Now that you understand the distinctions between how Walnut is graded by the NHLA compared to other species (see Part 1), you’re probably wondering why Walnut gets off so easily. The answer is fairly simple: Basically, Walnut is different from most North American species, so it gets treated differently. Is it fair? Perhaps it would be helpful to consider the analogy of expecting a child with shorter legs to run as quickly as his peers with longer legs.
The Walnut tree tends to have more branches than other domestic species, producing a greater number of knots as well as many twists and turns in its grain. Additional character is produced by the drastic change in color between its sapwood and heartwood. While steaming helps reduce the difference in color, achieving a uniform look is still difficult.
Those distinctions make finding clear boards extremely difficult, so the NHLA has decided to alter its usual mode of operation in order to recognize the various levels of Walnut, considering its natural differences from other species.
Long considered among the most in-demand of North American hardwoods, Walnut is highly prized for use in making cabinets, flooring, and millwork. The fact that the NHLA has allowed Walnut unique exceptions to the typical grading guidelines is a direct result of the demand for this sought-after species.
Basically, the loosening of grading parameters has promoted wider usage of Walnut, especially for projects that can work around shorter, narrower boards, or smaller clear cuttings. (After all, does it really matter if what ends up on your woodshop floor is clear or not?!)
As much as we support the NHLA’s decision to adjust the grading standards to make sense for Walnut, this decision has created a problem for the species: Pricing has increased, while quality is being perceived as sub-par.
Walnut cannot meet the same quality standards as other domestic species, such as Maple, Oak, or Cherry. It just doesn’t grow that way. Clear single-faced Walnut is much more available than 2-faced Walnut, but the latter is difficult to source. Even when we find sizes that exceed the minimum allowables according to NHLA grading for Walnut, customers are quick to compare the boards to what they’ve come to expect from other species.
If we stop judging Walnut according to what we’ve come to expect from other species, we can better appreciate the beauties of this species. By carefully considering whether we truly need lumber that exceeds grade qualifications, we can learn to accept high-quality Walnut and work around its natural limitations. The result will be continued demand for this unique species, as well as many distinctive jobs that stand out from among many.