There’s an adage that cherry is the wood that comes with a built-in stain. All you have to do is apply a clear topcoat and watch its rich color develop during the following years. Of course, that’s not what most people do. Cherry, which is currently the most popular wood for commercial cabinets, is almost always colored before it leaves the shop.
But as you probably know, that almost always makes trouble. Applying stain, gel stain or dye to the raw wood will typically result in ugly blotching. So commercial furniture factories will tone the wood instead by adding color in the topcoats applied to the sealed wood. This muddies the beautiful grain, and it makes us wonder why so many people like the wood and pay a premium. A clear topcoat on cherry looks anemic until the color develops , and even clear cherry can show some blotching in our experience.
A survey of finishing books uncovered a large number of tricks to speed up cherry’s aging process. (Or to mimic the aging process.) But the bottom line is that no one really knows for sure why cherry develops color when exposed to light and/or the atmosphere , we even consulted scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory who have studied the species.
But there is one thing that we could do to help. We could finish a bunch of boards using a variety of processes and find one that looked good most of the time and was relatively easy to do. So we tried drain cleaner, a wide variety of colored topcoats, oils and clear finishes. And we tried to accelerate the aging process by exposing some of the finished boards to varying amounts of sunlight.
And when we ran out of real sunlight (always a problem in Cincinnati), we went to the neighborhood tanning salon. Shown in the photo above is our photographer, Al Parrish, taking a quick photo of one of the test pieces during its time in the tanning bed.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole experience was that the staff at the tanning salon was completely unfazed by our request to put some wood in the tanning bed. How much did it cost? After Senior Editor David Thiel sweet-talked the staff, it was a free visit.
After we treated all the boards we lined them up in the shop under our color-corrected bulbs, and had the staff pick their favorites (the finishing schedule of each sample board was hidden). There was an immediate and clear winner among all the staff members , except Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick, who liked the board treated with drain cleaner.
Like all finishing schedules for cherry, ours isn’t perfect. But I think you’ll find the process we outline in the Spring 2006 issue straightforward, simple and sound.
– Christopher Schwarz