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Walnut Wood Furniture

The walnut-tree is supposed to have been introduced by the Romans, when Britain became an Imperial province. English walnut is comparatively scarce to-day, but its exquisite figure makes it greatly prized. In colour it is a dark, soft brown, its markings deepening into vandyke. It is a strong durable wood, agreeable to work, and although it mellows with age it is pleasantly coloured when new. It has always been regarded as particularly precious, and its use in Britain before the latter part of the seventeenth century is rare.

Italian walnut, while inferior in beauty of figure to the English variety, is an excellent wood for furniture making, and the American black walnut provides a finely marked timber. Light wax polishing is a finish that preserves the natural colour of walnut, the highly glazed, polished finish that often afflicts this wood tends to obscure the rich quality of its colour.

Satin walnut, despite the somewhat superior suggestion of its name, is a wood used for cheaper varieties of furniture, and is not very satisfactory to work, being inclined to warp, twist and split. It varies in colour from a creamy white in the sap-wood to a reddish brown in the heart, but on the whole the colour is not unpleasing. Actually it is a sweet gum; a tree that grows in the eastern states of North America.

The Golden Age of Walnut

As early as 1626 Francis Bacon speaks of walnut as a wood ideally suited to tables, cupboards, and desks, and by the Restoration period, or around 1660, walnut wood had become fully established as the hardwood of choice for fine furniture in England and remained so until about 1730.

The walnut wood used in England was mostly imported from France in early times with some native walnut trees being grown in the south of England, the species being called "Juglans regia". The disastrously severe winter of 1709 in Europe caused importers to look to Virginia where a darker "black" walnut wood was to be found, called "Juglans nigra".

Walnut Needlework Chair
1730, Walnut Needlework Chair, has an upholstered seat and back which are covered with embroidery in coloured wool on canvas ground, with a walnut frame.

Said Evelyn - "This black 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, or from Grenoble [in France]....

Walnut was usually employed as a veneer on case furniture and as a solid wood for chairs and table legs. Baltic deal wood was more than likely used for the carcases or main bodies of furniture as it allowed veneers to adhere better than oak. Oyster style work, transverse veneers cut from a small branch in a repetitive circular pattern, from walnut, olive or laburnum was quite popular in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Also from the early 18th century burr walnut from protrusions at the base of the walnut tree trunk became favoured for use in furniture making due to its intricate, finely figured, and variegated veining.

Burr Walnut Stool
1725, Stool, Burr walnut veneer, with details in carved and gilt gesso; upholstered in green velvet, with brass nailing.

While black walnut wood was less susceptible to worm attack than the native juglans regia species walnut on the whole was not nearly as sturdy as oak and consequently few antique pieces have survived the ages. Its use declined after 1730 and by around 1750 it had thoroughly been replaced by mahogany for the needs of fine furniture construction.

Revival of Walnut

Walnut Veneer Table
1867, Mahogany, veneered with walnut and other woods, with decoration of carving and marquetry.

By 1850 however walnut wood made a reappearance on the scene coming to be used as a solid for chairs and as a veneer on case furniture and table tops. The resurgence in marquetry decoration and patterns added to this renewed interest in walnut with it being considered much more suitable than mahogany or rosewood for finely decorative furniture.

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