Butternut is a wood source used in fine woodworking by cabinetmakers for well over a century. In the days of carriage building, the interior panels of shays were often made of butternut because of its warmth and light color. A preferred wood because it is very stable with little warping or cracking, it was favored by woodcarvers because of its beautiful grain.
The early settlers of North American valued the nuts of the butternut tree, which they gathered for cooking. Southern mountain residents also used the nuts as an exceptional clothing dye. Picking up fallen nuts from the ground in autumn will leave a brown stain on your fingers quite difficult to remove! Regiments of Confederate soldiers used butternut dye to color their clothing, explaining why the were referred to as “Butternuts.” Native Americans also made good use of the nuts.
Carvers appreciate the fact that butternut is a soft wood which carves easily without being brittle. It has a beautiful grain, especially apparent when oiled. The heartwood color has been described as chestnut brown, dark brown, or a butter tan. A beautiful, satin-like luster remains after a knife or gouge cut leaves a smooth surface. When a clear finish is applied, that luster is more greatly pronounced, for a beautiful end result.
1. Schroeder, Roger, Wood Carving Illustrated.