Woodworker and commentator Scott Wunder recently posed this question: Why is walnut lumber graded lower than other hardwoods?

Having spent the last 36 years in the walnut sawmill business – including eight years as a lumber inspector – I was very curious to read the article. But as soon as I did, I knew that I had to set the record straight, and give Scott a view from a different perspective.

There were some statements and opinions that Scott shared that I want to help clarify, both as president of our family-owned walnut sawmill in Fayette, Missouri, and in my role as president of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association. (I’ve also served on the National Hardwood Lumber Association NHLA Rules Committee for 20 years.)

While I have let Scott know he is welcome to come visit our mill and tour our operation, I also want to extend that invitation to other lumber buyers, so I can show firsthand how walnut is handled, sorted, and processed. My goal quite honestly is to provide new information – Scott Wunder may have given a negative impression of walnut lumber suppliers.
Anyone who takes a closer look will have a far less negative impression of American Black Walnut lumber as a product, and of  the mill operators that produce that lumber, defending the walnut resource and the rules by which it is graded.
Scott Wunder’s recount of  his challenges sourcing walnut can be summarized as follows:
A few weeks ago I ordered 300 board feet of 12-foot, #1 common walnut from a wholesaler that I use on a regular basis. The customer I ordered it for doesn’t mind knots, so #1 common, which is not the highest grade, is usually a fine choice – except in walnut….Half of them looked like “pallet wood” and were “painful to look at and painful to use.”
Let’s start with that interaction between the customer and the lumber wholesaler. If a customer requested 12-foot lengths in 1-common from me, I would ask them what they were going to use it for. I would make sure they understood that the boards are graded by a percentage of clear wood and not to expect to use the board as a whole.
In the woodworking industry, the grade of #1 common is commonly referred to as the “cabinet grade” because of the sizes of clear wood (cuttings) the lumber inspector needs to use to make the NHLA grade, are similar to the sizes needed to make kitchen cabinets. The grade is designed for the practicality of having the boards cut into smaller pieces by chopping and ripping out the clear areas to be used in the final product.
The areas of defect have very little restriction when establishing the grade since they are not in the calculation of clear wood required. Even if his customer “doesn’t mind knots” the lumber inspector is only accounting for the clear wood in the boards, not the defects. Whether or not a knot is pretty, ugly, sound or unsound, it doesn’t affect the grade. Scott goes on to explain that grading concept in a later paragraph, but he doesn’t seem to realize how it applies to walnut.

It’s just the way walnut is

Scott also notes that every time he orders walnut, the quality of the wood is always worse than he could have imagined, yet he continues to be surprised by it when it is delivered. He says that he ends up using it or selling it, but has to explain to his customers, “It’s just the way walnut is.”
We are fully in agreement here. It is indeed the responsibility of the buyer and seller to educate themselves about the product.
While Scott searches for an explanation of why walnut is graded differently than other wood species, the “real” reason is that it is difficult to get good quality wood out of the walnut log supply because the high quality logs never make it to the sawmill. Scott contends that the best logs are being shipped overseas where they are even “more valuable.”
“These logs don’t have a chance of being cut into lumber because the sawmill can make just as much or more money selling the logs for veneer instead of wasting their time cutting, drying and selling them for lumber.” Scott believes that since the demand for walnut is high and the supply is limited – pointing out correctly that walnut represents less than 1 percent of U.S. hardwood forests.
Scott also did his due diligence by contacting the chief lumber inspector of the NHLA – the group that is most responsible for implementing the current grading rules  – and learned that at no time had the grading rules made any sort of abrupt change. And that walnut has always been in demand, but matched with relatively short supply.
These are more facts that we agree on. Why, then, does Scott chastise walnut manufacturers for selling some of our logs to veneer markets, including export, which put a higher value on walnut. This allows the sawmill to make as much or more profit. Our 45 employees are counting on us to operate our business at a profit, so they can remain employed. For our company, only about 10 percent of the logs we buy make a veneer quality log, so the impact on the overall production is minimal.
In the NHLA rules book that Scott references, a paragraph in the Forward states:
From the adoption of the earliest hardwood rules, no major alteration of standards has occurred that was not prompted by a noticeable change in the character of the hardwood timber supply. Practical hardwood operators have an awareness of the obligation to strive to make the rules bear a reasonable and practical relationship to the general quality of the available timber supply. Conservation is promoted by the maintenance of this type of sensible relationship between the lumber rules and the raw material from which the lumber is produced.
With a long history of good demand and the undeniable fact that the supply is limited, the grading rules have always allowed the limited resource to be utilized to the fullest. If walnut were held to the same grading requirements as the abundant species of red oak, there would only be a fraction of the higher grades available and nearly half of the average production that would be graded below #2 com.

When walnut is in peak demand, sufficient supply is impossible

Yes, the demand for walnut has outpaced the supply under the current grading rules many times over the years. Popularity is one of the biggest challenges for users of walnut. When walnut enters a peak demand cycle, the ability to supply the market becomes nearly impossible.
A furniture factory or flooring plant cannot operate without lumber. If they cannot receive a consistent supply of the walnut they require, they will be forced to choose a different species. Forcing walnut to meet the same grading requirement as red oak would only compound the problem by reducing the volume of an already limited species.

Walnut sapwood

Another issue Scott identifies with walnut is the sapwood. His photo of the log end is very helpful in laying out a defense of the rules. It shows that ¼ of this log is sapwood. We have already talked about the limited supply, now we need to eliminate even more of our available supply?
I remind you that the forward states that the rules need to show a sensible relationship to the raw material. Limiting or eliminating the sapwood is not sensible.

Also important: sapwood is almost always 100 percent clear. How sensible would it be to eliminate clear wood?

As Scott correctly notes, some jobs require all dark heartwood. But it is not, as Scott suggests, “almost impossible to get.” That is simply not true. There are several walnut manufacturers that sell heart-sorted lumber. But naturally, for this limited commodity, the price will be higher. That’s how markets work.

Steaming walnut

The process of steaming walnut is an expensive and necessary part of its preparation as lumber, a process that walnut producers have developed over the years. Though this does not turn the white sapwood the same rich chocolate brown color as the heartwood, it does soften the contrast to an acceptable level for most of the industry’s customers.

The standard practice of allowing steamed sapwood to not be regarded as a defect is something Scott sees as similar to other special walnut grading rules. But let me remind everyone that American manufacturers cut and sell tens of millions of feet of walnut lumber every year to a vast majority of repeat customers. Different than some other species specialists, walnut suppliers try to educate our customers as to this material’s unique qualities – the qualities that make American Black Walnut one of the most desired hardwoods in the world.

The current rules governing walnut grading may not work for everybody. But if they didn’t work equitably for the majority of lumber buyers, then we wouldn’t be able to sell what we produce.
I do hope Scott and other walnut buyers will visit our sawmill and learn more accurately the reasons that walnut is graded differently – and in some cases lower – than other hardwoods.
First established in 1912, the purpose of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association is to promote the availability and prestigious image of walnut products while fostering good forest management and raw material conversion practices which maximize the value of the timber resource. The Association is a source of information for interested individuals and landowner groups, though specifically offering support to its member firms with educational materials and guidance; the Association also acts as an advocate in support of the unique grading rules for Walnut lumber as established by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. Because the Association views its membership as the foundation for its existence, it actively seeks prospective members that share the values and common purpose of the organization.