Britain and here in Australia. My small-ish local timber yard even stocks ‘U.S. Walnut’ of which I bought a small quantity last year to make my Virginia Walnut reading table.

      Thank you for the information on the Champion Walnut. I don’t do Twitbook, but I’ll visit Hearne’s web site later and see if there’s any information on the tree there.

      Like

  2. yaakov says:

    Very interesting.

    Like

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