Best Cherry Finishes

The Best Finishes for Cherry



How to Finish Cherry HardwoodCherry is a beautiful hardwood with rich warm colors and a look of depth that comes from the intense hues of reflected light that originate from deep within! In this article we’ll explore the best finishes for cherry, including those that enhance it’s natural properties for the best presentation. Most every woodworker and finisher I’ve known who has worked with it for any amount of time has strong feelings about the “right” way to finish cherry!  Of course they’re all correct – the finish they prefer is the best one for them – though it’s not necessarily the best one for you or me. You have to experiment and find the finish(es) you like the most.


Freshly Planed Cherry

Freshly Planed Cherry HardwoodWhen freshly planed, the heartwood is light pink  and the sapwood is a light cream color. As the wood ages, it darkens and takes on warm orange-reddish brown tones with rich amber undertones. The sapwood transforms to a warm golden-brown. When you view cherry from different angles, the wood fibers reflect the light brightly creating a shimmering effect that is striking.  As a bonus, it smells great too!

This cherry sample is freshly planed and sanded with a clear lacquer finish on it. You can see the overall color of the wood is a pale pink, though there are many highlights that include various shades and hues of pink and green. Once the raw wood is exposed, it begins to change color right away and the prominent pink hues are short lived.


“Sun Tanned” Cherry

To give the aging process (darkening the wood’s natural color) a head start, you can expose the wood to sunlight. For this lacquered sample, I covered the right end of the wood to block the sunlight and left the rest exposed. I set it by a window for a week where it received exposure to the sunlight all day long.

Finishing Cherry - Sun Tanned CherryThe ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight produces a distinct difference in a very short time  (e.g., 1 hour) and it’s reasonable to expect nice coloring after a single day.  I’ve used this method a number of times and found that the sun will darken the wood a fair amount in about a week (like this sample). After that, the effect slows down and seems to peak in 3-4 weeks. Beyond the first month you’ll just have to wait for the natural aging process to slowly develop the full patina.  Even if it isn’t exposed to direct sunlight, cherry will get darker if it isn’t covered, so be careful how you store it!

If you suntan a completed piece of furniture or cabinetry, make sure you rotate it 90 degrees on a scheduled basis (e.g., once a day) to even out the effect on all sides.  If you’re wondering… sun tanning does work equally well before or after the transparent finish is applied (unless it’s an exterior finish and has UV blocking additives).

Caution – Extended exposure to direct sunlight (months) will start to permanently bleach the color out of the wood.  That’s one reason it’s not a good idea to have wood furniture or cabinetry near a window where it will get exposure to direct sunlight.


Unintentional Sun Tanning

Finishing Cherry - Cherry Gets Darker with AgeWhen working with cherry keep the wood covered up until you’re ready to use it. Or… uncover all of it so that it gets exposed to the same amount of air and light for the same amount of time.  Try to avoid stacking it so that some sections are exposed and some aren’t, otherwise you’ll end up with wood that is much darker where the light hit it.  On a number of occasions I’ve seen plywood or hardwood planks that have dark bands along one side or end from being stored improperly – usually the top sheet was off center.

Cherry with darkened bands can still be used – the color will eventually even out. This picture shows the same sun tanned sample from above – it’s been in the sun for another couple of weeks and the color is much more even.  It’s harder to see the difference between the left and right sections and it will continue to blend better with time.


Should Cherry be Stained?

NO… and yes….  Like many wood species, cherry is naturally beautiful and it’s easy to make a compelling argument against staining it. For the purist, staining cherry is a big “no-no” (understatement!) and I can respect that point of view completely. On the other end of the spectrum are the types of finishes I provide for paying customers. Designers and clients often request “high end” finishes that have a sophisticated appearance. These finishes typically include multiple, layered coloring steps including dyes, stains, glazes, and toners. Check out the cherry finishes on the more expensive kitchen cabinets at your local home center for examples. There’s no question these multi-step finishes change the character of the wood dramatically, but the paying customer has every right to get the look they want…. that’s business. If you have paying customers, there’s a good chance you’ll want to master these finishes also.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I enjoy the results I get when using coloring techniques that accentuate the woods’ natural properties without drastically altering it’s personality. I like to make it “pop” and I have a couple of go-to finishes that do this really well. I also created a higher end finish I like that emphasizes the shimmer, grain, and aged color of cherry – clients love it and it looks even better as the wood ages and takes on its patina.  If you like working with wood, you will develop your own preferences for the types of finishes you like (if you haven’t already).  Approach the subject with an open mind and try different techniques, then pick the one(s) that you like.


What About Blotching?

Finishing Cherry - Cherry Looks BlotchyWhen finishing cherry, you may be concerned about its reputation for blotching. If you plan to dye or stain cherry you will want to follow the protocols to avoid the problem. However, it’s important to distinguish between blotching and the natural properties of the wood. When cherry is first finished, it’s normal for the coloring to look uneven and mottled. There will be darker areas that are seemingly random and don’t follow the grain. This can be a little alarming if you’re not familiar with the effect. BUT (a big but), the contrast between the lighter and darker areas will diminish with age and the same properties that cause the directional dark spots are the same properties that give the wood its’ beautiful shimmer and depth in the first place. People that have been working with cherry for a long time often make it a point to to maximize this directionality and reflectivity when they apply a finish (they promote the natural “blotch”!).

Finishing Cherry - Curly CherryBoth of these samples were finished with lacquer alone. The random dark areas you see are natural features of cherry and they change from dark to light depending the angle you view the wood. As the cherry ages and gets darker, the spots are less obvious, and add to the woods’ character and charm. The second sample is cherry’s version of curly figure – it’s highly prized with a price tag to match.  This “blotching” is rare and beautiful!


Clear Coat Finishes

We use clear coats on wood to protect it from various hazards including dirt and water.  But for those of us that love wood, the real benefit is the optical effect the finish has. When a transparent coating is applied to wood, it flows over and between the fibers on the surface and gives it a wet look.  This wetting property not only ensures the coating will adhere well, but it also allows us to see and appreciate the distinctive beauty of the wood grain.  To be most effective, the coating needs to have some thickness, forming a layer over the surface that acts like a lens. Lacquer and shellac are two evaporative film forming finishes that work well in this regard; they have excellent clarity that brings out the depth and figure in the wood very nicely.  There are other finishes that also work well like catalyzed lacquers, conversion varnish, catalyzed polyurethane (2K-PU), and polyester (a popular choice on the woodwork in high-end custom aircraft, yachts, and luxury vehicles). These finishes will be covered in other articles….


Shimmer – Chatoyance

Finishing Cherry - Shimmer ChatoyanceIn the opening paragraph I pointed out that cherry has a “…look of depth that comes from the intense hues of reflected light that originates from deep within.”  This optical effect is affectionately called “shimmer,” “directionality,” or “chatoyance.”

It’s caused when the light that hits the wood is reflected back from beneath the surface.  The effect in cherry is rather unique; the irregularities in the direction of the wood fibers are not uniform so it’s unpredictable.  The golden tones of the reflected light from cherry make the effect particularly striking.

Finishing Cherry - Cherry PatinaThese two pictures are of the same board.  I took the upper picture in an area that was shaded, but lit brightly by the sunlight. The lower picture was taken without exposure to bright lighting. The top picture gives you an idea of the effect the reflected light has on the appearance, but it looks much better in person.