By Michael Buckley
Fashion in hardwood for furniture and interiors, often going in cycles, is well-known. Cherry, maple, ash, mahogany, wenge and rosewood are all good examples of high value species that have come and gone over the years. But there are a few that stay the distance. Several species have endured long term in popularity. Now we are seeing walnut join that elite group.
Kendra dining set in walnut by Commune. Image: Commune
Oak is one of those species that has remained popular throughout history. It is seen as traditional, ecclesiastical and associated with academia and wealth. Oak has stayed fashionable throughout time especially in western markets. Teak is another, particularly in eastern countries, for its durability. It is also associated with wealth. Walnut by contrast has come and gone in fashion over the years although it has never completely disappeared in popularity, as cherry did a decade ago. So what is the driver of walnut these days that suggests its current popularity will continue long term? The answer is complex.
Where it grows and goes
First let’s define walnut. The main source of walnut in volume is in the USA where American black walnut (Juglans nigra) is exclusively native and grows in large volumes across the States from the east coast to Texas. The so-called European walnut (Juglans regia) was originally native to a stretch from Kashmir to Turkey until introduced by the Romans to Italy and France as well as other European countries. The two species are different—in colour and grain—and whereas American black walnut is naturally regenerated in forests and planted a little, European walnut was mainly planted. Then there are other substitute species such as African and Rhodesian walnut, so-called for marketing.
Availability is a main driver. Limited supply and unquenchable demand in recent years have driven prices high, without the withdrawal of demand that normally follows. Take the case of cherry, for which prices peaked then halved when markets rebelled; but not so with walnut. Then there is China, where walnut is valued aesthetically along with many local similar hardwoods and Chinese buyers have discovered the “Well of Black Gold” in American forests. Ease of travel and communication have accelerated the Chinese market for American walnut that appears insatiable.
Then there is taste. Culturally, traditional furniture making and particularly, chair making in China favoured dark wood species that are now rare. But not only China appreciates walnut. The 2017 furniture shows in Southeast Asia all featured many collections of walnut furniture from Saigon to Singapore. And the world’s hotel designers and fit-out contractors love it. Last but not least, walnut is a truly beautiful species that finishes to a very fine surface. So—www—the World Wants Walnut!
Estelle console table in walnut by Commune. Image: Commune
Is walnut sustainable? That is an interesting and probably unanswerable question, for how high will the price go and how much is growing? Neither of those questions are easily answered. Whereas there is very accurate data now available for every commercial hardwood species in the USA, walnut is the exception. The forest inventory of walnut is well-known and published, but walnut unusually also grows naturally on and around farms that are not inventoried.
Craft coffee table by JotterGoods. Image: Star International
Brian Brookshire, executive director of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association points out, “American walnut is one of the only species (maybe the only one) that the entire log is sawn as useable lumber, effectively stretching the utilisation of the limited resource for furniture, flooring and other uses, as compared to oak and other hardwoods where the centre of the log is generally left as a block for industrial uses.”
Furthermore, new techniques of cutting ultra-thin veneer can also extend the resource, so it is hard to say how the resource balance will develop in the future.
European walnut supplies are relatively patchy and not well-documented. However, American walnut supplies are transparent and readily available through several channels. The American Hardwood Export Council has many members offering walnut. There are importers and traders in China and elsewhere specialising in walnut. There is also the American Walnut Manufacturers Association whose 20 members specialise in supplying walnut.
This article was first published in Panels & Furniture Asia [Jan/Feb Issue].