The pioneers' do-everything wood

Chestnut has a long association with appetites. From the staple made of ground nuts called polenta that fed Caesar's legions, to chestnuts roasting by a yuletide fire, the tree's fame has spread by story and song.

Introduced to northern Europe and Great Britain by the invading Romans, the European variety of the chestnut tree has been cultivated not only for its nuts but for its durrable, decay-resistant wood. In the United States, the native American chestnut once dominated the eastern hardwood forests. Growing to a girth greater than most oaks, the chestnut provided the country's pioneers with wood for every imaginable use.

Then, in the early part of this century, a severe blight swept the chestnut, reducing it to a nearly extinct species. Today, the available chestnut lumber and veneer comes from blight victims or from European trees.

Sighting full-grown chestnut trees in Europe is commonplace. Castanea sativa, the European species, remains hearty. In the U.S., the experience could be historic.

However, there's a ray of hope for the American chestnut (Castanea dentata). Researchers at the American Chestnut Foundation have found a thriving stand of chestnut trees at an undisclosed site. And, according to a spokesman for the National Arboretum, foresters have discovered a new, harmless strain of the original chestnut blight fungus.

When it reproduced unhampered, American chestnut grew best on the lighter soils in a range from southern Maine to North Carolina, Tennessee and west to Indiana and Michigan. At maturity, these burly trees stood 60-80' tall and measured 5-6' around the trunk. Deeply furrowed bark formed broad, flat ridges spiraling up the tree.

Early July brought blooms among chestnut's long, thin, toothed leaves, followed by small, prickly burrs. By the end of August, the hard-shelled burrs yielded nuts.

Chestnut has a tiny band of light-colored sapwood. The biscuit-colored heartwood, slightly lighter in weight than maple, resists decay. In color and grain, chestnut strongly resembles oak. Pinworm infestation of the heartwood results in highly-valued "wormy" chestnut with tiny holes.

Due to its coarseness, chestnut does not turn as well as oak. However, it works easily with other hand and power tools. Lumber from downed wood tends to be brittle, so, use fasteners and glue.

You can sand chestnut glass-smooth without difficulty, and the wood responds well to any finish. And, in service, you'll find chestnut one of the most stable woods.

From colonial times, chestnut has been made into anything destined to last: shingles, siding, fence rails and posts, railroad ties, and furniture. It was prized as casket stock.

Today, woodworkers select chestnut veneer for custom cabinets, and solid stock for clocks, chests, and furniture. And, antique furniture restorers demand chestnut for replacement parts.

You can purchase solid (from American and European trees) and wormy chestnut (from American trees) as lumber in up to 3" thickness. However, you'll find it primarily on the East Coast, and in limited quantities. At about $10 per board foot, you'll also pay dearly. More readily available than chestnut lumber, veneer sells for about $4 per square foot.