I've never worked with it before, and was wondering if it would be a wood that could be worked by hand?
Yes, absolutely. Black walnut isn't really all that hard of a wood, comparatively. Looking at Janka hardness testing, black walnut is about 1010 pound-force. By comparison, basswood is about 410 and purpleheart is 1860.
I would consider purpleheart very hard to carve. Also, purpleheart is siliceous, meaning that it has silicon particles naturally present in the wood. These dull tools fast. Walnut, as far as I know, does not have these compounds.
Some tips from WOOD Magazine on carving walnut:
Walnut works best for sculptures and large figures with simple lines, or signs and relief carvings. If you do select walnut for a carving project, remember these tips:
- Deep cuts along the grain may cause the wood to pop out.
- Walnut's grain varies from very open to almost closed, depending on where it grew. Each performs differently. Open-grain walnut carves easier. Closed-grain walnut may be more difficult to carve, but it takes a finer finish.
I find that black walnut machines very well with hand tools and will take a good finish.
And is it the type of wood that is going to dull my tools so that I'll need to resharpen them ever few minutes if I do?
Every few minutes? Probably not, unless you're hogging out a ton of material very rapidly or your tools are made of crap steel. With any carving, you'll have to touch up the tool edges with a strop once you notice they're cutting slower, but that's all part of the fun. You'll have to hone more frequently than with basswood, but not to such an extent that it's annoying.
I've recently been offered some black walnut lumber for free.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Take the wood! Black walnut is one of my favorites, and even if you don't carve it, I'm sure you can find other uses for it.