Recently three people e-mailed 360 Woodworking to ask the same question, so it seemed like a worthy topic for a blog post. In essence there are two questions. Question number one is “why don’t the walnut pieces in the Gamble house bedroom look like walnut?” And the follow-up is “how can I get a piece I build out of walnut to look like that?”
Here is a snippet from Larry in North Carolina:
I recently purchased a bundle of books that included your book, Shop Drawings for Greene and Greene Furniture. I want to make a piece from black walnut and would like to achieve the color of the Gamble Chiffonier and Gamble bed, both shown in your book. These are described as black walnut, but with a very different color from the black walnut that I am accustomed to. I have a bunch of black walnut rescued from a barn in West Virginia, but it is very dark, almost black as the name implies. So, the first question is – can I achieve the color that I am looking for and if so, how? Did they use the process that you describe in your book for achieving the desired look for the mahogany pieces – the potassium dichromate and stain process – or some other process? Or, is the walnut used in the Gamble pieces different and I just will not be able to get there using the wood I have on hand?
Our answer: The Gamble bedroom is 106 years old, and in our opinion that accounts for the color of the walnut. Where lighter woods tend to get darker over time, walnut tends to lighten in color. With old pieces it can be difficult to tell the exact species of wood as the colors tend to become similar. The primary wood in the Gamble bedroom is walnut and to the best of our knowledge, the finish on those pieces was either oil or shellac, possibly a combination, but we don’t think a stain was used.
So what can you do if you want the lighter color, other than wait a century for the wood to lighten up? Don’t use the potassium dichromate; it’s a strong oxidizer and will make the walnut darker. You could possibly bleach the walnut to make it lighter. With any of these chemical treatments you are rolling the dice as the color changes depend on a reaction with the bleach (or oxidizer) and the chemical composition of the wood. That’s the wild card as there is a lot of variation from tree to tree.
You might consider using butternut instead of walnut if you can find it. The grain is similar to walnut, but the color is lighter. Larry decided to use cherry instead.
— 360 Woodworking
If you like Greene & Greene furniture, check out the online Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. Don’t say we didn’t warn you if you don’t get anything done for the rest of the day. Maintained by USC the archives contain thousands of images (both period and contemporary) of Greene & Greene projects. If you click “Search” from the home page, you can browse all the images project by project. This link leads to the Gamble house images.