Know your wood #1-Cherry

Most people only talk about grain at the most superficial level of how it looks. We woodworkers enter the fibres. We tease the cells apart with the chisel’s edge and search for weaknesses and strengths in the species. We want to know these intimate details so we can exemplify the strengths and protect the weak from harm. I thought that it might help to give my personal insights into the different woods that I have worked with for almost five decades. Most of them are common enough, but I also want to include the many exotic woods have worked with through the years too.



Here at the hand tool school we want to pass on all we know to our fellow woodworking enthusiasts. Outside of the workshop courses we continue our research and development exercises, our tests, our experiences are for you to glean from.


Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

I first worked with cherry about 25 years ago in the US and I have worked with it ever since. It is indeed the king of hardwoods for several reasons not the least of which is its quiet, unassuming manner, a pleasing and submissive disposition in the hands of a craftsman and its solid, dependable stability under extreme duress. Perhaps this has much to do with it being a moderately slow growing hardwood that thrives throughout the more temperate zones of Europe and north and south America. The bark is unusual in that it is relatively smooth main body of bark crossed with unusual but highly characteristic feathery flakes and has a copper-beech leaf colour that’s quite lovely.


Cherry grows to good proportions and produces large boards to a long length and sizeable width. I usually buy 8′ lengths but 10’s and 12’s are easy to obtain in the USA. Fairly knot free with consistent even grain texture throughout and no noticeable difference between heart and sapwood in terms of density, grain texture, workability etc. Cherry is a moderately hard wood that works extremely well with all hand tools and responding particularly well to all of the edge tools such as handplanes, chisels, spokeshave and scrapers. When fresh cut the heartwood has creamy colour but quickly turns to a wonderful dark honey colour in a matter of weeks. During this colour change period it’s important not to leave any item on the finished work for longer than a day or so as the wood will not change in the shielded area until later and you will end up with a light patch silhouetted in the surrounding areas. After a few weeks exposure the surface will change to a wonderful deep honey colour and I think that’s what I love about this beautiful fruitwood we call cherry.


Warning! Though Cherry sapwood is equal in consistency with the heartwood, and the sapwood and heartwood look close in colour when first cut, planed, sanded and finished with a wood finish, the heartwood darkens quickly  within a short time, but the sapwood on the other hand doesn’t. What’s more, it never will and the contrast in match between the darkness of the heartwood and the light sapwood can severely impair the way the piece will look later, though it may look fine at first. Best to cut out any sapwood right off the bat, or use it as a secondary wood somewhere less obvious.


It’s all good news from the New legacy School of Woodworking. Good to have you on board, good to hear from you and good to know that you love wood as much as we do.