Tips for Finishing Cherry
Tips for Finishing Cherry
Oil it, spray it, shellac it, or glaze it.
This is how to make cherry look great.
By Tim Johnson
Cherry is gorgeous wood, but as
you’ve probably discovered, it can be
nasty to finish. Cherry boards come in
all different colors, its sapwood and
heartwood don’t match, it can look
really blotchy and it darkens as it ages.
Take advantage of my 30+ years
of experience with cherry. Here’s
everything I’ve learned about choosing
lumber, getting rich color and a uniform
Color varies from
board to board
To make finishing easier, choose
boards that look the same. Some suppliers
sell boards from the same tree
together, to ensure a good match. Usually,
though, you’ll be on your own.
If you plan to use solid cherry
along with cherry plywood, stand the
solid stock against the veneer in good,
natural light, so you can compare the
colors. Wetting the surfaces with mineral
spirits is another way to get a true
indication of color.
If you can’t find enough boards of
the same color for your entire project,
group similar ones together for the
various parts. Everyone will see that single offcolored
board in the top, but no one
will notice if one side of a cabinet is a
slightly different color than the other.
Cherry’s color deepens from a pale
pinkish-tan to a deep red-brown as a
result of its exposure to air and light.
The color change is so rapid at first
that within hours, a partially covered
board can develop a shadow line that
can be hard to sand out. It’s important
to keep freshly planed boards either
completely covered or completely
After the first couple of weeks,
darkening becomes more gradual.
Most finishes will slow cherry’s color
change, especially ones with UV
blockers (check the label), but they
don’t stop it. At first, linseed and tung
oil finishes give cherry a deeper, richer
appearance than film-forming finishes
like shellac, lacquer and polyurethane. But after a year or so,
they’ll all look pretty much the same.
If you want to give cherry a dark
color right away, don’t use oil stain. It
colors cherry’s pores and makes it look
unnatural. Sealing the surface and then applying coats of colored glaze is the way to go.
The difference between cherry’s white
sapwood and rosy-tan heartwood
becomes more distinct over time. The
heartwood darkens, but the sapwood
doesn’t. The best way to deal with
sapwood is to cut it off, but it can be
finished to blend with the heartwood.
Thirsty spots and
Most cherry boards contain extraabsorbent
spots and pockets of curly
figure that are more distracting than
spectacular. With both “problems,”
finishing results in a mottled
appearance. To some, this is part of
cherry’s inherent beauty; to others, it
just looks blotchy. Before you choose a
finish, check your boards for mottling
by wiping them with mineral spirits.
Choosing a finish
There are two types of finishes for
sealing and protecting wood: Those
that dry to a hard film and those that
Film-forming finishes can be
applied by wiping, brushing or
spraying. Each layer you apply builds
the thickness of the film. Finishes made
from drying oils soak into the wood’s
pores, but don’t harden enough to
form a surface film.
They have to be wiped, because
you can’t leave any on the surface. On
cherry, drying oil finishes emphasize
a mottled appearance. Film-forming
finishes, like shellac, lacquer and
polyurethane, minimize it. Polyurethane
disguises mottling and curly
figure the best, but it gives cherry less
depth than shellac or lacquer.
Simple Steps for a French Polish
Wipe-On Drying Oil Finish
Tung oil and boiled linseed oil soak
into the wood, lodging in even the
tiniest pores. This makes cherry’s superabsorbent
spots and curly figure stand
out. The deep-amber color of these oils
amplifies the effect. If you like mottled
cherry, use a drying oil finish.
Wipe-ons are the most worry-free
finishes to apply. They’re dust-free and
you don’t have to contend with drips,
sags, or brush marks. Wiping can be
tedious work, though, and you’ll have
to safely dispose of oil-soaked rags.
Brush, pour or rub the oil on the
wood, according the manufacturer’s
directions. These finishes are usually
rather thick, but heating them makes
them less syrupy and easier to apply
(photo at right). Wipe all excess oil
from the surface. After the first coat is
completely dry, smooth the surface
with very fine sandpaper or steel wool
and apply a second coat. Once the
wood has a uniform sheen, additional
coats aren’t necessary.
Most wipe-on finishes are blends of
oil and varnish, so they’re actually film-forming
finishes (see Sources, below). These blends also
contain solvents to make them easy
to apply and driers to make them dry
quickly. Wear gloves, a respirator and
maintain adequate ventilation.
Pure drying-oil finishes contain
only tung oil or linseed oil (see Sources). They have
no added driers or solvents, so they’re
safer to use, but they dry very slowly.
As boiled linseed oil dries it can
generate enough heat to cause a
pile of oil-soaked rags to catch fire
spontaneously. Spread the rags out to
dry, allowing plenty of air circulation
around each one (I take them outside!).
It’s okay to throw the stiff, dried rags in
Sprayed-On Film Finish
Finishes that harden into a film
minimize cherry’s mottled appearance
because they have much less color than
drying oils, and they don’t soak in as
much. The first coat of a film-forming
finish seals the wood, so successive coats
lay on top of each other. Each new coat
thickens the finish film.
Spraying these finishes from an
aerosol can is fast and convenient.
It’s great for getting into corners and
covering intricate shapes. Spraying also
eliminates brush stokes, and no brushes
or rags makes cleanup simple. But, you
do have to deal with overspray and nasty
You can find shellac, lacquer and
polyurethane in aerosol cans (see Sources). I think
shellac and lacquer look the best on
cherry. Oil-based polyurethane dries the
slowest, but it’s the most durable. You
can get a good-looking, durable finish
by following an initial sealcoat of shellac
with topcoats of polyurethane. Don’t use
waterborne poly. It leaves cherry looking
pale and parched.
The secret with aerosol spray is to go
easy. Sanding off drips
and sags from one heavy coat takes a lot
more time than spraying and sanding
two light coats. Wear a respirator and
maintain adequate ventilation any time
you spray an aerosol finish. Here are
some guidelines for aerosol spraying:
1. Keep the nozzle perpendicular to
the surface and spray from a consistent
distance, between 8″ and 10″ away.
2. Move the can at a steady rate. Start
spraying before you reach the surface
and don’t stop until you’re past it.
3. Move your project around (you
may even want to turn it upside down)
to get the best spraying angle. You can
spray up and down as well as side to side.
4. Spray tough-to-reach areas first
and areas that are most visible last.
5. Sand between coats with 280 grit
or finer paper.
6. Use a new can for the final coat.
Then you won’t have to worry about
a nozzle that spits because it’s dirty or
running out of finish.
An aerosol tip that sprays in a wide
fan pattern is less likely to leave sags
and runs. Just look at the nozzle. If it’s
round, it sprays a cone pattern; if it’s
rectangular, it sprays a fan. You can adjust
fan-type nozzles to spray horizontally
or vertically. Cans with fan-spray
nozzles cost may more, but
they’re worth every penny.
Shellac and Glaze
The versatile shellac and glaze
process is my favorite finish for cherry.
It allows you to add color wherever
it’s needed, in a spot, or over the
entire piece. It also helps to blend
mismatched cherry boards or plywood
and solid cherry. It disguises
light-colored sapwood and hides
mottling and unwanted curly figure.
You can use it to make new cherry
look older, because each coat of glaze
deepens the color.
The technique is simple. First,
apply a thin coat of shellac (Step
1). Sand it lightly, apply the colored
glaze (thinned burnt umber artists’ oil
color—more on this later) and wipe
it off. That’s it. Because the shellac has
sealed the wood, the color goes on
evenly, without making the surface
look muddy. Once you’re satisfied with
the color, topcoat with polyurethane.
If you have serious color
mismatches to deal with, two-stage
coloring may work best. Put a coat
of golden-brown-colored dye on the
unfinished cherry, before the shellac (see Sources). It tempers the
color differences so they’re easier to
blend with glaze.
I like to brush shellac, but you
can spray it, too. Sand each coat with
280-grit sandpaper (shellac takes
about an hour to dry). Sand evenly and
carefully, because glaze will accentuate
any scratches and leave a dark line
wherever you cut through the shellac.
Glaze is nothing more than thinned
paint. I make glazes using artists’ oil
colors (Step 2). Artists’ oils (see Sources) contain very finely ground
pigments, so they don’t look muddy,
and you can match just about any
wood by mixing colors. Liquid glazing
medium (see Sources) makes
the oil color spread evenly and dry
Once you apply the glaze, you have
plenty of time to work with it before it
dries (Steps 3 and 4). It’s also reversible
(Step 5). Once the glaze is dry
(overnight, in good conditions), you
can deepen the color with a second
coat, add additional glaze selectively
to camouflage bad spots or highlight
details, or finish with polyurethane.
As with other finishes, cherry will
continue to darken underneath the
glaze, although you’ll hardly notice it.
(Note: Source information may have changed since the original publication date.)
Drying Oil Finishes:
Woodcraft, woodcraft.com, 800-225-1153, Tried & True Varnish Oil, #126857, $30 per qt.; Pure Tung Oil, #07S31, $20 per qt.; Tried & True Danish Oil (pure polymerized linseed oil), #126859, $14 per qt.
Aerosol Spray Finishes:
Hardware stores and home centers, $6 to $10 per 12-oz. can.
Sealcoat Universal Sealer:
Rustoleum, rustoleum.com, 800-323-3584, Zinsser SealCoat Universal Sanding
Sealer, $13 per qt.
Artists’ Oil Colors:
Winsor & Newton, winsornewton.com, 800-445-4278, Artist Oil Burnt Umber, $11 per 37-ml tube; Artist Oil Raw
Sienna, $11 per 37-ml tube.
Liquin Liquid Medium:
Winsor & Newton, winsornewton.com, 800-445-4278, Liquin Original, $9 per 75-ml bottle.
Homestead Finishing Products, homesteadfinishingproducts.com, 216-631-5309, TransTint Dye Golden-Brown,
#6002, $16.50 per 2-oz. bottle.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April 2002, Issue #93.
Click on any image to view a larger version.
Wipe-On Drying Oil Finish
Oil finish gives cherry a rich tone, because of its amber color, but the results are unpredictable. Cherry often absorbs oil unevenly,
and parts that absorb a lot of oil look darker. The result is a mottled appearance. You’ll either see this as part of cherry’s appealing
character or as unattractive blotches.
Warm oil finish in a bath of hot tap water to make it easier to apply. Keep the oil warm by occasionally changing the water. Note: Never heat finishes on your stove.
Sprayed-On Film Finish
Film-forming finish keeps cherry from looking blotchy, but doesn’t significantly enhance its tone. The cherry becomes richer
looking on its own, as it ages under the finish. Within a year, it reaches a pretty coppery color.
It’s easy to get in corners with aerosols
because there’s no brushing or wiping.
Spray and sand between each coat.
Shellac and Glaze
Shellac and glaze adds rich color and minimizes blotching. Shellac seals the wood so the glaze, which is thinned oil paint, adds
color evenly. You can wipe the glaze hard, or feather it, leaving more in some spots than others. Glaze is great for disguising light
1. Seal the surface with dewaxed shellac
(see Sources, below). On cherry, a single
thin coat (2 lb. cut) allows some glaze to
lodge in the pores. This looks odd to me,
because cherry’s pores aren’t naturally
dark. Two thin coats, sanded between,
keeps color out of the pores.
2. Make your own glaze by mixing burnt
umber artists’ oil color and liquid glazing
medium into a medium-bodied paste.
You can get both at art supply or craft
stores. Don’t go overboard—a little glaze
goes a long way.
3. Cover the sealed surface with glaze. It
doesn’t matter how you apply it or if you
miss a few spots. Wiping evens things
4. Use two rags for wiping, one that’s fairly
loaded with glaze and another that’s
fairly clean. Between the two you can
feather the glaze however you want.
5. Mineral spirits remove glaze. If your
glaze doesn’t look right, you can take it
off (before it dries) and try again.