In the past, we’ve decried the problems with grading adjustments. Generally, the customer loses out, as do manufacturers that can still source or produce A-grade products. At the same time, poor manufacturing seems to be encouraged. It’s a lose-lose scenario. However, in the case of Walnut, we actually think that different grading standards make a lot of sense. Why? When it comes to certain species, the grading scale designed for other species simply doesn’t make sense, or serve the purpose that a grading scale is intended to serve. Walnut is a unique species and deserves some special treatment.
Why Some Customers See Walnut as Flawed
Customers who don’t understand Walnut compare it with other species and find it, well, a bit lacking. In some ways, it’s simply not fair to compare. They’re not comparing this year’s Walnut to last year’s Walnut; they’re comparing it to other species. And Walnut trees simply don’t produce the same sizes or clarities of boards as other trees do.
You’ve heard we shouldn’t compare apples to oranges; well, we shouldn’t compare apple trees to orange trees either. Or Walnut trees to Maple trees. (For a detailed description of how the NHLA grading guidelines for Walnut differ from other species in each grading category, check out this post.)
How Walnut Differs from Other Species
A typical pack of Maple (another domestic hardwood species to which many compare Walnut) includes longer, virtually defect-free boards. Walnut, however, grows differently, so it produces smaller boards with many defects. Walnut trees have many branches, resulting in contorted, twisted grain. The heartwood and sapwood display a stark contrast; while the color difference can be muted through steaming, it will never quite appear homogenous. (Some woodworkers delight in the striking contrast shown in unsteamed Walnut.) Even with these eccentricities (or perhaps because of them), Walnut ranks among the most in-demand North American hardwood species.
What Grading Categories Can’t Do
Even though it’s tougher for Walnut to meet the standards used for most lumber species and we think it makes sense that the standards have been altered in keeping with the species’ natural propensities, there is still above-grade Walnut available.
You can expect higher costs associated with pulling premium Walnut from a number of packs (plus the cost of the now devalued packs that lack the best boards), but if you really want larger, clearer Walnut lumber, you can still get it. Even still, a typical pack of Walnut will never meet the same standards as a pack of Maple — or Oak or Cherry, for that matter. Clear two-faced Walnut may be preferred, but single face is easier to come by.
Whenever possible, though, J. Gibson McIlvain sources plenty of Walnut in sizes and quality that exceeds the current NHLA grading standards. But you need to ask yourself whether you really need above-grade Walnut or whether you can work around defects for the project at hand. Then make sure you adjust your expectations.