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Questions: Walnut Log

Questions: Walnut Log

by Bruce Harvie

Originally published in American Lutherie #101, 2010


Lee Pendergrast from Etowah, Tennessee asks:

I know where a hundred-plus-year-old 20"×12' walnut log is in the river near me. How would it need to be sawn for best use in lutherie? This log has been in a place where the river rises and falls often, leaching out the tannins. I’ve read that the very best wood for instruments has been soaked in water; microbial action and leaching produce hollow cells which are more resonant.

Bruce Harvie from Olga, Washington

Walnut can be a fine wood for instruments, but unless it’s highly figured (which it probably isn’t), not all that valuable. It has been used historically by many companies, most notably Epiphone for its archtop guitars. An article in Reader’s Digest many years ago contributed to the public’s perception that walnut logs are extremely valuable, but in the world of tonewoods, this is not all that true unless the tree is highly figured, in which case it can be highly sought after. But these figured trees are rare indeed, and usually found in orchards in California, not in the indigenous black walnut forests in the Midwestern USA.

Another tonewood myth created by the press (mostly by a few publicity-hungry companies on Lake Superior) is the high value placed on logs soaked in water and the quality of the wood produced. It may or may not be true, but to use it as a ploy to place exorbitant prices on logs hauled from the bottom of lakes is disingenuous, in my opinion. A log soaked in water or floating in a river for a hundred years is just as likely to suffer defects from this sort of treatment.