By Sal Marino
has been one of the most popular furniture woods for the past
two hundred years. It is one of the easiest hardwoods to work
with either hand, machine or power tools and has a nice smell
Another reason for its popularity is that it darkens and develops
a beautiful deep red patina over time.
When cherry is freshly cut, milled into boards and dried,
it has a very light pinkish color. The color also varies,
sometimes even within the same board. It is only after a number
of years that it starts to develop its deep red color. Years
ago, furniture makers sometimes tried to stain cherry to achieve
the aged color immediately, but the majority was left unstained
to darken naturally.
Then, about 50 years ago, cherry furniture became very popular
and manufactures were building a great deal of it. One of
the first problems the manufactures discovered was that when
they tried to stain the cherry, it did not take stain very
evenly. Instead of staining, they applied a toned finish.
They found out that adding color to the lacquer or varnish
instead of directly staining the cherry would somewhat eliminate
the problem of an uneven color.
Regardless of the materials or technique used, staining cherry
is still difficult. The highly figured swirl grain often seen
in cherry is what makes it difficult to accept stain evenly.
The grain density in this swirl figure varies from soft to
hard, therefore the soft areas will soak up a stain while
the hard areas will not make the stain penetrate well. The
end result is a blotchy, uneven color.
Even if you are successful in achieving a uniform deep red
color, it will not last. As the cherry naturally ages, it
will become darker and eventually, the color may be too dark
due to the stain you applied and the natural darkening. This
will happen more quickly especially if you use dye satins.
The safest way to achieve a deep red natural cherry color
without any chance of blotching or the wood becoming too dark
is to let mother nature do her work. However, like many of
us today, often I do not want to, or cannot wait for this
to happen. Therefore, I have a couple of suggestions and finishing
techniques you can try out.
Stain With Polyurethane Finish.
staining a wood like cherry that does not take stain evenly,
it's best to use a stain that is heavy in pigment. Pigmented
stains are more resistant to ultra violet light than dyes
are and it is UV light from the sun that causes the cherry
to darken with age. Therefore, the chance of the wood becoming
too dark over time (due to the stain and the natural darkening
process) is reduced. Also, if you use a pigmented stain,
you will not have to worry about the hard and soft areas
of the cherry accepting stain evenly, because a pigmented
stain sits on the surface as opposed to penetrating like
a dye, therefore it will give you more of a uniform color.
The best type of pigmented stain for woods that don't take
stain evenly is a gel stain. There are several good gel
stains on the market, check your local supplier.
wood with 80 (coarse), 120 (medium) and 220 (fine) sandpaper.
gel stain by wiping it onto surface. Remove excess before
stain starts to set up and become too hard to wipe down.
Then, leave at least 12 hours to dry.
Coat. Take some polyurethane and thin it down 50 percent
with paint thinner or gum turpentine. This is a 1 to
1 ratio. Use this as a sealer and apply two coats letting
each coat dry 6 to 8 hours between coats.
the sealer coats. After the second coat of sealer has
dried thoroughly at least 12 hours, sand it very lightly
using 320 grit sandpaper. Make sure you remove all the
dust after you sand.
2 to 3 coats of full strength polyurethane making sure
to let each coat dry overnight and sanding lightly with
320 grit paper in between coats. If after applying 3
coats, the sheen does not look even, apply additional
Toned Lacquer Finish For Cherry Wood.
a tinted topcoat or toned lacquer.
color to the topcoat finish you are going to apply is another
way to decrease the amount of sploching in cherry. In addition
to adding color, you can also use a satin topcoat and rub
it out after the last coat has cured. This will produce
a finish that is not only more uniform in color but also
in sheen. Use this method only if you do not wish to have
a gloss finish.
There are a number of topcoats you can use.
If you want to use oil based varnish or polyurethane, you
can tint any oil based finish with Japan Colors. Japan Colors
can be purchased at any local art supply store or through
mail order woodworking companies.
If you prefer spraying finishes, you can use nitrocellulose
spraying lacquer and also tint with Japan Colors. When finishing
small projects like boxes, clocks or musical instruments,
you can purchase nitrocellulose spraying lacquer already
tinted in aerosol cans. These are called toners and are
available in many colors. You can purchase toners through
woodfinishing supply companies or from mail order woodworking
wood with 80 (coarse), 120 (medium) and 220 (fine) sandpaper.
Sealer. If you are going to use an oil based varnish
or polyurethane tinted with Japan Colors, take some
of the un-tinted finish and reduce it 50 percent with
mineral spirits or gum turpentine. Use this as a sealer
and apply one coat. Let dry overnight. If you are going
to use spraying lacquers, (either toner in aerosol cans
or tinted lacquer), apply one coat of lacquer sanding
sealer. Let dry two hours. Sanding sealer is also available
from woodworking supply companies.
Sealer. After the sealer has dried, sand lightly with
320 grit paper and wipe off dust.
several coats of tinted finish One or two coats of tinted
finish or toner should be enough to give you the color
you need. Sand lightly between coats with 320 paper.
Satin Topcoats. Apply two to three coats of clear satin
finish. If you are using varnish or polyurethane, make
sure it is a good quality satin finish and that you
stir the finish before applying. Spraying lacquers are
also available in clear satin even the aerosol type.
Make sure you sand lightly with 320 grit paper in between
Out Finish. After applying the last coat of clear satin,
let the finish dry completely depending on temperature,
humidity, the amount of coats you have applied and how
thick each coat was. This may take up to a few weeks,
but usually 3 days to one week is good. It's always
good to wait as long as you can before rubbing out the
finish. Rubbing out the finish removes any little dust
nibs trapped in the finish and also gives you a super
smooth and fine surface. Use 600 grit silicon carbide
wet or dry sandpaper (this is the black colored paper
used for auto body repair) with rubbing oil or mineral
oil to rub the finish. Apply some oil to the surface
and sand with the grain. Periodically wipe off the surface
to inspect the sheen. Low areas appear as shiny spots.
Apply more oil and continue to sand until you achieve
a uniform sheen. When you are done, clean the surface
with a cloth LIGHTLY DAMPENED with some mineral spirits
a coat of high quality paste wax and buff it out after
it has hazed over. I use Briwax. It is available in
clear, light brown, dark brown, antique mahogany and
other colors. If you are satisfied with the color after
you are done, use the clear, if you wish to make the
color a little darker, use one of the colored ones.
Briwax and other products listed in this article can
be purchased through:
is a woodworker
and a finishing expert from New York. He works for Constantine's.
He teaches woodworking classes at Constantine's, offers private
instruction, lectures around the United States and is a finishing
consultant to many woodworking and restoration companies.
He is also the author of numerous woodworking articles.