Black Walnut Conversations

Nov 15, 2012 | Permalink

Up here in Maine we’re busy putting firewood in the cellar and tightening up the house and shop for winter. The black walnut tree we planted in front of our house, the last to leaf out in the spring, is the first to lose its leaves in the fall. They dropped in one big whoosh over a couple of days in early October. Hurricane Sandy transported them who knows where, the pile under the tree is now disappeared.

MHWW has also been transporting black walnut—not leaves, furniture in our case, and thankfully to destinations known! Black walnut is the darkest wood we work with, its grain has a range, from burly and curly to straight. Crotch walnut trees (those with a forked trunk) can have dramatic figured grain. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the surprising beauty of walnut grain patterns.


Inland Maine is a long way from coastal Texas where we recently shipped a counter-height black walnut trestle table to accommodate 6 of our black walnut arm-stools.

black walnut arm stool

The arm stools are versions of our arm chairs, but 24” in height. Seats are roomy, footrests to support feet, arms to support arms, all the pleasures of an arm chair at counter height.What a great idea! The wood for the table came from Pennsylvania. Our Maine tree has a forked trunk (a crotch tree), the tangled branches need pruning and it’s closer to scrawny than massive. In the Ohio River Vally and along the Alleghenies black walnut trees grow big, much bigger than here, and their trunks yield wide planks. The table top is made from four planks, book matched--imagine opening two planks from a tree as you would a book, there you have it, book matched! The effect is symmetry, each side a reflection of the other. The grain pattern, instead of being random, becomes a complex whole with a unique story to tell. We work closely with our customers in finding and selecting wood and the results are always extraordinary. There is maple inlay around the top, along each foot. The pin is also maple.

rough sawn black walnut boards for table
black walnut trestle
black walnut trestle top
maple being inlaid in bw top


Moving to the other end of the size spectrum is a custom black walnut bedside table we made for a couple in Maine. They wanted small dimensions, the top big enough for a lamp, one shelf underneath for a phone. The grain on the top spans from a pale mocha to a bluish black, typical of Eastern black walnut. The shelf is supported by diagonal cross-braces joined to the legs by mortis and tenon. The top has maple inlay around the edge, the skirt to the top is curved, the legs tapered. Sweet details!

black walnut bedside table

Claro walnut from Oregon has a distinctly redder tint than eastern walnut and was the choice of wood for another Maine project--a custom table for a specific lamp in a cozy sitting room with Native American masks from the Pacific Northwest, particularly from the Salish First Nation of British Columbia, hanging on the walls. Mike wanted the table to relate to this art, his leg design with black painted carved insets in both the top where the leg joins with the skirt and the bottom, or foot, is inspired by Native American clubs. The laminated skirt is mortise and tenoned to the legs. The table was made from a single claro walnut board.

claro walnut lamp table
claro walnut lamp table (detail)

A third Maine project was a request for a chair, the criteria: sculptural, unique, a blend of art and function, emphasizing the art. Mike loves a design challenge. A year earlier he’d had the good fortune to meet Sam Maloof and his wife at a furniture show and he decided to pay tribute to Maloof whose work he’s always admired. The feel of the final chair design--there was preliminary emailing back and forth of different drawings--its lines, carving, joining, fluid sculptural quality, all suggest Sam Maloof. To this we added a unique woven slip seat. The black walnut used in this chair and its mate has a lighter mocha hue than the tables above.

custom black walnut chair with taped slip seat
detail of carving and joinery


We got a request from a Boston restaurant for six serving tables, four 34” high with tops 20” x 24”, light enough to carry to a dining table and sturdy enough for carving meats table-side. The other two, 29” high, are used for table-side wine decanting. Storage space is at a premium at the restaurant, so the smaller ones can nest under the larger ones when not in use. Dark to match their dark brown chairs was the guideline for wood selection, we chose black walnut with fairly straight grain. A slight arch to the skirt, tapered legs, simple yet elegant.

black walnut table, 18” x 20” x 29”
detail of traditional joinery with contrasting maple cross pins

Cape Cod

What to do when a customer from Cape Cod wants black walnut chairs for a low dining table in front of a large bay window with a view of the ocean which must in no way be impeded? After emailing back and forth various designs and photographs, we decided on shortening the back and beefing up the stretchers of our standard side chair to create a blockier look. Substantial, yet graceful and, as always, comfortable! Because the seat height is only 18 1/2” we took out the foot rest and put in 2 stretchers, so double stretchers on all sides enhancing the boxy effect. The tape is wrapped around the back posts instead of inset stretchers, the tape pattern uses two different widths of the black and two different widths of beige in a twill weave. All of this creates a coherent whole with the rest of the room and the ocean remains in full view! The dark walnut and the predominantly black weave give the chair a more formal look which our customer wanted.

black walnut custom side chair

There you have it, a few thoughts inspired by our tree out front (which next spring we will definitely prune!) about custom black walnut pieces we’ve made. Call us with your own ideas!

Our next show is Paradise City in Marlboroough, MA. March 22 - 24, 2013. We hope to see you there. Stay warm this winter!

Best wishes, Mike and Perky