Cherry is a favored wood among furniture builders for its deep richness and for the color that only seems to improve with age. It sands to a very smooth finish relatively easily and takes stain to adjust the color quite well.
In the United States, most cherry woods that are sold at fine wood suppliers are of the species known as American black cherry. This tree is commonly found in Pennsylvania, although it can be found in other areas of the northeastern United States, and to a lesser extent, in southeastern Ontario and southern Quebec.
It is a fruit-bearing tree, but unlike other fruit trees such as apple and pear, this specific species of fruit tree grows tall enough and straight enough that it can be harvested and cut into lumber.
When cherry is milled, it has a very distinct sapwood that is actually quite pale when first milled. The heartwood is a much darker color, but still not of the depth of color one typically associates with cherry. With exposure to the sun, cherry begins to show off the deep, rich color for which it is known, but the heartwood is always a darker color than the sapwood, and it is this inconsistency that gives cherry some of its most distinguishing (and challenging for a woodworker) character.
Unlike some woods (like softwoods such as the common SPF lumber that always seems to be almost dripping wet when delivered to the lumberyard), cherry must be dried slowly and methodically to help prevent warping or cupping.
When dried properly over time, allowing the wood to remain relatively flat and even, it becomes quite stable and easy to work with. Well-cured cherry can be as strong as maple and easier to work with than oak.
Cherry's stable nature, the ability to be cut, shaped and sanded without excessive chipping and the exquisite color that improves with age makes cherry one of the most revered woods for building wood furniture.
Working with Cherry
When buying cherry stock, look for boards with uniformity of color and as straight of stock as you can find. The straighter the stock, the more stable it is likely to be, but color may be a greater consideration, particularly if you plan to glue-up two or more boards to form a tabletop or other wide surface. Ideally, you'll want to align boards of similar color together to help mask the visibility of the joint.
When using a surface planer or jointer to smooth the boards, try to avoid cutting too deeply per pass. Think of cherry as a beautiful lady that needs to be finessed rather than being bullied, and you'll get better results. Also be sure to use very sharp saw blades when cutting cherry, as it burns easily. You won't want to damage such a beautiful stock with burn marks because you used a saw blade that wasn't sharp or was covered in pitch from a previous project.
One of the best attributes of this hardwood species is that it sands to a very smooth finish, a prerequisite for building fine furniture. The biggest key to remember when sanding cherry is that it scratches easily, so you really must sand with the grain. For rough sanding, you can use a random orbital sander, but you'll want to switch to hand sanding earlier than you would with other species as you move progressively through finer grits of sandpaper, always working with the grain to remove any scratch marks from previous grits of sandpaper.
Probably the most trying aspect of woodworking with cherry is the final stage, finishing the project. Finishing this species can pose some real challenges, in that it darkens with age, there is a dramatic difference in color between the sapwood and the heartwood, not to mention that it can stain unevenly. These problems can be exacerbated if you choose to mix solid cherry and cherry plywood on a project.
There are a number of options to finish this beautiful wood and allow it to age naturally. In my opinion, applying a stain followed by can be very protective, but tend to mask some of the character of the wood, which, in my opinion, kind of defeats the purpose.
On the other end of the scale, shellac or lacquer tend to show off the character of the wood but aren't nearly as protective.
For my money, if I'm going to lean toward more character for the color, I'd rather go with an all-natural oil finish, typically using either tung oil or boiled linseed oil. While they are more work than any of the other finishes mentioned, as well as taking much longer to dry between coats, I love the rich color that these wipe-on oil finishes give to cherry projects. Over time, the color will get darker and richer, only adding to the beauty of the project.