Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ode to a Tree

Our wood flooring is arriving in 3 days—yahoo! Not only am I excited to see it, but getting the flooring installed is critical to moving forward with cabinets, and then countertops, and then light fixtures, and then… Well, you get the idea.

Sequencing the work of building a house is one of the toughest parts of being your own general contractor, in my opinion. It reminds me of that old song “Dry Bones” (or Skeleton Bones). “The toe bone is connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone…” Everything in its proper order and timing!

As mentioned in an earlier post, we chose 6” wide plank solid walnut for the main floor of our house, and 5” plank solid cherry for our 2nd floor hallway, sunroom, and Mom’s cottage. We are purchasing our flooring from Wide Plank Hardwood in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

Walnut flooring from Wide Plank Hardwoods
Although there were other companies with similar products, we found Wide Plank Hardwood to have the right combination of quality, price, and service. Given the proximity of Chilliwack to Seattle, freight costs were substantially lower too. (Most of the other suppliers would have trucked the flooring from the eastern United States.) The staff at Wide Plank were kind enough to send us a photo of our lumber as it arrived at the mill for final processing. They will cut the lumber to eliminate the worst of the knots and then do a first pass of sanding and smoothing.

Our walnut--and maybe the cherry too (light stuff on top).

Walnut close up as "raw" lumber.

The flooring is being shipped unfinished for nail down installation on-site and we’re planning to finish the floors with oil (which kind is still to be decided).

With all the pre-finished floors on the market, you might wonder why we didn’t choose one of those. To be honest, even though the aluminum oxide finishes are touted to be hard as nails and very hardwearing, we just didn’t like the look. They seem a little plastic looking and a bit too perfect!

Pre-finished walnut--shorter lengths, splotchy color, and too shiny of a finish for our taste.
So we’re going to go with an imperfect, hand-applied oil finish instead. And given the oil finish, it also made sense to go with solid wood vs. pre-engineered. We figure if refinishing is more likely with an on-site applied finish, we had better have enough wood to withstand a couple of sandings over the life of the floors.

Walnut and oak floor in the Oval Office of the White House.
Why Choose Walnut?
Okay, so why walnut? Simple. I love the dark brown color. It’s got enough depth and grain to give it character and a go-with-everthing color that doesn’t go all red or yellow in time. It also seems to fit the traditional style of our house.

The cherry we’re using for the 2nd floor and the cottage is more casual and suits those spaces as well—and the price point is a little lower than walnut, helping us to save a bit of money. Cherry WILL deepen into a stronger red over time, but this won’t be as much of an issue on our 2nd floor where it will be used more sparingly. In the cottage it will cover the living room and kitchen/dining area, but since they don’t get direct sun, I’m hoping the darkening will not be as pronounced.

Close up of grain and color
History and Use
I did some internet surfing to learn more about the tree and found that the wood of the walnut tree has been coveted for centuries for its beauty and durability. The American Black Walnut has been used for flooring, household objects, furniture, ships, musical instruments, and gunstocks.

A beautiful walnut utensil tray.
While looking for flooring, I came across the Goby Walnut and Western Hardwoods company from Portland, Oregon. They sell individual pieces of walnut to woodworkers, furniture makers, and hobbyists—each piece of wood has its own character and beauty. A whole world of specialization that I never knew existed!

Can you believe the size of this walnut trunk?

A "bookended" speciman marked
to show its special features.

Walnut rounds for making wooden bowls.
Native Americans and pioneers made a brown dye from the husk of the nut. There is still a market for ground up black walnut shells which are used for metal cleaning and polishing, oil well drilling, and as an ingredient in paint and explosives. The nutmeat is tasty and nutritious but very difficult—and therefore expensive—to extract from its shell, so most commercial walnut producers use the Persian (or English) walnut instead.

Green walnuts still in the husk
European peasants paid their debts with the nuts and were also expected to tithe walnuts to the church. 13th century merchants considered walnut oil to be as precious as gold. There is evidence that walnut trees have been around for 17,000 years and that the nuts were part of the diet of Cro-Magnon man. There were even walnut groves in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. 

Growth Habit
The Eastern Black Walnut (juglans nigra) used to be a common old-growth forest tree, but is now relatively scarce due to overharvesting. It does best in an open sunny location with moist soil near stream banks. The tree has a unique self-preservation mechanism—it produces a substance called juglone that is actually toxic to other nearby plants, thereby ensuring they won’t compete with the tree for light and water.

The tree can reach 100 to 150 feet in the woods with a spread of 60-80 feet when grown in the open. It is found primarily in the Appalachians and the Midwestern United States, but may be seen as far north as Ontario and as far south as Florida and Georgia. The tree typically matures in about 150 years and can live as long as 250 years.

Walnut Folklore
It is said that for centuries there were great gatherings of witches at the base of an ancient walnut tree in the Italian town of Benevento. In 662 A.D. a saint had the tree cut down to stop the gatherings, but it mysteriously grew again. Legend also has it that you can determine if someone is a witch by dropping a walnut in her lap as she sits; if she is unable to rise while the nut remains in her lap, she is a witch.

Witch of the Walnut Tree
(frankly not that scary looking...)
This association with witches gave the walnut a reputation as the “tree of evil” and yet it is also associated with fertility and nuts were often thrown at the bride and groom at weddings (ouch!). Sometimes the bride and groom would dance around a walnut tree.

French country folk had a tradition of hanging walnuts from the ceiling beam in the kitchen to represent abundance and longevity. In American folklore, walnuts are said to cure sore throats and to thicken one’s hair!

Long live the walnut (and our flooring)!