The name and origin of the chestnut tree are alike somewhat doubtful. It is most abundant in an apparently wild state in Southern Europe, extending eastward to the Caucasus, and occurring in the islands of the Mediterranean at moderate elevations above the sea. A similar or identical form occurs in the mountains of Virginia, Georgia, and Carolina. There are forests composed of this species in Alsace and Rhenish Prussia; and it is common, though possibly planted, in Normandy and around Paris.
The timber of the Chestnut resembles oak, being brown, moderately hard, fine-grained, and rather porous; but, being of slower growth, its rings are narrower; the “medullary rays” or “silver grain” is not traceable, nor is there any distinction between the heart-wood and sap-wood.
American chestnut was attacked by a fungus blight in the early 1920’s and practically all standing chestnut has been killed by blight. Now, most supplies come from dead timber which is still available because of the tree’s natural resistance to decay.
What changes in public attitudes occurred to upgrade the status of wormy chestnut from a defective lumber to a prized collectible? Undoubtedly a major reason is its increasing rarity given the disappearance of mature chestnut trees. But it is tempting to also associate it with the affluence of our post War years and the spawning of interest in antiques and collectibles.
The cause of wormy chestnut is well known. The larvae of the chestnut timber borer a small, brown beetle spent several years of their lives nourishing themselves as they gnawed tunnels throughout the wood of standing trees. The adults emerged about the time of chestnut bloom, flying directly free from the tree to mingle and mate. The females deposited eggs in the cracks in the bark and, life’s duty done, all soon expired.
The beetles had a feeding frenzy on the dead and dying chestnut trees smitten by the blight. “Lumber from such trees was downgraded to ’sound wormy,’ resulting in sizeable losses.” This quote relates to pre World War II. Now wormy chestnut is “character marked,” a term I presume coined in recent decades by the cognoscenti of the antique industry. Now it sells for handsome prices for interior trim, furniture, rustic windows, doors and picture frames.
Wormy chestnut has found a highly regarded niche among those who treasure “antiqued” wood. An art has evolved where craftsmen give “character” to board lumber by denting it with a hammer, pounding in nail impressions, and making burn marks with a hot iron. Thus we derive the “distressed furniture” now in vogue. Wormy chestnut is ready made!
* Species information has been provided by www.woodworkingnetwork.com