Black cherry wood is one of the most prized and sought-after hardwoods, known for its beauty and versatility. Often called North America’s “cabinet wood”, black cherry has been used for centuries to create high-end furniture, musical instruments, flooring, architectural millwork, and other specialty wood items.
With its reddish-brown heartwood, straight grain, and smooth texture, black cherry imparts a sense of warmth and refinement wherever it’s used. While its physical characteristics make it ideal for woodworking, the story of how black cherry rose to prominence reveals why this wood has captivated artisans for generations.
This article will explore black cherry lumber’s unique properties, history, and uses. Whether you’re a woodworker, luthier, or simply appreciate fine woods, read on to learn what makes this incredible hardwood special.
The black cherry tree, known botanically as Prunus serotina, is native to eastern North America. Cherries were consumed by Native Americans and early settlers, who recognized the value of black cherry’s durable, rot-resistant wood. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that cherry became widely used for furniture-making in America.
New England cabinetmakers were the first to adopt black cherry wood on a large scale. As mahogany and walnut supplies from the Caribbean and Central America dwindled due to overharvesting, artisans needed a local, more affordable substitute. The reddish heartwood of black cherry and its ability to take a high polish made it an ideal mahogany stand-in.
By the mid-1700s, cherry was the predominant wood used to build fine furniture in urban centers like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Rural cabinetmakers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut also began constructing cherry pieces to sell in coastal cities. Federal and Hepplewhite-style furniture came to be associated with cherry’s rich, reddish color.
Even after Central American mahogany reentered the market, black cherry wood remained popular in 19th-century America. As the timber industry cleared old-growth forests in Appalachia and the Great Lakes, lumber companies took advantage of increasing access to black cherry. It was marketed commercially for the first time at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The wood’s association with Early American furniture cemented its reputation. By the early 1900s, black cherry had been transformed from a little-known indigenous tree into a coveted cabinetwood synonymous with classic American style.
Characteristics of Black Cherry Wood
Black cherry possesses several qualities that make it well-suited for fine woodworking:
- Color: When freshly cut, the heartwood of black cherry has a light pinkish hue. Upon exposure to light, it oxidizes to a richer reddish-brown color, deepening over time. This color change is a distinctive trait of cherry.
- Grain: The grain pattern is straight and uniform, though sometimes gently wavy or curly figures occur. Growth ring pores are small and evenly distributed.
- Texture: Smooth and fine-textured, cherry can take an exceptional polish. The lack of large pores contributes to its smooth surface.
- Workability: Easy to work with hand or machine tools, black cherry planes, turns, glues, and finishes well. It sands to a very smooth surface.
- Durability: Heartwood is rated as very durable, while the narrow sapwood is prone to insect attack. Overall, black cherry is known for its longevity and stability.
- Weight: When dried at about 36 lbs per cubic foot, black cherry is a medium-weight hardwood. It’s lighter than walnut but heavier than soft maple.
American Black Cherry Wood
There are several species of cherry native to North America, but the most commercially important is American black cherry (Prunus serotina). It’s the premier cherry timber used for lumber and veneer.
Key facts about American black cherry wood:
- Range: Native to the eastern US and Canada, from southern Quebec to Florida. Most abundant in Appalachian regions.
- Trees: Can reach heights of 100 ft with trunk diameters over 3 ft. Prefer deep, fertile soil with good drainage.
- Heartwood Color: Light pinkish-brown when fresh, darkening over time to a rich reddish-brown, sometimes with a purple cast.
- Grain: Straight grain. Occasional mild wave or crotch figure.
- Sapwood: Pale yellow, sharply demarcated from heartwood. Makes up 5% or less of log diameter.
- Availability: Fairly abundant. Main producing areas are the Great Lakes states and Appalachian hardwood region.
Black Cherry Wood Color and Grain
One of the hallmarks of black cherry is its color variation, which shifts from light pinkish-brown in raw lumber to a deeper ruddy hue when exposed to light. This color change is caused by oxidation and chemical reactions within the wood.
Freshly milled boards exhibit a light reddish-brown heartwood color, often described as salmon pink. Some pieces may have a slightly yellowish, pale pink, or beige cast. This freshly cut color is referred to as “new cherry.”
Upon exposure to oxygen, black cherry heartwood undergoes a photochemical color change. Ultraviolet light catalyzes this chemical conversion, causing the wood to darken over weeks to months into a richer, deeper red-brown, sometimes with purple undertones. This mature stage is referred to as “old cherry.”
Color depth is also affected by growth ring spacing – boards with tighter growth rings tend to be darker than those with wider spacing. Geographic location and soil conditions also impact color. Due to dense growth rings, Pennsylvania cherry is known for its deep reddish-brown hues.
Grain patterns in black cherry lumber are generally straight and uniform. Occasionally, a mild wavy grain figure produces attractive curly or pommele patterns when quarter sawn. Burls and crotch sections exhibit irregular, swirly grain.
Hardness and Durability
Black cherry has an appealing combination of moderate density and hardness and good structural integrity. Here’s how it compares to other domestic hardwoods:
- Hardness rating: Black cherry is rated at 950 on the Janka hardness scale, compared to black walnut (1,010) and hard maple (1,450).
- Density: At around 36 lbs/cu. ft. density when dried, it’s denser than soft maple but not as heavy as oak.
- Strength: Excellent bending and compressive strength. Its strength properties are very similar to hard maple.
- Workability: Works easily with hand and machine tools. Good natural lubricity prevents excessive blunting of cutters.
- Durability: Heartwood is very durable, rated very resistant to decay. Sapwood is moderately durable.
- Stability: Cherry wood experiences very little movement in service. It has excellent dimensional stability after drying.
- Rot resistance: Heartwood has high resistance to decay, while sapwood is susceptible. Natural extractives make it durable.
Identification and Properties
Black cherry can be identified through several distinctive characteristics:
- Bark: It has scaly, dark reddish-brown to black bark with horizontal lenticels on mature trees. Younger branches and trunks have smooth gray bark with horizontal stripes.
- Leaves: Alternate, elliptical leaves approximately 5 inches long with delicately serrated edges. The leaves emerge with a reddish tinge, changing to dark green in summer and yellow in fall.
- Flowers/Fruit: White flowers are borne in drooping 4-6 inch clusters, developing into small, bitter black cherries.
- Heartwood color: Light pinkish brown when freshly cut, darkening over time to reddish brown.
- Sapwood: Pale yellow, clearly demarcated from heartwood.
- Grain: Typically straight grained. Sometimes displays mild wavy or curly grain.
- Odor: Black cherry has a distinct bitter almond scent when wood is freshly cut.
- Weight: Air-dried weight 36-37 lbs/cu. ft.
- Specific gravity: Ranges from 0.50 – 0.53 (ovendry weight & volume)
Cost and Availability
Black cherry occupies a middle ground in terms of price – it’s more expensive than lower-end woods like poplar or soft maple, but not as costly as imported exotics or domestic walnut, oak, and maple. Here’s an overview of cherry lumber pricing and availability:
- Price Range: $3 – $6 per board foot is typical, depending on grade, quantity, and location. Figured wood commands higher prices.
- Production Volume: Over 60 million board feet of black cherry is produced annually in the eastern US. Annual cherry harvests in Pennsylvania alone yield 40-50 million board feet.
- Grades: Cherry is available in FAS, Select, #1 Common, and #2 Common grades. Veneer sheets are also produced.
- Sourcing: The top producing states are Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Michigan. Limited supplies also come from southern Appalachia.
- Availability: Fairly abundant since quick-growing black cherry trees are prevalent in eastern forests. But supplies have declined slightly in recent decades due to reduced logging.
- Pricing factors: The price is primarily driven by lumber grade, but also depends on quantity purchased, geographical source, figured wood vs. plain, and market demand.
- Sustainability: Black cherry is not listed as an endangered or threatened species. It’s plentiful in its natural range and regenerates quickly when cultivated. But forests are being harvested faster than trees can mature.
- Cost Saving Tips: Opt for lower grades or buy larger quantities for better bulk pricing. Using veneered panels paired with solid wood edging offers cost savings. Salvaged lumber is also an option.
- Future Outlook: Black cherry will likely remain relatively affordable and available. But prices may increase long-term if harvests continue to decrease. Using it efficiently by combining with other woods helps offset costs.
Uses and Applications
Cherry wood has been a staple of fine woodworking for centuries thanks to its versatility. Here are some of the most common uses for black cherry lumber:
- Furniture: One of cherry’s most renowned uses is for high-end furniture, especially dining sets, beds, cabinets, and desks. Its smooth texture and ability to take an excellent polish make it perfect for showcasing cherry’s beauty.
- Cabinetry/Fixtures: Kitchen cabinets, architectural millwork, and furniture accessories utilize cherry’s strength and rich color. Its uniform texture gives cabinet doors, panels, and moldings a seamless appearance.
- Musical Instruments: The resonance and tonal qualities of black cherry wood make it a choice tonewood for acoustic guitars, violins, drums, and other instruments. Many luthiers prefer it for its balanced sound.
- Flooring: Black cherry’s hardness and wear-resistance translate into durable flooring. Its smooth grain and reddish tones give floors warmth and visual depth.
- Turned Items: The wood’s excellent machining qualities make it popular for turnings and carvings. Cherry’s fine texture allows for delicate details.
- Veneer: Thin black cherry veneer retains the wood’s characteristic color while offering an affordable alternative to solid lumber. It’s used for furniture, cabinets, and architectural details.
- Outdoor Use: Black cherry has good weather resistance if properly finished. Its natural decay resistance allows it to be used for exterior applications like patio furniture, decking, or boatbuilding.
Black Cherry Wood vs. Cherry Wood
The label “cherry wood” is often generically applied to several species of cherry timber. Here are the key differences between American black cherry and other types:
- Scientific Name: Prunus serotina
- Heartwood Color: Light pinkish-brown when fresh, darkening over time to reddish-brown
- Grain: Straight grain, sometimes wavy
- Texture: Uniform and smooth
- North American species
- Scientific Name: Hymenaea courbaril
- Heartwood Color: Light brown to vivid reddish-brown
- Grain: Interlocked grain
- Texture: Medium to coarse texture
- Tropical South American species
- Scientific Name: Prunus avium
- Heartwood Color: Light pinkish red to reddish brown
- Grain: Wavy grain
- Texture: Fine texture
- European species
FAQs and Common Misconceptions
Is Black Cherry a hardwood or softwood?
Black cherry is categorized as a hardwood. It comes from a broadleaf deciduous tree.
Is black cherry wood good for anything?
Yes! Cherry is considered one of the finest American hardwoods. Its excellent working properties and rich color make it suitable for various applications from furniture to flooring to musical instruments. It’s been prized by woodworkers for centuries.
What’s the difference between black cherry and cherry wood?
Black cherry refers specifically to lumber from the American black cherry tree (Prunus serotina), while “cherry wood” is a general term that could refer to other species. American black cherry is the most popular type used in woodworking.
With its characteristic reddish-brown heartwood, straight grain, and smooth texture, black cherry remains one of the most versatile and sought-after domestic hardwoods. While its historical use in American furniture making cemented its legacy, black cherry wood continues to be valued by artisans and woodworkers today.
From musical instruments to flooring to turned wood objects, cherry’s blend of workability, durability, and beauty makes it suitable for various applications. Knowing cherry’s unique characteristics and origins, you can better appreciate why this remarkable wood has been cherished for centuries.