Gene Larson's Shop Notes

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By: Eugene Larson
Copyright (c), January 2000

"You're doing what?" That was the response I received from my family when I told them I was going to make my own walnut stain. Actually it does not make much sense, and does possibly make me eligible for at least a visit to a "shrink".

There are a lot of stains on the market, water and solvent based, that are quite suitable for all woodworking needs. However, while visiting a ski resort in the Shennandoah Mountains I came across a craft exhibit, and one of the vendors was making baskets. Some of the finished baskets had a beautiful walnut stain on them, and I asked which stain she used. Of course she said she made her own. Thus began the saga that included me standing over a large tub on the barbecue grill stirring with a stick, like in the days of witchcraft in Salem, or in ferry tales. But, the results were worth the ridicule.

Therefore, the process is here for those willing to suffer the torment of friends and family, and the jabs from fellow model builders identifying you as the top of the ladder of elitists.

First, and most critical, you must have a source for a small supply of fresh walnuts as they come off the tree. In this condition the nuts are the size of tennis balls and covered with a pulpy material that is normally removed to gain access to the nut. See the photo. We are not interested in the nut, but the pulp. I have a vacation home on a lake in the Piedmont region in North Carolina, and it is surrounded by Government wooded land. Our property has five black walnut trees, plus one that had to be cut down. The wood from the latter tree was harvested and has been used for various projects. What could be better than to have a corresponding walnut stain to even out the color on projects, when desired?

walnut 1 photo

PHOTO: Fresh walnuts with pulp shell, "cured" pulp, and a tennis ball for comparison.

A trip in the fall to the woods with known walnut trees will be very relaxing. The fallen nuts should be quickly collected to prevent squirrels and raccoons eating them. Shaking the trees will bring most of them down, but head protection is needed, like a bucket (photo not included). At home spread the walnuts out in an area to "cure". Do not place them in a bag or pile them up in a bucket, as you will end up with a terrible mess.

The green pulp around the nuts will slowly turn dark brown as the color from the nut inside leeches into the pulp. Any time after the entire pulp area turns brown you can start the stain making process. The pulp can still be soft, or entirely dried out.

Fill half way with water a sizeable pot, perhaps five gallons or more, and bring to a boil, either on the stove or barbecue. Then it is best to move outside to a barbecue for the remainder of the process due to the smell, although it is not too bad. The pulp on each nut should be broken into pieces to permit better water penetration. Fill the pot with pulp and nuts until there is no more room for the material to be covered with water. Continue to heat the water until it boils, and frequently stir the mixture with a stick. Try not to let any slop out, as this is "stain". Let the pot boil for about an hour, then let it cool and then sit for two days. A couple of times take a stick to stir and squash the material in the pot.

When ready to extract the stain locate some cloth paint strainers, available at a paint store. They fit over five gallon buckets. Pour the liquid into the strainer and leave the pulp and nuts in the pot. Whatever falls in the strainer can be thrown away. Then take the strained liquid in the bucket and run it through a second straining of the same material or some cheese cloth. This can be poured into some cleaned, clear plastic milk cartons, soda bottles, or the like. Fill only 3/4 full.

Try the stain on some wood. I guarantee you will like it. Obviously it is water based. When the stain is dry, a tung oil or varnish finish can be applied over it. If the stain is too concentrated add a little water until the desired color depth is obtained. Standard finishing techniques can be used including light sanding after staining and steel wooling thereafter.

The bottles of stain should be placed in a freezer until needed since it will go rancid and mold if left out.

Let me know how you like it.

If this is not purist enough for you, you can start with some of the fresh nuts and ---.

Now, does the mahogany tree have nuts? I wonder about those cherries on the tree. Hmmm!


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