Wood of the Month:

Figured Cherry Gives Fans an Exotic Option

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Prunus serotina of the Family Rosaceae.

COMMON NAMES

American cherry, American black cherry, cabinet cherry, cherrywood, rum cherry, whiskey cherry, wild cherry, choke cherry

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Trees can grow as tall as 90 feet or more, but typically range from 60 to 80 feet with diameters of 2 feet. Average weight is 36 pounds per cubic foot.

PROPERTIES

Cherry has medium bending and crushing strengths, resistance to shock loads, low stiffness and a very good steam bending rating. For cutting figured wood at an angle, experts recommend an angle of 12 degrees, rather than the normal 17-degree angle. An insert spiral planing head will decrease chip out in figured material.

When studio woodworker Richard Judd sees a great piece of figured cherry, he snatches it up. The Paoli, WI, furnituremaker and owner of the Zazen Gallery is fairly confident that anything featuring figured cherry will be a hit with his clients.

“Cherry is a very popular wood and I like figured wood over plain, so when I see a board with figure, I know it will be a good seller,” Judd says. He often uses figured cherry in tabletops or matched door fronts. “You want to use it in something that will feature the figure.” Judd has found some unique figured cherry, including a flame pattern and another piece with a figure that he describes as “little burls.” Judd says a soft curl is more typical of what you find in figured cherry, but part of the fun of his job is searching out the unusual and finding ways to showcase it in furniture.

American cherry is a popular domestic wood with a worldwide fan base. “Good qualities of cherry lumber and veneer are always in demand,” write the authors of “Veneers, A Fritz Kohl Handbook.” The species most used for commercial timber in the United States is Prunus serotina, also known as American black cherry, wild black cherry, cherrywood, cabinet cherry, and choke, whiskey and rum cherry.

Defining Figures

When it comes to figure, customers vary widely as to what they consider desirable. “The challenge in dealing with figured wood is communicating the look,” says Jim Kirby, owner of Sandy Pond Hardwoods Inc., in Quarryville, PA. “It is often an aesthetic call and a matter of degrees. One person’s good figure might be less than pleasing to another. With cherry, I see figure beginning in a board with a shimmer. The figure can take the form of a shimmer or a quilted look, or be ropey or an organized curl.”

Jim Cox of the David R. Webb Co., Edinburgh, IN, breaks figured cherry into two categories: mottled figure with miniature squares and fiddleback, similar to the figure in anigre. “You might get an additional look with a unique piece, a herringbone pattern, but I mostly see the figures falling into the mottle or fiddleback categories,” Cox says.

Sam Talarico, owner of Talarico Hardwoods, Mohnton, PA, will ask clients to describe what they mean when they ask for figured cherry. “Curly cherry is the term I use most when talking about figured cherry. The looks vary from a flame curl to horizontal stripes. It can resemble curly maple, although curly cherry is rarely as tight,” he says.

According to Talarico, curly cherry can have a rope curl or a flame curl as opposed to a tight fiddleback. It can also have a herringbone, or what is called a barber pole curl, that sometimes can be prominent. “Other times, cherry has a bee’s wing pattern that is like little blotches. The very broad figure can resemble cathedral,” he adds.

Uses for Figured Cherry

Like plain cherry, figured cherry is a wonderful cabinet wood. Cox says figured cherry is also popular with the architectural market and for studio woodworkers. “One of my customers in Los Angeles just used mottled cherry to wrap speaker boxes. Another used it for the interior of a hotel lobby. Designers get very specific as to what they are looking for in a figure. Figured cherry is also popular for musical instruments like harps,” Cox adds.

“Figured cherry is popular with high-end customers who use it in furniture, cabinetry and tabletops,” Talarico says. “It’s also used for the interiors of airplanes. American cherry is very popular in North America and in other countries, although clients who prefer a lighter cherry might prefer European sweet cherry, which doesn’t darken with age the way American cherry does.”

Kirby says many of his clients use figured cherry for specialty items and one-of-a-kind furniture designs. One client used figured cherry for flooring. “He used 1,500 square feet, all 5 inches wide, to create a very unusual look,” Kirby says. Cherry is also used for carving and sculpture, boat interiors, decorative turnery, toys, blocks for printing plates, musical instruments and musical instrument parts.

Large Growing Range

Black cherry grows throughout the United States and Canada, from Ontario to Florida, and from the Dakotas to Texas. The northwest area of Pennsylvania is considered by many to produce the finest cherry.

Kirby agrees that the Allegheny area of northern Pennsylvania is known for yielding beautiful supplies of cherry, but says he also has seen top quality cherry from many other locales, including Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia — all the way north to Quebec.

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