Most people understandably assume that exotic hardwoods will naturally be more expensive than domestic hardwood species such as Walnut. However, sourcing difficulties and shipping costs are only part of the reasoning behind lumber pricing. The fact that Walnut can sometimes be more expensive than Genuine Mahogany actually does make sense when you consider the larger picture.
The basic reason FAS American Walnut has become more difficult to source — and therefore, increasingly more expensive — is that the Black Walnut tree, Juglans nigra, simply doesn’t typically grow as tall as Mahogany or other trees, in part, because it lacks the long growing seasons that exotic species enjoy. Instead, a fairer comparison would be Maple, since it grows in the same general geographic area. At the same time, Maple trees are bigger and heartier than Black Walnut trees, and Maple trees can actually starve out Walnut trees. As a light-demanding species, Walnut trees tend to struggle in windy areas or when surrounded by more aggressive species, causing Walnut trees to stop growing when they are between 30 and 70 feet tall.
In addition to its thwarted height, Walnut trees are more likely to develop knots, due to their having branches lower to the ground than other domestic hardwoods. Of course, FAS (First and Seconds) grading systems prize straight grain, making it more difficult for Walnut to achieve such a status. As a result, FAS Walnut has been downgraded, allowing more Walnut lumber into this top category.
What this means for customers is that the kind of length and clarity which they’ve come to expect in FAS Oak or Maple won’t necessarily be the case with FAS Walnut. Still, Walnut is highly sought after by furniture makers, many of whom appreciate what some see as “defects,” because they see the knots and other variables as marks of character, setting their creations apart from others.
Even considering the subjective nature of FAS grading standards, they still provide a helpful system for evaluating lumber. When the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) came up with central grading standards over 100 years ago, they helped create order from chaos across the lumber industry. As a shortcut to communicating the quality of a board, these FAS standards are quite helpful. However, they apply only to North American Hardwoods; different systems are used for softwoods and exotic species.
Those familiar with the lumber industry realize that even beyond unique species such as Walnut, the system in place has its limitations, largely due to the fact that it was developed primarily with the furniture industry in mind.
Regardless of the grading adjustments, lower availability, and higher pricing of Walnut, many builders and customers alike appreciate the rich dark chocolate coloring of Walnut and prefer it to other hardwood species for distinctive interior flooring, trim, and furniture applications.