Cherry is one of the most – if not the most – popular choices for new cabinets, and a perennial favorite for furniture. It machines easily, is relatively inexpensive, and best of all, it can be a real knock-out when it's finished well. But the rich, reddish-brown colors and subtle shifts in tone that the species is famous for won't necessarily just "happen" when you spread on any old wood finish: Finishing cherry to its best advantage takes a little finesse. And there are a couple of aesthetic decisions along the way. Is the lighter, cream-colored sapwood "bad"? Should you try to blend it in with stain? There's the "pre-aging" question, too. Cherry darkens considerably with exposure to light. Should you try to speed the process up chemically, or by coloring the wood?
If you're nearing the end of your first project in this not-so-easy to finish species, you might want to read-up. Here are a few thoughts to get you started: A short while back, a Women in Woodworking Forum member was looking for advice on how to deal with sapwood, a good pre-aging choice, and how to do it all while staying away from VOCs. She was thinking lye for the darkening and pure tung oil as a low VOC final finish. In her response, woodworking author Carol Reed covered the ins and outs of the process, giving lye a thumbs down in favor of giving the wood a "sun tan". She liked the oil idea, though, with the caveat that oil as a final finish probably isn't the best choice for a set of cabinets destined for a rough and tumble (and wet) kitchen life. Here's the recipe she suggests:
"What to do? I'd avoid sap wood as much as possible. I'd stain sap wood if I needed to, but I would expect less than optimal long term results. I'd oil, and allow the oil to completely dry, (month or more), or a few days and then coat with Sealcoat (a shellac product). The spray with the same finish as the rest of the woodwork. The Sealcoat will allow the poly to stick."
Finishing expert Sal Marino has an excellent article on finishing cherry posted on Woodworking.com. He covers the basics and walks through a couple of the most common cherry-specific methods in detail. For the intricately detailed preferences and experiences of dozens of wood finishers, head for Woodweb's Knowledge Base. The "Cherry Color After Aging" discussion, for example, provides a sampling of opinion on the "to age or not to age" question, and on various methods of dealing with cherry's tendency to darken over time. If you haven't already, you might consider adding a finishing book to your library. Many, like Jeff Jewitt's Great Wood Finishes, have entire sections devoted to finishing and aging cherry. And when you're ready to get started, you'll all the finishing supplies you need at Rockler.