The Cabinet-Maker’s Tree

Before the introduction of mahogany, the walnut was “the cabinet-maker’s tree” in England, and it was well adapted for the purpose, — being tough and strong in proportion to its weight, beautifully variegated, admitting of a fine polish, durable, and obtained in sizes sufficiently large. In many parts of the continent, where the expense of the carriage of mahogany is great, the walnut is still extensively used in the manufacture of furniture; and, perhaps, there is no native tree which bears the climate of England well, that is better adapted for the purpose. Oak, though abundantly durable, cannot be finely polished without great expense, and it is heavier in proportion to its strength.

Of the Walnut-tree, (called by the Romans Juglans, or the nut of Jove,) there are very many species enumerated, which have been divided by modern botanists into three genera. Of these species it is necessary to mention only two as timber-trees, — the Common Walnut-tree (Juglans regia) and the White Walnut, or hickery-tree (Juglans alba). The first of these is a native of the warmer parts of Europe, or perhaps of Asia; and the last is a native of America.

The common walnut is a very handsome and a very useful tree. It is true that the fruit does not come to maturity in the northern parts of this island; and that in the southern, nay in countries much farther south, it is apt to be injured by the frosts of spring. In many parts of this country it thrives well as a tree, and wherever it thrives it is variable.

In England there are still a good many trees scattered over the country; but the number is not so great as it was formerly, the partiality for the woods of the colonies and other foreign countries having diminished the value of this, as well as of most other species of domestic timber used for finer purposes.

There is still, however, one use to which the walnut-tree is applied, in preference to any other timber, and this use demands the qualities of beauty, durability, and strength: walnut-tree is employed for the stocks of all manner of fire-arms. Before it is used, however, it should be well seasoned, or even baked, as when recent it is very apt to shrink, a disadvantage which is completely got rid of by seasoning.

The walnut grows rapidly till it attains a considerable size, which is even valuable as timber. The absolute duration of the tree has not been ascertained with accuracy; but, probably, the most profitable age for cutting it is the average of hard-wood trees, about fifty or sixty years. The demand for musket and pistol stocks during the late war thinned England of its walnut trees; and the deficiency should be made up by fresh planting. At that period the timber was so much in demand, that a fine tree has often been sold for several hundred pounds.

Beside the value of its timber, the walnut-tree has many other uses. The ripe nuts are well known as a fruit; the green ones make an agreeable and wholesome pickle; and the oil is used for delicate colours in painting, and for smoothing and polishing wood work: sometimes, also, for frying meats, and for burning in lamps.

The spring of 1827 was particularly destructive to the walnuts of the Bergstrasse, and the neighbouring parts of Germany, where the walnut is extensively cultivated for the oil. Many thousand trees were killed, and nearly all the branches of the rest were destroyed.

When the leaves and recent husks, in their green state, are macerated in warm water, the extract, which is bitter and astringent, is used to destroy insects; and it is a very permanent dye, imparting to wool, hair, or the skin and nails of the living body, a dingy greenish yellow, which cannot be obliterated without a great deal of labour. On this latter account, it is said to have been used by gypsies, in staining the complexions of stolen children, that they may appear to be their own offspring.
The quantity of oil in fresh walnuts is very considerable, being about equal to half the weight of the kernels.

There are several varieties of the common walnut, — as the thick shelled, which afford the best timber; and the thin shelled, which have most fruit, and yield most oil. These, however, are mere varieties; for, as is the case with the oak, and many other trees, in which we find a variation in the colour and shape of the leaves, and in the fruit, all the varieties may be obtained by sowing the nuts of the same tree.[1]

Jack Plane

[1] A Description and History of Vegetable Substances, the Arts, Domestic Economy. Timber Trees: Fruits. Charles Knight, London, 1829, pp. 136-9.

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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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4 Responses to The Cabinet-Maker’s Tree

  1. potomacker says:

    It’s odd that the author insists as late as 1829 that only two species of Juglans serve as timber trees. Given the latter descriptions, might he have only been thinking of them as plantation adaptable species?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Being that it’s an English title and published in London, presumably for a British audience, I thought it more than a little odd: Juglans regia has been a staple of British furniture manufacture since earliest times and nigra was first imported from North America as timber in the seventeenth-century and thereafter, as seed, which was readily grown in Britain. I have never encountered alba in British furniture, nor was I aware that it was imported – at that date, or prior – for any other purpose either.

      JP

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  2. Thanks Jack…I did have a copy of this and just added to the library…
    As a point of interest (perhaps?) was a barn frame I was able to visit a few years back (one of several frames like it I have seen over the decades) that was composed completely of Juglans nigra with some cherry braces. This frame and a hewn cabin in Southern Ohio are to the finest examples of this rare use of the species. It is a wonderful tree for timber framing, and speaks to it’s size and abundance in some areas…

    Thanks again for the reference…

    j

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  3. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    My daughter’s nursery recently sent a sternly worded email to all parents regarding nut allergies – we are to be vigilant when making packed lunches.
    Perhaps a link to this post would be the easiest way to reveal the identity of the two mature trees overhanging their playground…

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