How to Harvest Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts 1

Much to my relief, autumn has arrived!  The leaves are slowly turning from their late summer dark greens to various shades of red, yellow, orange, brown, and even purple.  The temperature is growing cooler – cool enough for jeans and sweatshirts and campfires.  And multiple types of nut–bearing trees are providing natural, delicious (and free) snacks.  In Appalachia, the most common of these nuts available to many of us is the black walnut.

Although they are common and easy to find, black walnuts require a true dedication to harvest.  However, those patient enough to find, hull, and crack walnuts are in for a true delicacy few of us will ever enjoy without paying a high price.


Finding Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts in TreeThe Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is found throughout most of the continental United States.  It typically fruits (produces nuts) during September and October.  Eager harvesters will find walnut trees along roadsides, on farms, and in the forest.  If October has arrived and you still haven’t found a reliable source, I highly recommend Craigslist.  Last year, I found an ad offering all of the walnuts I could transport.  I filled multiple large trash cans completely free of charge.  *** My three–year–old son actually helped collect the walnuts (or as he called them – wile nuts) and found it to be a fantastic time.  Not only did he enjoy collecting the walnuts (still in their hulls, of course), he also enjoyed spending some outdoor time with his dad! ***


Hulling Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts (Some Hulled, Some Not). Notice the Hulling Device made from a 2X4.

Black Walnuts (Some Hulled, Some Not). Notice the Hulling Device made from a 2X4.

The meat of a walnut is found within several layers that must be removed.  The first layer, and therefore the first to be removed, is the hull – the thick green coating around the shell (the hull will eventually blacken after falling from the tree – this doesn’t affect the nuts inside, but does add more mess to the already messy process.)

I prefer to remove the hulls immediately after collecting black walnuts.  Perhaps the easiest (or less tedious) way is to simply spread your harvest of walnuts onto a gravel driveway or road, then drive over them, allowing your car’s tires to tear the hulls away from the shell.  As of my last harvest though, I didn’t have a gravel driveway or road that was convenient for this process.  Instead of the driveway technique, I decided to manually remove the shells from the hulls.

I used 2” X 4” dimensional lumber to build a small “walnut–hulling device.”  This device is visible in the picture of the hulled walnuts.  I simply drilled a 1 1/8” hole into the upper 2X4 then hammered each walnut through the hole, tearing the majority of the hull away from the shell.  Many of the hulls were completely removed while others needed minimal tearing with my gloved hands.  Did I mention gloves yet?  You must have gloves!  Walnuts stain everything: clothes, hands, tools, skin, everything!  If you don’t have gloves, you will eventually have what I call the “hands of death” – brownish yellow hands that look as if you’ve been dead for a week or two.  Even with thick rubber gloves, my hands still stained around my thumbs and fingers.


Drying Black Walnuts

After removing the hulls from your black walnuts, you need to allow the shells to dry for a month or more.  If it is possible, it’s best to leave the walnuts outside (preferably exposed to wind but shielded from rain and snow) to dry.  But be cautious, lots of critters like walnuts and will steal your harvest if it’s not protected.  I actually left mine on a trailer with a metal–grated floor.  I kept it inside of my garage most of the time but also dragged it onto my driveway as often as I could.  This allowed them to dry while also preventing squirrels from stealing any of my precious bounty.


Shelling Black Walnuts

Hammering Black Walnuts (1)

A framing hammer works well for shelling black walnuts.

Had I been so inclined, I could have started shelling my walnuts as early as January.  In fact, I wish I would have done so.  By January, I’m looking for any excuse I can find to get outside of the house, and shelling walnuts would have been a great way to spend a few cold January evenings.  Instead, I waited until the following summer.  The work is tedious and would have been more enjoyable if I weren’t sweating from the July heat.

Black Walnut 1

A cracked shell and exposed walnut “meat.”

To shell the walnuts, I recommend finding a sturdy and solid object (a stone, a brick without holes, a cinder block, etc.) and a selection of hammers.  I experimented with small trim hammers as well as larger framing hammers.

Black Walnut 2 (1)

This one looks like it’s smiling. Even the walnuts enjoy the process!

Place the hulled and dried walnut shell on the solid object and hammer away.  Start with easy hammering and increase your force until the shell cracks.  The hammering process is as much of an art as it is a science.  After shelling a few walnuts, you’ll develop your own unique style for extracting the meat from the shards of shells.  Be prepared though, no matter how you hammer or how you dig the meat from the shell, this is a damn tedious process.  There are no shortcuts.  It simply requires time and patience.


Enjoying Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts 2I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t eat any walnuts until I finished shelling for the day.   Had I not made such a commitment, I probably would have eaten the whole of my bounty as I hammered and extracted the walnut meat.  Instead, I diligently shelled the nuts, placed them into a bag, and enjoyed a handful after every shelling session.  After a few of these sessions, I had completely filled two quart bags with ready–to–eat walnuts.

Per my dad’s recommendation, I sprinkled the walnuts onto a bowl of vanilla ice cream.  Good call, dad!  It was delicious.  But I am also prone to eat them straight from the bag.  Creamy, flavorful, and crunchy!  Black walnuts are a phenomenal treat… to those willing to make the effort.


Other Uses

Walnut hulls and shells have a wide variety of uses.  Although I’ve yet to do so, I’m certain that walnut hulls can be used for stains, dyes, tanning, insecticide, and types of herbicides.


Have you harvested black walnuts or are you going to this season?  Do you have any recommendations or better ideas for harvesting?  Or have you ever used walnuts to make stains, dyes, or any other uses?   If so, I’d love to hear about it!


21 thoughts on “How to Harvest Black Walnuts

  1. I have a few black walnut trees. I usually harvest them in a giant pile and let the squirrels go at it. Time and an abundance of projects really prevented me from enjoying what I’ve loved to do. I used to live on an old walnut farm. It was the golden variety. Those were delicious too. Anyway I may harvest next year. I have taken the hulls and used them for dying fabric. The process of shelling walnuts is tedious, but worth the effort! Fantastic post! Happy Fall!!!! Koko:)

  2. Loved this! Particularly the driving over walnuts in your car – pretty ingenious, I think. We lived in SW France for a while, and friends and neighbours had walnut trees, walnut oil being a prized dressing. They would have had a heart attack if I’d driven over their prized bounty…
    Great post, and I’m betting wile nuts taste even better!

    • Thank you, sir!

      Even though it’s a lot of work, harvesting walnuts really is fun. Not only do they taste great, my kids and I enjoyed smashing the shells with a hammer.

      Indeed, wile nuts are a treat. The lad just turned four, but I think he’s still calling them “wile.” We love it!

    • It’s never good for anything to fall on your car!! We get hit with an occasional acorn, but a walnut is in a whole other class of noise and trouble for a roof or hood.

  3. This is the first time I’ve ever been diligent about harvesting walnuts. I have a couple questions but will share a couple things I do as well. The first batch of walnuts I husked were very, very messy. The husks were full of worms and pretty wet and slimy. Needless to say I wanted to handle them as little as possible. The clean the shell after husking I put them in drywall bucket with 6-8 inches of water. I tossed the floaters and used my drywall mud mixer attached to my 3/4″ drill and spun them vigorously for several minutes. I drained and let dry. It cleaned them up nicely. I love my framing hammer, but used a bench vise to crack the shells. To keep the shell from shooting all over I wrapped it in masking tape and then cracked it.

    So my question: are wormy husks common? I was afraid the meat would be bad, but I found no worms inside (unlike my hickory nuts). Also, many of the nuts were pretty dry. Did I harvest them too late?

    Thanks for any insight.

    – Joe

    • Joe,

      Thanks for the tips on how you crack your walnuts. I like the idea of using a vice! I also like the idea of cleaning them with the water and mixer.

      I definitely had some wormy husks. Although it was gross (especially to my wife and kids), I don’t think the worms affect the nuts at all. I just tossed the worms in with all of the other leftovers and tossed it all into the woods near my house.

      A lot of mine were dry as well. I assumed that I lost a lot of them because I waited so late in the year to crack the shells. I suspect that regardless of when you collect them or when you crack them though, you’ll still get some that are too dry to eat. That’s why I collect a lot more than I expect to use. If I end up losing some to dryness, I still have enough to make it worth my while.

      I hope that answers your questions! Thanks for the tips and recommendations! Happy harvesting!

  4. Pingback: How to Harvest Black Walnuts | | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  5. When I was a kid, not having enough money to buy bait for fishing, I would soak the hulls in a bucket of water for a while. Then when the water was good and dark I would dump it on the ground and grab the night crawlers when they would pop up. They don’t like the concentrated acid either. Just remember to wash the worms off or they will die before you are done fishing.

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