Finishing Cherry

By Sal Marino


Cherry 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 when cut. 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.

Pigmented Stain With Polyurethane Finish.

When 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. 1. Sand wood with 80 (coarse), 120 (medium) and 220 (fine) sandpaper. 2.Apply 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. 3.Sealer 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. 4. Sand 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. 5. Apply 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 coats.

Satin Toned Lacquer Finish For Cherry Wood.

Applying a tinted topcoat or toned lacquer. Adding color to the topcoat finish you are going to apply is another way to decrease the amount of splotching in cherry. I 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 supply companies. 1. Sand wood with 80 (coarse), 120 (medium) and 220 (fine) sandpaper. 2. Apply 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. 3. Sand Sealer. After the sealer has dried, sand lightly with 320 grit paper and wipe off dust. 4. Apply 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. 5. Apply 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 coats. 6. Rub 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 or turpentine. 7. Apply 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:
Constantine’s
2050 Eastchester Rd.
Bronx, New York 10461
Phone: 1 800 223 8087.
Fax: 1 800 253 WOOD
E-Mail Constantine's Woodworkers Catalog

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