An important conversation with Mr. Jack Plane about Walnut stains

Jack Plane writes, what I feel is, one of the best blogs on Anglo-Irish period furniture, the collection of fine antiques and the condition of Western Civilization, at large.  He is also as fine a craftsman as you are likely to come across.  I’m always very pleased when Jack comments on any of my ramblings.  While his observations can be full of erudite humor, they are always to the point and, without fail, very instructive.    Jack’s comments on his preparation and use of Walnut stain (Van Dyke crystal) offer rarely found information about a coloring method that was widely used and is still an incredible tool today.  And, the product can be found at the base of any Walnut tree.

I’m not sure if Jack uses ammonia in his original preparation.  I assume that he does.  But understanding that this product is essentially a “food stuff”, Jack has developed a method of handling and storage that we can all use.  But here it is in Jack’s words:

The tonal qualities of Van Dyke make it one of the most versatile stains – natural or synthetic.

I brew the stain to reduce it and then pour some into a very large plastic storage container – just enough to cover the bottom. I then place the lid loosely on the box to keep out contaminants, while allowing moisture to escape.

I leave the container in full sun until all the moisture has evaporated and the walnut solids have dried and curled up. The solids are then ground up and stored for future use.

I keep a jar of concentrated Van Dyke stain made up, from which I draw and dilute as necessary.

I asked Jack what his method of re-hydration was, and it’s surprisingly simple:

I make up Van Dyke with hot tap water and a drop or two of non-foaming surfactant. The dry stain is some somewhat water repellent (at least it is inclined to clag initially), so the surfactant aids with miscibility and also assists penetration.

The stain doesn’t need to be hot when applied.

And, again, if anyone doubts the beauty of the results of this method, visit Jack’s blog.  While the Irish Elm dressing table is an outstanding example of this stain’s use, my guess would be that Van Dyke crystals have been used to color other projects seen on the blog, as well.  Van Dyke brown is a standard artist color that is commonly used for the illustration of trees and other woody plant stuffs.

Have fun.  Look for the good stuff right in your backyard.  Think outside the box.

Put “Pegs and Tails” on your “favorite” list.  You’ll be glad you did.

UPDATE:

Jack just provided some additional information that will prove helpful:

If you wish to edit your post, yes I do use ammonia to draw the tannin out of the husks (the husks are all that are required for stain making, you can eat or plant the nuts). To be pedantic, the dried solids are a powder, not crystals.

Vandyke Brown (cassel earth) is not the same as Van Dyke. Vandyke Brown is an earth pigment which is used to make artists’ colours and in our world, an opaque stain roughly the same colour as Van Dyke. Confusing? Yes, but worth pointing out.

You are correct in your assumption that I have used VD for colouring other furniture, but often so dilute as to not warrant mentioning for fear of confusing the other reader (most amateurs are of the opinion that stains must be intense or they haven’t got value for money).

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One Comment on “An important conversation with Mr. Jack Plane about Walnut stains”


  1. I agree with what you say of Mr. Jack Plane. I really liked his post on linen. He is a fascinating guy whom I would like to meet.


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