Most all woodworkers have heard of revered and costly black walnut, even if they might not have worked it. On the other hand, butternut. In fact, butternut has more renown as a nut producer than as a woodworking wood. Ever since the pioneer days, people have gathered its sweet, oily nuts with relish each fall. Early Americans also knew butternut as a dye. "Butternut jeans," homespun overalls dyed brown in the juice of butternut husks, were a common sight. And, like the hard maple, the tree was even tapped for its sweet sap, which was processed into syrup. Historically, though, carvers have always made the most use of butternut as a highly desirable wood. Its straight grain and softness translate into easy carving. For that reason, many intricately carved church altars turn out to be butternut.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea), alsoknown as white walnut and oil nut, grows in a northern range from southern New Brunswick in Canada to the North Carolina mountains and west to eastern Minnesota. The tree never appears in stands, but occurs sparsely in rich, moist bottomland soils. A medium-sized tree, butternut generally grows 30-50' in height and to a trunk diameter of 1-3'. But in prime forest conditions, it can reach 80-100' and diameters of 4', For instance, the largest butternut on the National Register of Big Trees stands 88' tall. At a distant glance, butternut resembles black walnut in shape, although it never grows as tall and tends to spread more. And the bark has a gray color instead of the dark brown of black walnut. The alternate, frondlike leaves are 15-30" long and have as many as 17 pointed leaflets, that on the underside, are sticky to the touch. Butternut trees produce oblong nuts with thick, leathery husks and sweet, oily kernels that squirrels love. The nuts drop simultaneously with the leaves in the the fall. Butternut's coarse, straight grained wood features a light tan color and a beautiful luster. At 27 pounds per cubic foot air-dried, butternut weighs less than black walnut. It's also softer, less durable, and not as strong. In stability, the two are equal.
Uses in woodworking
Butternut often becomes carved furniture and mantelpieces, as well as relief, figure, and sculptural carvings. Stained, it imitates walnut in furniture and paneling. Where it's plentiful, the wood becomes cabinets, molding, boxes, and crates. Even wormy butternut, which turns up on occasion, may prove worthy for use in certain projects, such as relief carvings or boxes.
Because today few woodworkers other than carvers demand butternut, it may be difficult to obtain except at large hardwood lumber dealers located within its range. But specialty suppliers catering to turners and carvers frequently offer butternut blanks. When you do find butternut stock, the boards usually won't run extra wide or long due to the lack of large, clear logs. This factor also contributes to butternut's relatively high cost-about $3 per board foot for select and better. Butternut veneer or plywood generally isn't available at retail because it is only made for the architectural trade. Butternut wood sometimes turns out to be wormy, the work of powder-post beetles and their larvae. Such damaged wood can be used for attractive projects, as long as the varmints aren't still working! Kiln-drying usually solves any potential problems, and a thoroughly applied, tough finish guarantee's any survivors' demise, but it pays to closely observe all wormy wood for pests before buying.
Butternut works more easily than black walnut with hand and power tools because the wood ranks lower in all strength properties than its cousin. That's a plus, but also a caution. Butternut's softness makes it more susceptible to nicks and dents as you work the wood. And there's more to keep in mind:
- Although black walnut dust can irritate the eyes, butternut doesn't have that tendency. But as with all woods -especially hardwoods-wear a dust mask when doing fine sanding.
- The wood's coarse grain requires care when jointing or planing to avoid tearout. Make several shallow cuts to remove wood in stead of one deep one.
- Attach a backing board to the miter fence to act as a chip breaker when crosscutting.
- Butternut, due to its softness, shouldn't burn when routed, but shallow passes eliminate any possible tearout or chipping.
- You won't have any problem gluing butternut-its coarse texture draws in adhesives, ensuring a strong bond.
- Butternut accepts all types of stains (you can even stain it to pass for black walnut) without filling first. But the rich tan wood may look best with a more natural clear finish.
- Although oil finishes prove popular on butternut carvings, you can improve the wood's natural luster by first burnishing it (rubbing the wood with the back of a spoon, gouge, or glass bottle to compact the surface of the fibers for more sheen).
Butternut is a favorite of relief carvers because it takes fine details and finishes to a beautiful luster. But to avoid warp on large works, edge-join two or three pieces rather than use a single board. Also, keep these other tips in mind:
- In a relief carving, carve the sapwood side of the board to reduce any tendency for it to warp or cup. Look at the growth rings visible in the end to locate the sapwood side. The larger rings will be on what was the outside of the tree.
- Be cautious when taking deep cuts along the straight grain as the wood may pop or tear out.
The coarse grain of butternut, and its softness, requires sharp tools. For best results, turn butternut at a lathe speed of 800-1,000 rpm.
Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species, appear under headings elsewhere on this page.
- For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at no angle. To avoid tearing, feed wood with figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 1⁄32 ".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade that has 24-32 teeth. For crosscutting, use a blade with about 40 teeth.
- Avoid drilling with twist drills. They tend to wander and cause breakout. Use a backing board under the workpiece.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
- Carving a soft hardwood like butternut means fairly steep gouge bevels-greater than 20°.