Tanning Beds: The Final Frontier for Finishing Cherry? | Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Wood Finishing

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

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Showing 3 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz


    Sorry for your trouble. The joints might come back together when you return them inside, but the damage has been done. I think the best solution is to rip them apart at the glue line (I’d use a band saw) and then try gluing them again.

    You could try your solution with CA glue, but it’s not really all that strong a solution.

    My guess here is that your panels might have had some moisture in them. When they sat out in the sun, the moisture migrated quickly out of the end grain, splitting the ends. Returning them to the shop may or may not return them to their original state. It depends on how much moisture was in them in the first place.

    If your panels were a little wet this was probably going to happen anyway.

    Sorry I don’t have any good solutions here for you.

  • Mike

    Hey Chris,

    The woodworking gods turned on me today.

    I followed the finishing process as described in the spring 2006 issue on some cherry panels. i am finishing these panels before gluing up a frame and panel style bed.

    The coat of BLO went well but leaving the 6 panels out in the sun proved disastrous. The glue lines came apart down to about 3 inches from each edge. And i almost cried.

    The panels came right out of my garage shop and into the sun. I left them in the sun for around 4 hours until i noticed the splits and brought them inside. I’m suspecting i should have let them acclimate somewhere (not sure where?) before placing them directly in the sun. I’m also suspecting that my panel glue up wasn’t ideal. I gang planed them with a #7 and the edges seemed as tight as possible before glue up. Maybe they weren’t quite as tight as i thought.

    Any ideas where i went wrong, and if i can somehow salvage these panels? i was thinking of dropping some CA glue into the splits and clamping them down.

    Toronto, ON

  • John Clifford

    OK Chris if I promise to buy the Spring 2006 issue will you tell me your "secret" recipe for cherry. I’m woking on some furniture for my wife/our home and will be done with the current cherry pieces long before the next issue comes out. I promise I won’t tell a soul. You can e-mail me, it’d be our little secret. Well, it was worth a shot. I have all of the issues so far and can’t wait for a more regular/frequent publication. In the meantime Woodworking has become one of my two favorite magazines. If I were to tell you the other you’d probably get a big head. And by the way, thanks for the free issue at this year’s Galootapalooza, glad you could come out. Keep up the good work. John.


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