Cherry is an exclusive hardwood used to build furniture, cabinets and high-end woodworking projects. The majority of cherry lumber used by woodworkers comes from a single species, which is also referred to as black cherry or American cherry. The beauty, tradition and workability of cherry make it a valued resource for professionals and weekend woodworkers.
The Family Tree
Cherry wood is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae). Other members of the Rose family include varieties of fruit-bearing trees that include pears, apples, peaches, plums and apricots. Even though some woodworkers use fruitwood varieties for projects, cherry is the only member of the Rose family that produces lumber with adequate size and mass to be of any practical use in woodworking. Cherry is native to North America, ranging from southern Quebec to the mountains of Guatemala. Cherry trees (Prunus serotina) produce a dark, sweet fruit that is bitter when used in flavorings. The availability and growing range of cherry have made it exclusive to North American woodworkers. Cherry is not typically farmed like other lumber-producing trees; the majority of cherry lumber is harvested from wild, indigenous trees. Pennsylvania, New York and parts of West Virginia have developed a reputation for having the best cherry trees for lumber.
Cherry lumber is characterized by a creamy, reddish-brown color. Grain lines are less prominent than other hardwoods, with a mixture of straight grain intermixed with flame or figured patterns. The combination is consistent, with fewer wild patterns typically associated with other hardwoods, such as ash or oak. Pitch pockets, also referred to as gum spots, are the defining characteristic of cherry lumber. Widely scattered through the grain, the spots appear as black divots, short lines, flecks and liaisons. The gum spots, or pitch pockets, add character and texture to cherry lumber. Larger gum spots may need to be filled before finishing, but are not typically an issue.
The Shadow Effect
Cherry lumber, and to a lesser degree, finished cherry projects, react to light by darkening. Sometimes referred to as the "shadow effect," cherry lumber imprints objects when they are placed directly on it. For example, when pictures are removed from walls paneled with cherry, the shadow of the picture remains on the wall depending on how long the picture remained there. Care should be taken when stacking or storing cherry lumber. All pieces should have equal exposure to light to negate the shadow effect. Some lumber dealers offer steamed cherry, which is a process that aids in darkening the lumber before it's purchased.
Cherry ranks 950 on the Janka hardness scale. This is considered somewhat soft by hardwood standards -- red oak ranks 1,290 for example. The inherent softness can be considered an advantage; cherry is known as being one of the best all-around woods for workability. Its resiliency and resistance to chipping, splintering, cracking and splitting make cherry ideal as a veneer on plywood, cabinet-face frames, interior millwork, paneling, turnings and furniture. Cherry sands smooth and with a consistent finish, typically without the blotching often associated with other fine-grained hardwoods, such as maple. It accepts any type of stain readily, but many woodworkers prefer the natural color of cherry. The color and richness of cherry is further enhanced by a clear topcoat. Cherry wood is typically more expensive than other wood species harvested and grown domestically. Many woodworkers consider cherry the premium hardwood in the United States.
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