Cherry wood is one of my favourite timbers, both visually and to work with. It has incredible colour, varying from a light pink to warm red, cuts beautifully, shapes amazing well in the workshop and polishes to a stunning finish. Its use is mostly on value-added items such as cabinets, furniture, panelling, toys, handles and veneers.
Cherry, or Black Cherry as its often called, is photo-reactive or photosensitive which means the wood gradually darkens over time, finishing in an appealing deep cherry red, creating warm and elegant pieces of furniture.
Known for its beautiful satiny smooth texture, delicate grain pattern, moderate natural lustre and most notably, the rich reddish-brown patina that develops over time, cherry wood is the perfect timber for a special stand-out piece of furniture.
History of cherry wood
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) was abundant when the first settlers came ashore in the New World and Colonial furniture makers called cherry “New England Mahogany” because of its tendency to turn dark red-brown after exposure to sunlight. Cherry’s arrival in Europe was first recorded in 1629.
Like all fruit trees, the cherry tree is a member of the rose family and has been used throughout America’s history for more than just beautiful solid wood furniture. Black cherry has a variety of nicknames—choke cherry, rum cherry, whiskey cherry, and wild cherry—all due to the use of its small, bitter, dark purple fruit as a flavouring in jellies, and drinks, such as the potent “cherry bounce” (a highly favoured, but bitter cordial). Extractions from its bark have also long been an ingredient in medicines for bronchitis and coughs.
Today, cherry trees are mostly grown in the Northern and Great Lake states and, fortunately, the wide distribution of the seeds of its fruit by birds ensures a ready supply. Crowded Cherry trees can grow to between 60 – 80 feet, have a relatively short rotation and mature faster than other hardwoods; these trees regenerate amazing well and naturally after forest fires, making cherry timber a very sustainable wood.
The Black Cherry tree produces small white petalled flowers in spring, giving rise to reddish-black berries, a favourite of birds, who strip the cherries from the cherry tree in my garden every year.
What makes cherry good for furniture making?
Cherry makes the ideal cutting board material because it checks all of the appropriate boxes: it’s dense enough to be durable under heavy use but soft enough to keep knives sharp. It boasts great workability (mainly due to its straight-grained qualities) and because it’s derived from an edible fruit tree, it’s toxin-free and suitable for food contact surfaces.
Cherry hardwood is more affordable than walnut wood, more workable than maple and oak, and is fairly rare in the sense that it is not harvested as often as other types of wood. Its flexibility, durability, sustainability and array of colours and patterns make cherry one of the most versatile woods to use in a range of high-end applications.
Like myself, the Shakers tended to favour cherry wood – hard and resilient, it’s a material perfect for well-used (and loved) furniture. Consequently, it was one of the most commonly used woods for Shaker furniture; rich in colour, strong and more readily available in the local communities.
In fact, cherry was the material of choice for Pleasant Hill, Home to the third-largest Shaker community in the United States between 1805 and 1910, and many other shaker communities in the US.
Revered for its figure and its photo-reactivity, the elegant look of cherry wood combined with the simplicity of Shaker furniture created a truly timeless match. Shaker furniture was purely functional and minimalist in design, much like a lot of the contemporary furniture we see today, which lends itself naturally to cherry as a supreme hardwood species with warm colour tones and superb finishing.