What to do with Black Walnut Shells and Hulls

By Arlene Correll   

I recently received an email from a gal named Sandy in Peewee Valley, KY inquiring about the uses of Black walnut shells. 

Well Sandy, one of the things you can do is to make dye.  Black walnut (Juglans nigra), or nut hulls can be used to make a dye.  If you are a basket maker you can use this dye to color your baskets or splint materials. Walnut shells produce a brown color as do Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata Mill.)   Pecan (Carya illinoensis) hulls are also good and pecans produce a red/orange color.

A little history tells us that walnuts are the fruit of the Juglans regia, (also J. nigra for the black walnut), a Latin contraction of Jovis glans meaning regal nut of Jupiter or nut of "the Gods." Ancients believed the gods dined on walnuts, hence regia or regal. Origin of the term walnut has debatable origins. Some scholars say the term derives from the Teutonic German wallnuss or welsche nuss and others from the Anglo-Saxon word wealth meaning foreign or alien and hnutu meaning nut.

It's difficult to trace the native home of the walnut tree, but ancient Romans believe it originated in Persia. Early cultivation spanned from southeastern Europe to Asia Minor to the Himalayas. Greek usage of walnut oil dates back to the fourth century B.C., nearly a century before the Romans. Franciscan priests brought the walnut to California, USA around 1770. The oil of the nut has been used for centuries in the preparation of fine paints for artists.

Also you could do what the Romans did with them, i.e. throw them to wedding guests for good luck.

If you have sheep and shear, card and spin your own wool, you can use these dyes to color your yarn or really just about anything.  Just remember when you wash anything you have dyed, wash it separately as the colors will run.  To dye one pound of fiber, use four gallons of water per pound of dyestuff. Dyed items always lighten when dried. Be sure to dry fabric in the shade. To lighten or darken colors, decrease or increase the quantity of dyestuff. Also, experiment with the amount of time the fabric is left in the dye solution. Gently squeeze out excess moisture from fabric before hanging it to dry. Never wring fabric, or the dye will streak.   By adding mordant, which is alum (4 tablespoons you will achieve a golden brown dye.  If you omit the mordant, your dye will be light brown. 

When dying wool then the following is a good rule to follow. 

  1. (Prepared yarn can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for several days.)
  2. Wind yarn into a series of 12" loops (a skein).
  3. To prevent tangling, use four separate 3" pieces to loosely tie the skein together (dye must be able to get under the ties).
  4. Fill a container with enough cool water to cover your wool.
  5. Add a few tablespoons of dish detergent.
  6. Soak for a few hours or leave overnight.
  7. Rinse thoroughly (gently squeeze out excess water).
  8. Greasy wool will not dye evenly.
  9. If you are not planning to dye the yarn immediately, store it in a covered container in refrigerator.
  10. Allow yarn to warm to room temperature before dyeing.

When working with cotton, always wash cotton fabric before dyeing.  Dye while fabric is still wet (placing dry fabric in the dye may cause uneven dyeing)

If you are a wood worker you can stain your woods with this dye.

If you are fortunate enough to have a Black Walnut tree or have access to one, allow nuts to ripen on the tree. The husk changes from solid green to yellowish green when ripe. Press on the skin of the walnut with your thumb. Ripe nuts show an indentation.

One gathers the large nuts in the fall, usually in September to mid-October. The dye is made from the husks, not the nuts themselves. You can save the nuts to process and use for other purposes if you like, but that does require extra effort. Remove the husks by cutting or crushing them off. If you have no need for the nutmeats, the whole nuts can be soaked to render the dye. Wear rubber gloves and protect surfaces to avoid splatters, as the dye will stain permanently if it comes into contact with something you didn't intend to dye. (I know of one woman who used to drive her car over the black walnuts to crush the shells.)

If you have the time and inclination, do save the nuts for cooking as Black Walnuts are not only good tasting, they are also good for you. They are low in saturated fats, have no cholesterol, and are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (the good fats) which can lower "bad" cholesterol levels (LDL) without damaging good cholesterol (HDL).

Black Walnuts also contain iron, minerals and fiber, and contain no sugar. They provide the nutritional benefits of tree nuts that are enjoyed in the now-popular and healthy Mediterranean diets.

Walnuts discolor when stored with husks attached and their flavor is ruined. Remember to wear gloves when removing husks because dye from the husks stains. Remove husks by applying pressure to the nut's ends. Pound side to side with a hammer while wearing safety glasses. Husks also can be softened in a container of water, then peeled. A third alternative is to place nuts in a hand-operated corn Sheller.

After hulling, rinse the nuts, preferably outdoors since nuts stain. Next, check for insect feeding by placing the nuts in water. Nuts without injury will sink.

For those of you, who compost, please remember this.  Do not compost walnut husks. Juglone, a chemical released by walnut trees, is toxic to some vegetables and plants.

If you are going to save the nuts and eat them please follow the curing directions.

Curing--The nuts must be cured. This prepares them for storage and allows flavor to develop. Stack the clean, hulled nuts in layers two or three nuts deep. Place them in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area, out of direct sunlight for two weeks. When nuts are dry enough to store, kernels break with a sharp snap. If cured improperly, mold forms.

After curing, store unshelled nuts in a well-ventilated area at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Cloth bags or wire baskets discourage mold. Keep the relative humidity fairly high, about 70 percent.

To shell nuts, soak them in hot water for 24 hours. Drain and soak again for two more hours. Cover the nuts with moist cloths until you're ready to crack the shells. Bake nuts at 215 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. If stored at room temperature, use within a few weeks. Shelled nuts can be refrigerated up to nine months. They can be frozen for up to two years.


There are many different ways to make your dye and here is a step by step recipe for one of them.

  1. Put the husks in a fabric bag or nylon stocking that will act as a strainer. Add just enough water to cover the husks and soak 3 days.
  2. Boil the husks for an hour or two, remove them from the heat and let them soak overnight. The next day, drain the liquid from the husks into another container and throw the husks away or store the stocking with husks in a plastic bag in the freezer to be used again.
  3. Strain the liquid to remove any solids.
  4. When you are ready to dye your materials, dampen them in clear water and then immerse them into the warm dye bath. Stir the pot frequently. Allow the material to steep until the color is deep enough.
  5. When you are finished, decant the dye into glass storage containers. The dye liquor is strong enough to eat through plastic containers if stored long term.
  6. Stain can be poured into a spray bottle and sprayed or painted onto a finished product, i.e. wood or basket splints. The liquid can sometimes get moldy. Vinegar can be added to the dye to inhibit mold growth. Keep the dye in the freezer to eliminate the problem of mold, if possible.

One could make black walnut tincture which can be used for many things. However, you would need an herbal tincture press.  I have read that the tincture is good for many things, such as fungus. Use externally and apply frequently.   Black walnut tincture can be applied on itching skin. This works especially well if the irritation is due to a fungus or similar invasion. It is also supposed to be good for lice and to build up potassium as for cysts and tumors.  Also mixed with parsley, wormwood and ground cloves, one can make a pretty good pet parasite cleaner.  

If you do not have an herbal tincture press, you might try the following to make your own Black Walnut Hull Tincture.  Again, in the fall, gather green hulls from the Black Walnut tree before they drop. Peel them (wear gloves as they stain) and place into a ½ gallon glass jar. Fill the jar as much as you want to and cover with alcohol. You can use any 40% proof or more alcohol: Vodka, whiskey etc. Let stand for 2-3 weeks and strain.

Used by Asians and American Indians, Black Walnut Bark has been used to expel various kinds of worms; used to kill ringworms and tapeworms.

Here is a recipe for Black Walnut Shea Soap.


4 oz grated soap

2 oz  shea butter

1 oz  olive oil

1 oz liquid soap (optional)

1 tsp black walnut shell powder  



Grate a 4 oz bar of soap (salad shooter works nicely, or for finer shavings, use a potato peeler). Put some soap shavings into an 8 oz container. Add shea butter, olive oil, and liquid soap as desired. Mix well with a fork or whatever you have to mush it all together - add in exfoliate (walnut shell powder)  Add more soap while mixing together to get desired consistency - I prefer a thick, almost creamy mixture. Put in the shower. Scoop and rub in circular motion to gently exfoliate and massage all while cleaning and moisturizing!!!

Black Walnut facial scrub

1/4 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup black walnuts (very finely grounded)

Mix ingredients together. Wet your face then gently work the scrub into your skin. Rinse off with warm water.  Keep excess in refrigerator.

Grinding up the black walnut shells will result in Walnut Grit and it is used as an abrasive material to blast paint off surfaces and is mixed in paints that are used on surfaces near water, such as floors around a pool or on a dock. The texture of the grit stops the surface from being slippery and keeps people from falling.

Black Walnut Ink

black walnut hulls (not the shells themselves, but the squishy outer coverings)




old sauce pan

fine cheesecloth

bottle with tight-fitting lid

NOTE: You may want to wear latex gloves while making this ink, to avoid stained fingers. Vinegar and salt will corrode your nibs; be aware and experiment with the ink without the salt & vinegar, or in lesser proportion.

Crush ten walnut hulls into small pieces with a hammer. Put into a sauce pan (one that you probably don't want) and cover with boiling water. Simmer until the water becomes dark brown.

 Add 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons vinegar to make it permanent. Strain through cheesecloth into your storage bottle. Keep tightly capped. You will end up with about 3 oz. of brownish-yellow ink, which may need to sit to allow sediment to settle. You will get the best results if you crush the hulls, throw them (still containing the nuts) into a pan of water and allow them to soak for as long as you can bear to wait-- the longer the better, as you can keep them soaking indefinitely-- then boiling the whole mess.

A little more basic information:  For medicinal purposes the Nut, Leaves, Bark, rind of the Fruit are used.

The leaves are used for iodine.  Also the leaves are used as an alterative [an agent capable of favorably altering or changing unhealthy conditions of the body and tending to restore normal bodily function, usually by improving nutrition] and an astringent [a binding agent that contracts organic tissue, reducing secretions or discharges of mucous and fluid from the body].  Plus they are used as a detergent [an agent that cleanses wounds and sores of diseased or dead matter].  Finally the leaves are used as a laxative [an agent promoting evacuation of the bowels; a mild purgative]

The bark can be used as alterative [an agent capable of favorably altering or changing unhealthy conditions of the body and tending to restore normal bodily function, usually by improving nutrition], or as an astringent [a binding agent that contracts organic tissue, reducing secretions or discharges of mucous and fluid from the body], or as a  laxative [an agent promoting evacuation of the bowels; a mild purgative] or purgative [an agent that produces a vigorous emptying of the bowels, more drastic than a laxative or aperient].  It can also be used as a styptic [an agent that contracts tissues; astringent; specifically,  and a hemostatic agent that stops bleeding by contracting the blood vessels] vermifuge [an agent to expel parasitic worms, especially of the intestines]

The rind can be used  as a hepatic [a drug that acts on the liver] or as a sudorific (when green) [an agent that promotes or increases perspiration].

A strong decoction of walnut leaves, painted around doorways and woodwork, will repel ants and the green husks make a yellow dye that is often used in hair dyes and in dyes for wood for furniture.

Well, Sandy, hopefully this information will be of some help to you.  Working with Black Walnut shells and husks is pretty hard work.  The nut meats are hard to get out, but their fine taste is worth the effort. Perhaps working with all the rest of the shells and hulls will give you a lot of satisfaction. Just be careful how you decide to use any of this information. 

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