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Cherry Lumber | An Exotic American Hardwood or a Second Rate Wood Species?
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Black cherries from the tree that makes the exotic hardwood cherry lumber As American as 1776, black cherry lumber is one of our most coveted furniture-grade hardwoods. But is it truly an exotic hardwood or a species that, as some argue, should be shunned and ignored?

Cherry lumber has been one of my favorite kinds of wood ever since I first smelled it being machined in my father’s cabinet shop. Its pungent and distinctively fruity smell is just one of the pleasures that accompanies the working of this durable and beautiful hardwood. Cherry, in my mind, is nearly the perfect hardwood for furniture and cabinetry. Its natural color is rich but not too dark. It is a “Goldilocks” wood in terms of its hardness — that is to say, not too hard (like hickory) and not too soft (like poplar or alder) — in other words, it is just right. It machines easily, glues up well and, when first treated with a coat of linseed oil to help pop the grain, it looks spectacular with just a clear finish applied.

I am, in fact, such a fan of this wood that I am flabbergasted that some woodworkers shun cherry as a second-rate species. They don’t like the fact that cherry darkens over time as it is exposed to light. Some folks don’t like the characteristic black pitch pockets and tiny pin knots that are allowed in top quality cherry lumber. The most common complaint is that cherry burns easily as it is ripped, routed and shaped.

Beautiful Flaws
Cherry lumber ready for use in your woodworking projects. Cherry Lumber filled with "beautiful flaws" and ready to make furniture, cabinetry, or other woodworking projects.

My response to these naysayers is that, with the notable exception of the burning characteristic, the beauty of cherry lumber is actually created by the combination of all of its quirks and qualities. The pitch pockets and pin knots add detail and texture to the figure of the wood. The darkening over time adds a richness to the patina of the wood that is entirely pleasing to my aesthetics.

And cherry is not a one-act wood. Naturally growing cherry produces a variety of figure and grain patterns that give woodworkers an array of options to choose from. Curly figured cherry is not uncommon and combines the best qualities of curly maple and the hues of cherry. Quartersawn cherry presents a more subdued overall figure — a lovely, subtle “silk” pattern that runs across the width of the boards. Flatsawn cherry, one of the few flatsawn lumbers I like to recommend, has pin knots and pitch pockets to add a dimension of texture that lifts it out of the plain-jane category.

I am not alone in my high regard of cherry lumber. Our Colonial fathers often used cherry as a furniture wood. Many wonderful antiques that show off the beauty of old-growth cherry still exist, testifying to its popularity and durability. And, in an example of “that which is old is new again,” cherry lumber’s use in kitchen cabinetry has become very popular in recent years. That is good news for us home woodworkers, as the supply of cherry veneer-covered sheetstock is readily accessible. You can even request the veneer figure you desire — quartersawn or plain-sliced, for example — to avoid the rolled veneer look often common in hardwood plywood. You would likely need to go to a lumberyard that works regularly with cabinet shops to find it, but it will be well worth the effort.

posted on February 1, 2009 by Rob Johnstone
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