Cherry wood is a beloved classic in woodworking and furniture-making. Its warm reddish-brown tones and smooth, fine grain make it visually appealing for all projects. But before deciding to use cherry wood, many woodworkers ponder an important question – is cherry wood hard or soft compared to other woods?
The answer is more complex than a simple “hard” or “soft” label. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key traits of cherry wood to help you understand its hardness, workability, durability, and best uses. We’ll cover topics like:
- Cherry wood basics – Types, appearance, grain
- Janka hardness rating
- Machining qualities – Planing, turning, joinery
- Decay resistance – Rotting and insect damage
- Finishing qualities – Staining, polishing
- Cost considerations
- Common uses – Furniture, flooring, instruments
- Comparisons to other woods – Oak, maple, mahogany
By the end, you’ll have an in-depth understanding of what makes cherry wood special. Let’s start unraveling the mystery of this classic American hardwood.
Cherry Wood Basics
Cherry wood comes from trees in the Prunus genus – most commonly the black cherry (Prunus serotina). Other species like the pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) are also used. These trees are native to eastern North America and grow to impressive heights of 50-80 ft.
In spring, cherry trees produce white flowers and oval green leaves. Their fruits are small and sour compared to cultivated cherries. Birds relish the vitamin-rich cherries, spreading the seeds.
Cherry trees thrive in moist soils and can live over 250 years. The wood is classified as a hardwood. Cherry lumber comes from the trunk or main branches. Let’s look closer at the two types of cherry wood:
- The inner core of the tree trunk
- Darker reddish-brown color
- Higher density = more durable
- Contains tyloses (gummy deposits)
- Most desired for woodworking
- Outer portion near the bark
- Lighter pinkish color
- Lower density, less decay resistant
- Used less often in woodworking projects
The color of cherry heartwood deepens from a light pinkish hue when freshly cut to a richer, darker red or brown as it ages. This color change enhances cherry’s visual warmth and depth. The wood also has a fine, straight grain pattern.
When cut, cherry wood has a mild, sweet scent often described as almond, cinnamon, or vanilla. This pleasant aroma makes cherry a joy to work with.
Janka Hardness Rating
The Janka hardness test is one way to measure a wood’s hardness. This involves pressing a 0.444″ steel ball into the wood with increasing force until it sinks halfway in. The force required indicates the wood’s density and resistance to dents, scratches, and wear.
On the Janka scale, cherry wood rates around 950-1000 lbf. How does this compare with other common species?
- Oak – 1,220 lbf
- Maple – 1,450 lbf
- Walnut – 1,010 lbf
- Birch – 1,260 lbf
- Mahogany – 800 lbf
- Pine – 690 lbf
As you can see, cherry falls around the middle of the hardness scale – considerably harder than pine (a softwood) but softer than oak, maple, and walnut. This moderate hardness makes cherry suitable for flooring, furniture, cabinets, and other applications where toughness is needed.
Compared to oak, cherry is about 20% softer but still quite durable. And it’s easier to work than super-hard woods like maple. The moderate density gives cherry an excellent balance of workability and strength.
Beyond just hardness, cherry wood possesses excellent machining qualities that make it a woodworker’s delight:
- Cuts smoothly and accurately with hand or power tools
- Nice balance of softness for shaping yet toughness to avoid excess tear-out
- Turns well on a wood lathe without splintering
- Planes to a silky, almost lustrous surface
- Sands easily without fuzzy raised grain
- Takes precise carving detail for moldings, panels, and decorations
- Bends fairly well when steamed
- Screws and nails securely without splitting
- Glues up neatly with tight, durable joints
The fine, straight grain patterns of cherry help it to cut cleanly across the wood. And the moderate density provides a great middle ground – not too splintery or chip-prone when machining, yet not so soft that it dents and compresses easily.
Cherry also responds beautifully to turning on a wood lathe. It can form delicate details without crumbling or tearing out. The hardness provides durability without being a bear to carve like some exotic hardwoods.
Overall, cherry’s excellent machining qualities make it a versatile wood for all types of construction. The workability reduces headaches while creating furniture, cabinets, flooring, and other cherry wood projects.
Decay and Pest Resistance
An important property for any wood is its natural decay and pest resistance. Left unprotected outdoors, most woods will eventually rot and become damaged by fungi, mold, and insects. How does cherry compare?
- Heartwood – Moderately decay resistant (Class 3 on a scale of 1 to 5)
- Sapwood – Low decay resistance (Class 4)
Cherry heartwood ranks fairly well thanks to its density and tyloses deposits. It will last outdoors for several years even without a protective finish. The heartwood durability comes close to woods like oak, teak, and cedar.
However, the sapwood is more vulnerable to rot and insect attack. For outdoor projects, woodworkers recommend using only the heartwood. Indoors, cherry sapwood is less prone to trouble.
Here’s how some other woods compare in decay resistance:
- Teak – Class 1 (highest)
- Cedar – Class 1-2
- White Oak – Class 2-3
- Cherry – Class 3 (heartwood)
- Walnut – Class 3-4
- Pine – Class 5 (lowest)
So while not remarkably rot-resistant, cherry heartwood performs adequately for many applications, especially indoors. Proper care and maintenance will provide decades of beauty and daily use.
In addition to machining qualities, a wood’s finishing properties affect its workability. Finishing involves sanding, smoothing, staining, and applying protective surface coats. Here’s an overview of cherry’s finishing traits:
- Sands to a very smooth surface with little fuzzing or tear-out
- Blotchy absorption when stained – pre-conditioner helps
- Develops a refined polish when waxed or varnished
- Darkens gradually over time with exposure to light
- Heartwood vs. sapwood may absorb stains differently
While cherry can show blotchiness when stained, it sands easily to a fine, consistent texture. This allows cherry to take on an exceptional polished sheen after finishing. The protective topcoats enhance the reddish tones and flowing grain patterns.
One caveat is that the heartwood and sapwood sections may absorb stain at different rates. Using wood conditioner first can help even out the results. Alternatively, some woodworkers focus on using only the heartwood.
Over time, cherry wood darkens and takes on a deeper patina when exposed to light. This aging process adds even more visual richness. With careful finishing techniques, cherry’s beauty continues to unfold over years of use.
Cost and Availability
Cherry wood prices can vary based on factors like:
- Lumber grade – Furniture vs. construction
- Region – Domestic vs. imported
- Wood form – Logs, lumber, veneer
- Volume purchased – Small hobbyist vs. large commercial orders
Some typical cherry wood costs are:
- Lumber – $3-9 per board foot
- Veneer – $4-8 per square foot
- Plywood – $30-50 per sheet
- Furniture grade lumber – $6-15 per board foot
This puts cherry on the affordable end of domestic hardwoods. It’s more economical than exotics like mahogany, rosewood, or teak. And it’s on par with red oak, maple, and walnut in terms of price.
There are a few reasons cherry commands a slight premium over pine or poplar:
- Attractive appearance – Rich color and flowing grain
- Excellent workability – Easy to machine and finish
- Good durability – Hardness and decay resistance
- Made in America – No imported shipping costs
For its qualities, cherry remains reasonably priced for small DIY projects up to major commercial work. Supplies are also abundant from managed forests in the Eastern US.
Common Uses for Cherry Wood
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s explore some of the most popular uses that highlight cherry wood’s strengths:
Cherry is considered a premium wood for all types of furniture. It possesses an elite blend of aesthetics, workability, and durability. Common furniture projects include:
- Tables – Dining tables, coffee tables, end tables, desks
- Chairs – Dining chairs, rockers, stools, benches
- Beds – Headboards, footboards, poster beds
- Dressers – Wardrobes, chests of drawers, armoires
- Cabinets – Kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities, hutches
- Shelving – Bookcases, display cabinets, étagères
Cherry wood exudes elegance and sophistication in furniture. The rich reddish tones suit both modern and traditional home decors. Compared to oak, cherry looks brighter and more contemporary. It also ages well, taking on an increasingly warm patina over time.
Cherry stains beautifully to complement different looks from deep reddish-browns to lighter honey tones. The smooth finish highlights graceful wood grain patterns. All of this makes cherry furniture inviting and timeless.
Cherry is a classic choice for hardwood flooring. Advantages include:
- Hard enough for high-traffic areas like hallways or kitchens
- Attractive reddish-brown color suits many decors
- Durable against scrapes, dents, and surface wear
- Easy to refinish and maintain compared to replacing carpet
- Gives a warm, rich glow in natural or artificial lighting
Cherry hardwood floors work well in living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and entryways. The wood adds elegance while still looking clean and sophisticated. Just avoid excessive moisture that can damage any natural wood flooring.
Cherry wood is beloved by cabinet makers for kitchens, bathrooms, offices, and built-ins. Benefits include:
- Visual appeal – Looks sharp in a main living space
- Toughness – Protects against dings and scratches
- Stain resistance – Doesn’t easily mark from water and food
- Easy to clean – Smooth finish that wipes up easily
- Improves with age – Takes on a patina over time
Cherry cabinets suit traditional cottage or farmhouse styles and sleek, contemporary kitchens. The wood adds warmth while still looking neat and organized. Durable cherry cabinets will stay beautiful for decades.
Cherry is a traditional tonewood for fine musical instruments like guitars, drums, and violins. Key traits include:
- Balances strength and resonance – Provides full sound without fragility
- Visually striking on stage or displayed in a home
- Improves with age like a fine musical instrument
- Abundant sustainable supply protects rainforests
Major guitar companies like Taylor, Martin, and Fender use cherry for acoustic guitar soundboards and bodies. It provides excellent tone while looking sharp.
Although not as weather-resistant as teak, cherry heartwood can also be suitable for outdoor patio furniture, storefront benches, and other projects. It lasts longer than softwoods like pine or cedar if maintained properly. Some tips for outdoor cherry wood:
- Use only heartwood sections
- Apply UV-protective stains/sealers
- Store furniture covered/indoors over winter
- Expect some cracking as wood expands and contracts
Cherry makes an attractive, durable choice for porches, patios, parks, and outdoor retail spaces. It adds natural elegance in gardens, backyards, and other habitable outdoor rooms.
Veneer and Plywood
Thanks to its gluing properties, cherry also works as a quality veneer and plywood. Advantages include:
- Provides the look of solid cherry at a lower cost
- More dimensionally stable than solid wood
- Ideal for panels, doors, furniture, and cabinets
- Takes beautiful finishes to highlight grain patterns
Cherry veneer allows designers to get the beauty of cherry for less. It makes cherry wood accessible for more commercial and residential applications.
On a wood lathe, cherry makes an exceptional turning wood. Positive traits are:
- Stability – Resists excessive warping
- Workability – Turns cleanly without crumbling
- Hardness – Holds crisp detail and resists indentation
- Attractive grain patterns – Looks amazing on bowls, platters, pens, etc.
Cherry suits artistic lathe-turned objects like bowls, spindles, pens, table legs, and bottle stoppers. The fine grain cuts precisely for delicate details. And the hardness prevents tear-out while shaping.
In summary, cherry has a wide range of uses where its color, workability, and durability are benefits. There’s a good reason it has been a popular wood for centuries!
How Cherry Wood Compares to Other Species
Cherry has many positives, but how does it stack up against other wood species? Here’s a brief comparison:
Oak – Very similar overall, with oak rating slightly harder. Both have excellent workability. Oak has more prominent grain.
Maple – Much harder than cherry but lacks its distinctive reddish tones. Maple costs a bit more.
Walnut – A shade harder than cherry. Walnut has darker brown coloration in the grain.
Pine – Significantly softer than cherry. Pine costs less but dents more easily.
Mahogany – More decay resistant but imported and pricier. Mahogany has a lighter reddish hue.
Teak – The most weather-resistant option. But teak is imported and quite expensive.
There’s no definitively “superior” wood. Each has pros and cons. Cherry hits a great middle ground regarding workability, looks, cost, and durability. This versatility explains its popularity in woodworking.
So in summary, is cherry wood hard or soft? The answer is neither exactly. With a Janka hardness of 950-1000 lbf, cherry rates around the middle compared to common hardwoods. This gives it the ideal blend of workability yet toughness. It’s softer than oak, maple, and walnut yet considerably harder than pine.
Cherry’s beautiful reddish-brown hues, smooth grain, sweet aroma, and excellent machining qualities make it a perennial favorite. It works well for everything from furniture and flooring to musical instruments and lathe turning. For woodworkers, cherry hits the sweet spot on all fronts.
While no wood species is perfect across every criterion, cherry has few weaknesses for most applications. It provides an unbeatable mix of aesthetics, performance, and value. Woodworkers have cherished cherry for centuries, which remains just as popular today. So next time you need a stellar all-around hardwood, choose the timeless beauty of cherry.