Woodsense: Spotlight on Cherry

A wonderful wood that’s worth a little extra work

Does cherry (Prunus serotina) need an introduction? Colonial cabinetmakers first substituted this homegrown hardwood for mahogany. Years later, cherry played prominent roles in Shaker and Arts and Crafts furniture. Today, the wood continues to add dazzle to contemporary design. Woodworkers know that cherry’s beauty is more than just skin deep. Cherry’s characteristics make it wonderful to work by hand or with power tools. Not surprisingly, the demand for the rose-colored wood means that prices for select stock remain high, but thankfully, there’s no shortage on the horizon.

Despite its many attributes, cherry poses a few challenges. Few other woods are so demanding from start (selection) to finish. Here’s how to avoid a few of the pits.

Where the wood comes from

North American black cherry primarily grows in the eastern half of the United States. The largest trees are found in the Appalachian and Allengheny mountains of Pennsylvania and New York. But thanks to distribution help from migrating birds who eat the fruit, cherry trees can found from Canada to Florida.

Cherry will often take root when an area returns to forest after logging, farming, or a forest fire. A tree will grow rapidly at first, but as the forest matures, it eventually loses out to taller-growing species, like maple and oak.

Cherry Quick Take

DENSITY Moderate
USES Furniture, casework, trim, carvings, turnings, musical instruments

How to select the best stock

Success with cherry starts with good wood. Some of these problems are easy to see (as shown, above), but others won’t appear until you’re making sawdust. Air-dried lumber can be less expensive, but it may host wood-eating organisms. Kiln-dried lumber is a safer bet, since the heat kills these critters and makes wood less palatable by lowering moisture content.

Some problems occur in the kiln. Speeding up the drying process (cherry needs 2× more time in the kiln than poplar) can lead to checking, honey combing (cracks within a board) and case-hardening (boards that warp when you make the first cut). Your best defense is sticking with a reliable supplier.

Good wood has cosmetic problems that will need to be cut out or culled. Most boards contain a few streaks of gum or pitch (cherry’s natural defense against infestation), but larger pockets should be avoided. Mineral streaks, the dark bands that run with the grain, can occur when a tree absorbs minerals from the surrounding soil. If you’re matching boards for a top or panel, you may need to wait for another batch. Sapwood may not be a defect, but long wide streaks of white sapwood can affect design. And since it won’t darken like heartwood, the contrast will only increase over time. In response, cherry is sometimes graded with heartwood/sapwood percentages. If you’re buying boards sight unseen, ask your supplier about how their wood is graded.

Even the best boards come in a range of reds. Purchasing boards from the same tree is a good start, but variations can occur within the same log. For the best color match, compare boards side by side. Wiping down the wood with mineral spirits will help reveal color.

Working cherry in the shop

Cherry is slightly softer, and easier to work, than maple or oak, but it’s sufficiently hard for case goods and trim. It’s also surprisingly supple, making it a good choice for steam-bent projects, such as Shaker boxes. Cherry’s smooth texture makes it ideal for carving, although its brittleness does cause it to chip more than some other woods.

The resin that helps turn the wood red makes cherry quick to burn when a bit, blade, or bearing lingers in one spot for too long, so take care to keep boards moving on the tablesaw, and don’t let your router stall in mid-pass. Cherry sands easily, but use fresh abrasives, and do not to let a sander linger, or else you may scorch the wood.

What to watch out for

Finishing cherry

Cherry’s best color comes with time, so the safest bet is to simply apply a clear finish and watch your work mature to a deep, reddish brown. Most of the color comes within the first two years. To avoid ghost-like imprints from direct sunlight, leave surfaces free of objects for the first six months.

Cherry’s tendency to blotch means that even your most reliable oil-or film-finish may not be foolproof. To counter this tendency, you can test, sand and/or seal as explained in Simple Solutions, below).

Staining cherry is particularly tricky. Gel stains or dyes work better than pigment-based stains, but to be safe, seal the wood with a washcoat of shellac to even out the wood’s absoption properties. A washcoat will reduce color intensity, so plan on applying an additional coat of gel, or mixing a more concentrated dye. Realize that because cherry darkens over time, stained sapwood will eventually reveal itself.

Simple Solutions

As woods go, few are both as friendly and fickle as cherry. Here are two problems you’re likely to encounter, tips for avoiding them, and advice for making the fix when the damage is done.

Scorch marks. Use sharp, clean cutters, and quick, light passes to minimize heat build-up. To remove burns left by a bit, adjust the depth and take a super-light final pass. Alternatively, scrape the trouble spot clean, and then finish-sand.

Blotches. Wipe the wood with mineral spirits or denatured alcohol to reveal blotch-prone areas. For minor blotching, finish-sand through 400 grit. In severe cases, seal the wood with a 1-lb. cut of dewaxed shellac. When dry, lightly sand with 320 grit and then apply a finish.

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