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The white walnut: Butternut

Walnut is an expensive hardwood, desirable for its durability, attractive green pattern, and rich color. But it has a relative that is well known for being less expensive while having a similar appearance. It’s called butternut, also known as the white walnut or the poor man’s walnut.

The poor man’s walnut

butternut white walnut

The grain pattern on butternut (right) looks enough like walnut (left) that when you stain it a darker color, it looks very much like walnut. This is why people call it white walnut.

Butternut is a close relative to walnut, but it grows more quickly, and isn’t as durable, so it is less expensive. But since it’s green pattern closely resembles walnut, you can do something with butternut that doesn’t necessarily work as well with other common types of white wood.

Applying a dark walnut stain to butternut makes it look enough like real walnut to be convincing. It still won’t be as strong, but this is a trick that furniture makers use to cut costs on walnut furniture, say, as an alternative to using walnut veneer on some other type of wood. The result is more convincing than simply staining pine or another cheap home center whitewood, because you end up with a much closer grain pattern.

Stain butternut to look like walnut

To stain butternut to look like walnut, you can simply purchase a walnut stain from your nearest hardware or home improvement store. If you don’t need to match and existing piece, it’s pretty easy. It is still a good idea to use wood conditioner or seal the surface with shellac so you get a more even finish.

If you need to match the color on an existing piece, that gets a little trickier. Seal the wood to start, to even out the coverage and give you more control. Next, you will need two walnut colored gel stains, unless you can find one that very closely matches the color you need to replicate.

After the sealer or the shellac dries, apply the lighter of the two tones, and then wipe it away. Letting the stain sit longer or applying more coats will darken it.

Then you can apply the darker shade to get the color closer. You don’t want to leave the darker shade on as long, otherwise you run the risk of overwhelming the lighter color. You can always make lighter stain darker by adding more. But the only way to lighten a darker stain is to sand some of it back. So it is much easier to darken the stain than it is to lighten it.

It also helps to practice on some scraps or off cuts.

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