Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo; photo courtesy of The Wood Database
Butternut is one of Canada’s “nut trees,” known for producing hard, edible nuts. The butternut tree is part of the walnut family and grows with other hardwoods in Southern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Although not as statuesque as other trees like the maple, it reaches a height of between 40′ to 60′, and normally doesn’t exceed 2′ in diameter.
Not surprisingly, butternut has been used as a source of nuts for oil and fabric dye. Butternut wood has been favored for cabinetry and furniture, along with interior paneling and turnery. It was widely used in churches for detailed woodwork such as intricately carved doors and alters. This is not a wood of significant commercial value, but rather a specialty wood.
One of butternut’s impressive qualities is its colour. The sapwood is almost white, while the heartwood has a light brown, often pinkish colour. Its grain is coarse and generally has straight, dark grain lines that create an appealing contrast against the wood’s light colour. The is also described as having a satiny sheen. There is no prominent odor or taste to the wood, and it is not known to have toxicity.
While working with butternut, note that the wood is soft and fairly lightweight. It has medium density with low strength, and is moderately weak when compressing the edges and bending the wood. The wood is fairly stable and one can expect minimal warping or cracking. Butternut is semi-porous and it dries slowly, but with little shrinkage.
Butternut Blanket Chest by John Jarrett
Butternut offers the woodworker many benefits. For starters, this hardwood is suburb for carving. It works easily with hand tools and machines well. It normally doesn’t leave burn marks and has little dulling effect. The material also works easily with screws, nails, and glue. However, there are some factors to keep in mind. Routing across the grain, for example, can cause the wood to tear out. Although butternut responds well to planing, it’s necessary to keep your tools sharp in order to avoid tearing the soft wood. Finally, butternut polishes and finishes beautifully. Because the wood is soft, it’s important to make sure you do not dent it during finishing. Overall, butternut has much to offer. Perhaps, it will be the inspiration for your next project.