The Art of Age: Cherry’s Inherent Beauty
When we think of heirloom quality we think of meticulously crafted furniture from hand-selected pieces of wood that have been shaped and molded into the frame of their finished being. While the sum of these efforts should in no way be diminished by the newness of the piece, the true beauty, spirit of the work, and wood will come to fruition years later.
Much of our furniture is made of American Black Cherry. Why cherry? First and foremost, it is beautiful. It has color, but that term is far to simple to describe the appeal of sunlight and shadow on a sanded, oiled, and waxed board. The wood has a unique translucency, evoking a reflecting pool rather than a simple mirror. The auburn hues reside not only on the surface but deep within. No wood can rival the depth and complexity of cherry’s color and figure, although mahogany and walnut come close. It is through the woods natural tendencies aided by times gentle hand, and the sunlight’s rays, that cherry’s intrinsic wood-grain, and complexity become heightened.
When freshly cut or sanded, cherry is tannish pink, pale and not particularly lovely. But the wood is rich in resins, particularly prussic acid, which rapidly reacts to both light and oxygen, so cherry achieves in six months the patina that oak or maple acquires only after six decades. As cherry is exposed to sunlight and air it changes color, shifting from a light salmon to a deep, rich reddish-brown. This transformation begins in as little as six months. Through oxidation and UV exposure, cherry’s molecular makeup changes the way in which light is reflected, giving cherry its recognizably rich hue. Cherry’s color comfortably straddles the formal and informal divide. Perhaps, more than any other wood, cherry, when finished with rubbed oil and wax, invites people to touch it.
New Gloucester Rocker, 2018
One year into the aging process.
The cherry in this New Gloucester Rocker is beginning to darken; especially in the wedge tenon.
The Design, 1984
There are three things that separate our rocker from the others; the tail end of the rocker tappers down, the crest is narrower than the seat, and the armrests float free from the back.
New Gloucester Rocker, 1997
A well-cared-for New Gloucester Rocker. After 20 years.
The depth of character in this particular piece of cherry is unfolding.
A love for cherry
In the early days, we used very little American Black cherry because the species, Prunus serotina, is not native to Maine. In fact, the only species of the Prunus genus that grows wild here is pin cherry, Prunus pensylvanica, a prolific “weed” tree that only grows a few inches in diameter, which overgrows stone walls and hedgerows, and is a favorite food of tent caterpillars. But, in 1979, we made a conscious decision to create our own style, and began using black cherry- and ash for the spindle members- almost exclusively, and have ever since. The inconvenient truth is that it’s expensive. Every cherry board must be trucked over five hundred miles from Pennslyvania, but it is a choice we have never regretted.
A highly workable species of wood, cherry machines extraordinarily well, as long as one approaches it respectfully. Due to the high concentration of volatile tannins, it burns easily, so woodworkers must use sharp tools and remain in constant motion. With other woods– Ash comes to mind– one can “cheat” in the sanding process, going from coarse grit sandpaper to the final sanding and achieve a perfect polish. Cherry suffers no such shortcuts. One must dutifully progress from 80 to 120 to 180 to 220 to 400 grit; if not, the material will require such vigorous and prolonged sanding to remove scratch marks that it will burn, or at least discolor. Cherry is also difficult to steam bend; overheating turns it a singed purple. But these are not insurmountable difficulties. Our tools are sharp, and we diligently take each step to achieve a perfectly sanded piece.
Cherry is stable; once dried it is even less prone to the seasonal movement than is black walnut, which many believe is the most stable American hardwood. This stability allows us to make relatively large panels, which is a big plus with our furniture, as we panel the backs of our case pieces to make them as presentable as the fronts. Having an expansion coefficient of ninety-two to one, which means for each unit of measure it swells in length during the summer humidity, it swells ninety-two units in width. Expressed another way, cherry, like most woods, does not swell in length, but it does in width, hence frame-and-panel constructions. But, that amount of swelling is modest compared to that of other woods.
Adapting more easily than some of the oil-rich hardwoods like teak or open-grained oaks, cherry takes non-membrane finishes well. The use of any finish must always spring from respect for the material. Utilizing these more natural finishes allows the beauty of cherry to deepen and grow even more complex with each passing year.
Now, with rare exceptions, the furniture we produce is made up mostly of American black cherry. Perhaps is it an emotional bond with this wood, its ease in workability, or its transformative nature that makes it the sole reason it can be found in much of our work. Whatever the reason may be, through time and patience, the art of age brings forth the unfettered disposition of cherry.
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