Once only an imitator, cherry has earned its place among woodworkers' fine hardwoods. And who hasn't tried a wild cherry coughdrop?
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) was abundant when the first settlers came ashore in the New World. And, fortunately, the wide distribution of the seeds of its fruit by birds have always assured us of a supply.
Colonial furniture makers called cherry "New England Mahogany" because of its tendency to turn dark red-brown after exposure to sunlight, and used it side by side with the real thing.
Black cherry has a variety of nicknames—choke cherry, rum cherry, whiskey cherry, and wild cherry—all due to the use of its small, bitter, dark purple fruit as a flavoring in jellies, and drinks, such as the potent "cherry bounce." Extractions from its bark have long been an ingredient in medicines for bronchitis and coughs.
Of the many cherry species found in Europe, Asia, and the United States, only black cherry is commercially important.
Cherry wood has a straight, satiny grain, often with a ripple figure. Heavy and hard, stiff and strong, the wood resists knocks and other abuse.
When first cut, cherry looks a pale, pinkish brown, but it gradually darkens to a mahogany-like red. Often, the very light-colored sapwood, as well as resin or gum pockets, will be present in boards. FAS (firsts and seconds) grading standards accept their presence, but woodworkers shouldn't.
Cherry veneers, normally plain-sliced, feature straight grain, though you'll occasionally find gummy (with resin pockets) and a mild ripple figure available.
While cherry shrinks considerably in the drying process, contraction and expansion are moderate after seasoning.
Cherry works well with all hand and machine tools, although it will burn if cutting edges aren't extremely sharp. Carvers and wood turners find that cherry adapts well to the knife and lathe, too. It takes a radiant finish, and its rich, natural color most often goes unstained.
Because cherry withstands shock, compaction, and abuse, furnituremakers as a general rule love working with it. Choice cherry logs find their way into veneers for architectural paneling and into hardwood plywood for cabinets. And solid stock becomes fine furniture, musical instruments, carvings, and turnings.
Cherry-veneered hardwood plywood remains expensive, but the cost of cherry lumber approximates that of oak, depending on how far you live from the supply. Boards normally run to about 10" wide because cherry is a comparatively small tree. And lengths usually don't exceed 12'.
Black cherry grows from the Dakotas south to Texas, east to northern Florida, and north to Nova Scotia. The Appalachian mountain region of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have the largest stands.