Butternut wood, also known as white walnut, is a unique and increasingly rare type of wood that woodworkers and furniture makers highly prize. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about butternut wood, from its distinguishing characteristics to its uses in furniture making, wood carving, and other applications. We’ll also discuss why butternut wood is so special, its endangered status, and how it compares to similar woods like black walnut and hard Maple.
Overview of Butternut Wood
Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is a deciduous hardwood tree native to eastern North America. It typically grows 40-60 feet tall with a spread of 30-50 feet. The leaves are pinnate, around 1 foot long, with 11-17 leaflets. Butternut trees produce a tan, oily nut that resembles an oval pecan. The nuts are edible but not commercially cultivated.
The wood of the butternut tree is relatively soft, lightweight, and straight-grained. It machines well and takes stain evenly. Butternut has a fine, even texture with good luster. The sapwood is a light cream color, while the heartwood varies from light brown to a light grayish brown, sometimes with a reddish tint.
Why Butternut Wood is Special
Several characteristics make butternut wood special:
- Appearance – Butternut has an attractive light tan coloration and straight, even grain patterns that create beautiful figures when cut. The wood often has a reddish-pink tint that gives it a warm, appealing look.
- Workability – Butternut is relatively soft and lightweight, which makes it easy to work with hand or power tools. It sands smoothly and takes stain very well.
- Rot resistance – The natural oils in butternut wood make it moderately resistant to decay and rot. While not as rot-resistant as black walnut, it holds up better than many other species.
- Tonal qualities – Butternut has good acoustic properties, making it a suitable wood for musical instruments like guitars and mandolins. The softness and low density contribute to its tonal qualities.
- Rarity – Due to disease and deforestation, butternut trees are increasingly uncommon. This makes butternut lumber highly prized and difficult to source.
The Importance of Butternut Wood in Woodworking and Furniture
Butternut has historically been an important wood for woodworking and furniture making due to its exceptional qualities. In particular:
- Furniture makers use butternut’s nice grain patterns and workability to create detailed moldings, carvings, and finials. The wood also takes stain well to achieve different looks.
- Wood carvers favor butternut for carving items like duck decoys, figures, and reliefs. The fine even texture and softness allow for intricate designs.
- Lutherie use butternut for guitars, mandolins, and other acoustic instruments because of its tonal properties. The low density and stiffness produce warm, balanced tones.
- Woodturners utilize butternut to make hollow vessels, bowls, and other turned objects. The stability of the wood makes it less prone to cracking and splitting.
- Cabinet makers, millworkers, and other woodworkers have historically relied on butternut for its beauty, workability, and paint/stain acceptance.
Butternut wood adds visual interest, warmth, and value in quality furniture and wood products. As supplies become limited, butternut will likely become even more prized by wood artisans.
Characteristics of Butternut Wood
Butternut has distinctive physical and mechanical properties that determine its suitability for various woodworking applications. Here is an overview of the key characteristics of this unique wood species:
- Color – The heartwood of butternut ranges from light brown to light grayish brown, sometimes with a pinkish hue. The sapwood is a pale yellow. Overall, the wood has a tan appearance.
- Grain – Butternut has a straight grain pattern, though occasionally it can be wavy or irregular. The grain is fine and even-textured.
- Figure – The grain sometimes produces attractive figuring like dots, streaks, or burl patterns. Quilted, curly, and fiddleback grain also occur.
- Odor – When freshly cut, butternut has a bitter and astringent odour, similar to walnut but disagreeable by some.
- Density – With an average dried weight of 31 lbs/ft3, butternut is light and soft. It is less dense than black walnut.
Color and Grain
The most distinctive features of butternut wood are its light tan coloration coupled with an even, straight grain. The tan color ranges from pale cream sapwood to light brown heartwood, sometimes with reddish-brown streaks or a pink cast. The grain is similar to cherry or Maple, producing an attractive figure when cut. Curly grain patterns are also seen.
Density and Hardness
Butternut is classified as a semi-hard hardwood. It has a low density compared to woods like oak, walnut, and Maple. Here are some figures for butternut wood:
- Density (dried) – approx. 31 lbs/ft3
- Janka hardness – 780 lbf
- Modulus of rupture – 8,100 psi
- Modulus of elasticity – 1.28 million psi
Overall, butternut rates low on hardness and density compared to many common furniture woods. It’s softness makes it easier to work, but limits its use where hardness is needed.
Butternut contains several organic compounds and chemicals, notably:
- Juglone – This quinone compound acts as a natural pesticide and herbicide. It occurs in all parts of the butternut tree.
- Tannins – Butternut contains tannic acid and other phenolic derivatives that impart natural decay resistance.
- Oils – The oils in butternut give it good moisture, rot, and insect resistance. The oil content is lower than black walnut.
- Adhesives – Butternut can be difficult to glue properly. Polyvinyl acetate glues work adequately, while urea-formaldehyde is often recommended.
Susceptibility to Insects
Butternut wood is resistant to insect attack thanks to protective oils and juglone. It has good natural durability against common furniture-damaging insects like:
- Powderpost beetles
- Lyctid borers
- Anobiid borers
- Common furniture beetles
Termites may occasionally feed on butternut. Ambrosia beetles are also minor pests. Proper drying and finished pieces are unlikely to be affected by insects.
With proper drying and finishing, butternut wood has moderately good durability. The natural oils provide some rot and water resistance. The Janka hardness is fairly low, so butternut is prone to denting and wear from impacts. Overall, butternut furniture will last for decades when properly maintained. Without a protective finish, it can be susceptible to water-related swelling and shrinking issues.
Butternut trees are under threat from an introduced fungal disease called butternut canker. This disease has killed millions of trees and rapidly spread across the butternut’s natural range. As a result, butternut was added to the IUCN Red List as endangered in 2018. Responsible harvesting and conservation practices are recommended whenever using butternut lumber.
Butternut is listed as Endangered in Canada under the Species at Risk Act. In the United States, efforts to get butternut recognized as endangered continue. Butternut numbers have declined significantly in many areas, with mortality rates from butternut canker exceeding 90% in hard-hit regions. Responsible sourcing of salvaged butternut lumber is an environmentally sound option.
Fungal Diseases Affecting Butternut Trees
The most serious disease infecting and killing butternut trees is butternut canker, caused by the fungus Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum. First noticed in the 1960s, it now infects trees throughout the range of butternut. Signs include stem and branch cankers that lead to dieback.
Another fungus, Ophiognomonia clavigignenti-juglandacearum, causes a disease called butternut decline. This also creates cankers on branches and stems. While not as rapidly fatal as canker, it weakens and slowly kills trees. Proper sanitation practices help control these fungi in woodlands and plantings.
Butternut Wood in Furniture
The rich tan color and grain patterns of butternut make it a decorative wood for furniture. While softer than similar types like black walnut, butternut adds visual interest and a rustic flair. Here’s an overview of using butternut wood for furniture:
Types of Furniture Made from Butternut Wood
Butternut can be used for all types of furniture, although its softness makes it less than ideal for tabletops and other high-wear applications. Some specific furniture pieces that feature butternut wood include:
- Tables – Butternut works well for less utilized occasional tables, end tables, sofa tables, and hall tables. Its low hardness limits use on dining tables.
- Chairs & benches – The low density of butternut makes it a good wood for chairs and benches since it’s easy to work and shape. Steam bending helps achieve curved elements.
- Beds – Butternut adds rustic elegance to bed frames, headboards, and footboards. Its softness is not an issue for most bed uses.
- Dressers & wardrobes – The wood’s nice grain patters and workability are conducive to case furniture like dressers, armoires, and wardrobes.
- Cabinets & hutches – Interior cabinets and display hutches highlight butternut’s decorative qualities while avoiding its wear shortcomings.
- Doors & moldings – Butternut works as paneling and for cabinet doors, providing an attractive contrast to darker woods. It also machines well for moldings and millwork.
Antique Butternut Furniture
Early American furniture makers have prized Butternut since colonial days. Antique butternut furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries is highly collectible today. Popular antique butternut pieces include:
- Blanket chests & hope chests – Also called dower chests, often with lift lids and intricate carving.
- Farmhouse tables – Simple slab top tables with trestle bases, created by early rural craftsmen.
- Corner cabinets – Topped with swirled broken pediment bonnets and detailed doors.
- Jelly cupboards – Cabinets featuring open shelving and drawers for kitchen storage.
- Spinning wheels – Butternut was turned into spokes, legs, and other parts.
- Pantry boxes – Free-standing dry good storage boxes, sometimes painted or decorated.
Butternut Wood Furniture Price and Value
Butternut furniture commands premium prices in antique stores and auction houses due to its rarity and collectibility. Prices vary greatly based on age, condition, and type of piece:
- Small occasional tables – $300 – $600
- Rocking chairs – $400 – $1,200
- Blanket chests – $900 – $4,000
- Farmhouse dining tables – $1,500 – $5,000
- Corner cabinets – $3,000 – $8,000
Well-preserved examples by renowned early American furniture makers like Duncan Phyfe can reach five figures at auction. Even simple butternut pieces have appreciated significantly in value.
Is Butternut Wood Good for Furniture?
Butternut makes attractive, quality furniture but has some limitations in durability:
- Beautiful, distinctive appearance
- Good workability and finishing
- Resists splitting when nailed/screwed
- Polishes to a nice luster
- Low hardness dents and scratches easily
- Not as strong or durable as oak, Maple, etc.
- Can be susceptible to water damage
Butternut is best for more occasional-use furniture and accent pieces. It should be avoided for tabletops, seats, and other high-wear applications. Proper finishing provides added protection.
Best Finish for Butternut Wood Furniture
To protect it and enhance its natural beauty, butternut furniture benefits from a clear finish:
- Oil – Tung or boiled linseed oil help maintain the light color. They penetrate well and can be refreshed easily.
- Varnish – A spar or marine varnish provides excellent durability for tables and frequently used pieces.
- Wax – A light wax finish or wax over oil allows the texture and grain to show through.
- Polyurethane – Water-based or oil-modified polyurethane make a protective top coat that resists moisture, spills, and scratches.
- Lacquer – Clear lacquer sprays make an attractive finish showing grain patterns.
Test samples help choose the right finish for the desired appearance and level of protection. Proper prep and application are key to achieve a long-lasting, quality finish on butternut.
Butternut Wood in Carving
Butternut has been a favorite of woodcarvers for centuries due to its softness, fine even grain, and attractive coloration. It’s popular and well-suited for decorative carvings like duck decoys, signage, and wood spirits.
Why Carvers Love Butternut Wood
Several inherent properties make butternut an ideal wood for carving:
- It is relatively soft and light, making cutting and shaping detailed forms easy.
- The fine, straight grain creates clean cuts and smooth surfaces when carved.
- The lack of tearout is an advantage over similarly soft woods like basswood.
- Butternut holds details nicely in relief carvings, fretwork, and chip carving.
- When carved, it has an attractive tan color with occasional reddish streaks.
- The low density allows for comfortable carving with less hand fatigue over extended periods.
- It takes paints, stains, oils, gilding, and other finishes very well.
Butternut Wood for Carving Duck Decoys
Carvers have traditionally used butternut wood to hand carve duck decoys, especially during the golden age of decoy making from 1870 to 1930. Butternut has qualities that make it so suitable for decoys:
- It is soft and light like the wood decoy makers had access to.
- When carved thinly for hollow decoys, butternut is strong enough structurally.
- The smooth surface readily accepts paints to recreate feather patterns.
- Butternut decoys can be finely textured to mimic actual birds.
- The wood’s density allows decoys to float properly at the water’s surface.
Even today, many decoy makers use butternut as their carving medium for creating decorative birds.
Is Butternut Wood Hard or Soft?
On the Janka wood hardness scale, butternut rates at 780 lbf which classifies it as a semi-hard hardwood. However, compared to woods typically used for carving like basswood, tupelo, and cottonwood, butternut would be considered relatively soft. The low density and ease of cutting make butternut a favorite of carvers looking for a wood that’s easy to shape detailed forms in.
What Does Butternut Wood Look Like When Carved?
When carved, sanded, and finished, butternut wood has a smooth tan surface with a fine, uniform grain and occasional reddish brown streaks. The endgrain has a small, tight pore structure. Relief carvings have a rich, defined appearance in the wood due to its density. With paints or stains, butternut combines deep, vibrant colors that contrast well with the neutral wood tone. Overall, butternut provides an attractive, detailed carved surface.
Butternut Wood vs. Other Woods
Butternut has similarities to woods like black walnut and hard Maple but also many differences that impact its uses. Here’s how it compares:
Butternut vs. Black Walnut
Butternut and Black Walnut are like siblings; they come from the same Juglans genus but have distinct personalities. Let’s break down their characteristics in a table for easy comparison:
|Color||Tan, light brown||Rich dark brown|
|Density||Low, soft||High, hard|
What Sets Them Apart?
Color: Butternut has a lighter hue, making it ideal for projects that require a softer, more subtle appearance. On the other hand, Black Walnut’s rich dark brown color adds a touch of luxury and depth.
Density and Durability: Black Walnut is the tougher sibling, with a higher density and excellent durability. This makes it suitable for projects that need to withstand wear and tear. Butternut, being softer, is easier to work with but less durable.
Workability: Butternut wins in the workability department. Its softer nature makes it a dream to carve and turn.
Price: If you’re on a budget, Butternut is your go-to. Black Walnut’s luxurious characteristics come with a higher price tag.
Walnut’s richness contrasts nicely with Butternut in furniture or turning projects. Imagine a coffee table with a Butternut top and Black Walnut legs—simply stunning!
Butternut vs. Hard Maple
Butternut and Hard Maple may look similar, but they’re worlds apart regarding strength, hardness, and workability. Let’s compare:
What Sets Them Apart?
Density and Strength: Hard Maple is the Hercules of the wood world. Its high density and strength make it ideal for heavy-duty applications like flooring and cutting boards.
Texture and Workability: Butternut’s fine texture and excellent workability make it a favorite for intricate carving projects. Hard Maple, while workable, requires more effort due to its density.
Stability: Hard Maple wins in the stability department, making it ideal for projects that require dimensional stability, like cabinetry.
Price: Butternut is easier on the wallet, while Hard Maple falls in the moderate price range.
Maple is better for hardness and strength applications, like butcher blocks or skateboards. Butternut excels where carving, turning, and ease of working are benefits, such as in decorative pieces or small furniture.
Is Butternut Wood Rare?
Due to the devastating impact of butternut canker disease, mature butternut trees have become quite rare throughout eastern North America. This makes butternut wood increasingly difficult to source, especially in large sizes or wider boards.
Some factors that contribute to butternut wood’s rarity:
- At least 70% of butternut trees have been killed by butternut canker disease.
- Logging of remaining healthy butternut trees is restricted in many areas.
- Butternut takes 80-100 years to reach maturity and produce viable lumber.
- Younger trees are highly susceptible to canker infection.
- Butternut is hard to propagate and reestablish – seedlings have low survival rates.
- Supply is limited as most sawmills don’t stock butternut lumber.
- Salvaging downed trees or urban removals is one of the only sources.
- There are no commercial butternut plantations – all supply comes from wild forest stands.
- Export of butternut lumber outside the U.S. and Canada is banned.
For all these reasons, woodworkers prize any butternut lumber they can acquire. Using reclaimed butternut in projects is recommended over buying new lumber. The long-term prognosis for butternut wood availability is not optimistic if canker spreads further.
Practical Uses of Butternut Wood
Beyond furniture and carving, butternut wood has some other practical uses that take advantage of its workability,appearance, and durability:
Butternut Wood for Cutting Boards
The fine, closed grain and light color of butternut make it an attractive wood for cutting boards, charcuterie boards, and butcher blocks. Advantages of butternut include:
- Has good resistance to moisture absorption and warping
- It does not dull knife edges as readily as a very hard wood
- Machines and sands easily to create a smooth surface
- Makes an excellent substrate for engraving, inlay, edge profiles etc.
- Takes food-safe oil or wax finishes well to protect and maintain the wood
- It provides a nice contrast to darker exotic or domestic wood species
Butternut’s softness means it will show knife marks over time with heavy use. An end grain construction helps maximize durability for a cutting surface.
Is Butternut Wood Good for Burning?
With its relatively low density, butternut makes good firewood and provides quality heat for fireplaces, wood stoves, and campfires. Key qualities include:
- Has higher heat output per cord than dense hardwoods like oak or hickory
- Typically easy to split since it doesn’t have interlocked grain
- Low moisture content – dries quickly once split
- No unpleasant odor or smoke when burning
- Readily ignites and burns steadily without sparking
- Leaves little ash residue compared to some woods
One downside is that butternut firewood burns faster than dense woods like oak. Butternut is an excellent firewood choice for overall ease of use and heating ability.
Butternut Wood in Millwork and Paneling
The consistent grain and smooth machining of butternut make it suitable for millwork applications like architectural moldings, panels, and cabinetry components. Key qualities that make it work for millwork include:
- Takes profile well when run through moulders and shapers
- Can be stained effectively to emulate pricier woods
- Glues up nicely into wider panels without bleed-through
- Turns easily on a lathe for creating spindles and small decorative pieces
- Low density provides good acoustic properties if used for sound baffles
- Sands easily to achieve a smooth surface for painting or clear finishes
- Has good screw-holding ability compared to many imported softwoods
Butternut provides an affordable, decorative species for millwork while being stable enough for interior use once properly dried.
Butternut lumber can be difficult to locate at regular hardwood suppliers. Here are some tips for sourcing and selecting high quality boards:
Where to Buy Butternut Wood
Finding retailers that stock butternut lumber can be challenging. Here are some options to source boards:
- Specialty wood dealers, especially those selling domestics or kiln dried stock
- Direct from sawmills in the Midwest and Northeastern states/provinces
- Online dealers like Bell Forest Products, Hearne Hardwoods, Hardwoods Inc.
- Auctions and estate sales, especially old barns, shops, or homes being dismantled
- Local listings from individual sawyers or woodworkers with surplus inventory
- Lumber brokers who can hunt down specialty woods like butternut
Carefully check seller reviews and lumber quality before purchasing. Visiting the supplier to hand select boards is ideal if possible.
How Much is Butternut Wood Worth?
Pricing for butternut lumber is highly variable depending on width, length, grade, and source. Some typical ranges:
- 4/4 rough sawn lumber – $3 to $6 per board foot
- 8/4 thick stock – $6 to $10 per board foot
- Wide plank clear boards – $8 to $15 per board foot
- turning blanks 3x3x12 – $10 to $25 each
- Small dimensional boards – $1 to $4 per piece
Rare figured pieces, wide live edge slabs, and large timber cuts fetch much higher prices from specialty buyers. Butternut’s rarity and collectibility drive costs.
Wormy Butternut Wood: What You Need to Know
The ambrosia beetle causes pinhole “wormholes” in butternut, creating a wormy appearance. This is mainly aesthetic and does not affect structural integrity. Key points about wormy butternut:
- Markings range from tiny pin holes to meandering trails
- Usually only present in the sapwood, not the heartwood
- Does not compromise strength or workability
- It provides a rustic, natural look valued by some
- Avoid if wanting a clean, uniform appearance
- Can be filled with epoxy for a smooth surface
Wormy areas are very common in butternut. It can provide a unique look but avoid it if aesthetics are concerned. Filler and extra surfacing help minimize the wormholes.
Butternut is a unique North American wood cherished by woodworkers for its beauty, workability, and natural charm. Its tan coloration, straight grain, and easy carvability make it ideal for furniture, carving, and specialty wood products. While supplies are limited due to disease, proper sourcing and care when working with butternut allow us to continue enjoying this distinctive species into the future. We hope this guide provides helpful insights and tips for incorporating butternut wood into your next woodworking project.
Why Choose Butternut Wood?
Butternut offers many positive attributes:
- Attractive light tan color with reddish tints
- It takes stains and finishes very well
- Works easily with both hand and power tools
- Ideal wood for detailed carvings and turned pieces
- Machines smoothly for millwork and panels
- It has good acoustic properties for musical instruments
- Provides a rustic visual element to furniture and decor
- More environmentally sustainable than exotic imported woods
With proper selection, drying, and finishing, butternut can make unique, durable creations that add beauty and value. As supplies become more limited, butternut wood will likely become even more cherished by woodworkers seeking out its distinctive qualities.