Why Would Anyone Steam Walnut?

walnut logI used to wonder why some places where I shopped for wood tended to have walnut lumber with awful coloring. The grain might be beautiful but the color was muddy.

The sapwood in walnut is very light in color, at times almost white. Many people find this to be a problem. They want only the darker colors of the heartwood in their work.

To avoid having the lighter color of the sapwood “spoil” the piece they have three options:

  • Cut away the sapwood – effective but wasteful
  • Stain the sapwood to match the darker heartwood
  • Use steamed walnut. Steaming darkens the sapwood but robs the heartwood of color

Many places I have shopped for walnut steam all their inventory. I am always disappointed and feel this has ruined the beauty of many fine pieces of timber.

I personally think the lighter streaks of sapwood can be a beautiful addition to a piece.

I purchase walnut that has not been steamed whenever possible. Quarter sawn walnut is often hard to come by and sometimes I have to settle for wood that has been steamed.

An instrument made with steamed walnut sounds fine. I just can’t help thinking of how much better the color would have been if it had just been dried and left alone.

I have recently been experimenting with some finishing techniques to try and improve the color of steamed walnut.

This is like “enriching” white bread by adding nutrients to white flour to replace the nutrients steamed walnut dulcimer backremoved by bleaching it in the first place.

I’m about to start finishing a dulcimer with steamed curly walnut back and sides. Once again, beautiful grain but somewhat disappointing color. The sapwood in the center of the back would have been much lighter and the darker areas would have more of a chocolate color had it been left alone.

More news to come as the story develops.

2 thoughts on “Why Would Anyone Steam Walnut?

  1. Have you seen the data on Sauno kilns where the wood is steamed as part of the drying process? Used in England and has had good success with reducing waste and loss. Think it was posted by Robin Wood but here is a reference http://www.classichandtools.com/acatalog/Sauno-Wood-Kiln.html
    and if you google it you will find a .pdf of instructions.
    Can’t think of any other reasons to steam it.

    1. @rfrancis
      This sounds interesting. Anything that would help make wood more stable is a plus. Does this method alter the color?


Comments are closed.