Wood Species Spotlight: American Black Cherry

In what I hope will be a regular series of posts, I am highlighting a single wood species and giving advice on selecting, buying, and working it.  This time it is one of my favorite woods to build with: Cherry.

Prunus serotina

Milled and Rough Cherry LumberThe Cherry tree has a wide range and there are many species under the genus Prunus that are commonly called Cherry.  For the most part, the species that furniture makers use is American Black Cherry, Prunus serotina.  And furniture is probably the most common use for Cherry.  It is not an exterior species and it’s medium hardness makes it a bit too soft for flooring so furniture and millwork for trim is where you will most commonly find it in use.  Since Europeans first set foot in North America the Cherry tree has been a popular hardwood.  While Walnut was being sent in great quantity to England for fine cabinetry, the humble Cherry or “poor man’s Mahogany” was kept on our shores and used for everyday furniture.  It is a species that is plentiful throughout the Ohio River valley and Appalachia so it is only natural that we see if pop up so much in furniture from the late 18th century and throughout the 19th Century.  Cherry is ubiquitous with the Shaker style and as this furniture style has become modernized into today, Cherry is the primary wood in play. One can expect to easily find Cherry in 6-8″ widths but wider pieces up to 12″ is also possible.  Width above this are rare and one can expect to find a fair amount of sap wood present at the edges.  Lengths are common in the 8-12′ range.

Working Properties

Fine joinery works great in CherryCherry has a Janka hardness of 950 making is similar to Walnut in hardness.  This is one of the most attractive things about the species as it isn’t so hard as to easily blunt your edge tools while still hard enough to hold fine details and make crisp joined edges for things like dovetails, half laps, and decorative treatments.  It will burn relatively easily when worked with power tools so constant feed rate is an absolute must.  Even then be prepared to clean up your table saw cuts with a hand plane or sanding.  Really Cherry works well with any technique or tooling and is easily one of the best woods to work for consistency and reliability.

Stability

Cherry has a great reputation for being a wood that once properly dried remains predictable and not prone to wide movement.  The tangential (across the grain) shrinkage is about 7% from season to season making it more stable than other domestic hardwoods like Poplar, Walnut, Oak, and Maple.

Appearance

Cherry Pitch Pockets

Pitch Pockets

Cherry has a very smooth and closed pore grain pattern.  The grain pattern could best be described as mellow without drastic striping or variation.

Dark pitch pockets can be found sporadically and usually just serve to add character.  When freshly milled Cherry is a light pink color that often startles people who are used to the “Cherry finish” from furniture stores that is a deep red.

Cherry Sapwood

Oxidized Cherry Sapwood

As Cherry oxidizes after cutting and with UV exposure it will deepen in color with much more brown emerging and a deep overall warmth.

Fresh Milled Cherry Sapwood

Fresh Milled Cherry Sapwood

The sap wood is a light creamy color that isn’t as noticeable in freshly milled stock but will quickly differentiate itself as the wood darkens over time.  Care must be taken when building your project to eliminate the sap wood unless a deliberate color change is desired.

Finishing

With such a smooth and close grain surface Cherry should be easy to finish.  However it gives many people difficulty as the softer fibers present will absorb oils at different rates giving the surface a blotchy look.  While some call this figure, others want a consistent color and sheen and a priming coat of Shellac is always a good idea to control some of the absorption and even out the color.  Of course other primer products can be used too in place of Shellac.

Figured Alternatives

Rough sawn curly Cherry

Rough sawn curly Cherry

Curly Cherry is surprisingly common.  The natural tendency to blotch during finishing is indicative of this species yearning to be curly.  Usually the curly is quite visible even in rough sawn lumber as the wavy grain pattern is prominent.

Crotch Figure Cherry Wood

Crotch Figured Cherry Panel

Crotch sections and even employing the sapwood and heartwood transition can be employed for a striking effect.  More unusual is the rare find of Birdseye Cherry and if you ever stumble across that, buy it.

Cherry is simply an outstanding wood to work and stunning when finished.  It is kind to your tools and a great place to start for the woodworking just getting started.  Costs are widely variable with common grades in the $2-3 per board foot range up to FAS grades in the $4-6 range.  If you haven’t worked with Cherry you are just missing out and need to remedy it on your next project!

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