Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

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April 9, 2021

We have a walnut tree at the bottom of the garden near the river.  It is one of three planted in approximately 1911 for the birth of my grandfather, James, or one of his two brothers, Frank and Dennis.

In March the walnuts are ripe and the woody brown nuts start to stop out of the green husk they grow inside.  The green husks can be used to make stain for wood, a brown ink for a fountain pen, or to stain fabric or yarn.  This is a great temptation if, like me, you are attracted to the romance of making things from scratch instead of buying them from the shop. And if you like the idea of being a a little bit witchy.

Man No1 is, understandably, a bit sceptical about some of my projects, especially if they intrude upon something he is trying to finish.  Inevitably, making things from scratch is slow and the results can be, well, uneven. When I put green walnut husks in a bucket of water several years ago and left it under the outdoor table he built from the stump of a tea-tree he cut down (the tea tree being the tea tree my sister got free as a tiny sapling when she bought some new brand of tea tree shampoo from the chemist and then planted where it grew really quite big and blocked the view of the river from the house, thus the sense of cutting it down) he asked why the bucket was there. I said I was making walnut stain for wooden floors.  He looked a tiny bit resigned, went back to single handedly building a carport for three vehicles, and didn’t ask much more.

Bucket of walnut husks.

Two years later I moved the bucket into some shrubbery where it couldn’t be seen because it was quite an unsightly white plastic bucket.

What do you know, but about two months ago, and probably a year after I moved the bucket into the shrubbery, man no.1 one suddenly asked about my walnut floor stain.  We had arranged for some rooms in our outbuildings to be painted. Man no. 1 had removed the plywood ceiling and exposed the old lime washed rafters again.  In the 1850s these rooms were once two-up-two-down homes for farm workers at Valleyfield. Man no. 1 had also sanded the floors and because the floor is made of rough sawn wood and not tongue and groove floor boards, he thought they should be darkened.

I fetched the bucket from the shrubbery.  As it hadn’t a lid, the bucket had been fed intermittently with rain. Its contents were an evil inky black.  Wonderful man no. 1 painted some of on a board but was unsatisfied with the result.  He reverted to considering what the hardware shops had to offer.  

walnut husks boiling

Meanwhile, I was examining the walnut tree.  The nuts hadn’t started falling yet and there weren’t as many nuts as the tree sometimes bears.  I went about picking lower nuts off and gathering any knocked off and half eaten by cockatoos.  We crushed them with a hammer and added them to the bucket.  

The following weekend I built a fire in our half barrel BBQ. I tipped the walnuts and their black water into a jam pan and put them on the grill plate over the fire to boil.  We boiled them all day, intermittently topping the pot with water and the fire with wood as we passed.  At night the fire still glowed. The pot still bubbled. I gave it a stir with a stick as the moon rose and then went indoors and to bed.

the fire where the walnut husk stew was placed

The next morning the fire had turned to ash and the pot was cool and still and black. I retrieved the white plastic bucket and put a hessian bag inside.  Then I tipped the walnut mix in and lifted up the hessian bag to strain the liquid out.  I hung the bag in a tree over the bucket to let all the water drip out.

Later in the day, I took my bucket, some rubber gloves and an old window cleaning brush I found in the shed over to the floor. I meant to just paint one board as Man No. 1 had done with the tester-pot of stain-seal he had purchased.  I did one board, but my brush was a bit wide and so I got some stain on the neighbouring board as well. I did a second board to even things up.  Despite trying to be a bit more careful, it was hard to only do one board.  I had the wrong sort of brush.  At some point, I threw caution to the wind, and painted the floor of the entire room, finishing in the doorway.  My bucket was empty. I thought I’d better tell Man No. 1 what I’d done.  He was expecting a test on just one board.

transition shot of the previous boards and the walnut stain

We waited for it to dry before making a detailed inspection.  The floor was definitely darker. A lot darker. Dark grey black. Once dry, it had a sort of violet tinted bloom. How would it look once sealed? It was hard to be sure.  

‘Shall I melt that beeswax I bought a few years ago and mix it with gum turpentine and linseed oil to make a floor seal too?’ I said.

Committed now, over the next three weekends we prepared four more walnut decoctions and painted them on the remaining three rooms. The subsequent stains were lighter and browner than the first aged and, probably, fermented stain.  They had a lovely smell.  

One day while I was at work, and threatened by the possibility of a beeswax project and a wedding booking in a few days time, Man No 1 put a water based seal on top. Here is the result. There is some variation between the first room and the others, but we love it. Several weeks later, it still smells of green walnuts.

the finished stain

I haven’t told Man No. 1 yet, but apparently you can make worming medicine from walnut husks as well.