Finishing Cherry for a Uniform Color

Cherry is photosensitive and prone to blotching, so trying to overcome the natural differences in color between pieces by sealing and tinting has low odds of success. July 11, 2013

I'm confused. I'm in the process of building a cherry blanket chest. Almost done. Now it's time to put a finish on it. I had to use a couple different grades of cherry and have a marked color difference. I am planning on dying the lighter of the two. I've read that blotching can be minimized by sanding less, sanding more, using non-oil stain, etc. I was planning on using a wash coat of 50% sealcoat and 50% alcohol. Then I realized the dye has alcohol in it, and might degrade the wash coat. I've sanded to 220. What should I use as a wash coat?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
Cherry is going to change color as it ages/becomes exposed to sun. A good idea is to place boards in a sunny spot for a week after sanding. Then make your color choices.

I think what's confusing you, is that you're mixing 2 different methods of preventing blotching. One method is to sand the wood up to a 320 grit. The wood will then absorb less color. The other is to seal the wood, which will also prevent the wood from absorbing color.

If you seal with a 50-50 mix of shellac and DNA, and then use an alcohol/dye mix, the dye has to be sprayed on. It will blend with the shellac. If you try brushing the dye on, you'll end up with a muddy mess.

From contributor R:
Sanding to 320 will not help you. I agree that using a finish with the same solvent as the wash oat will not work as the wash oat will be dissolved and botching will occur. If you want to use seal coat you might try a water based dye instead of alcohol. If you still want to use alcohol based dye, a glue size is simple and effective. I have also had some success spraying very light coats of dye without a wash coat with no botching. Whatever you do, make a test panel first.

From contributor I:

I'm confused on your dying process. Are you just going to try and dye one board to match the others? If so, you won't be happy with the result. As mentioned, cherry changes with age, and quickly. If you hit the color on a select board now, it won't match in 6 months. If you don't put on any color, you won't have to worry about the blotch. If you want to add color, I tell folks to choose alder. Why mess with what nature has done? Cherry will be spectacular in a couple years, and it is a color that can't be duplicated with dye.

From contributor M:
There's a store on the coast in Maine that manufactures and sells cherry pieces exclusively. They have two large showrooms packed with everything cherry. Every piece - breakfront, rocker, bed frame, armoire, everything - is a different color. The beauty of cherry is not when it's built, but years later.

Take contributor I's advice. You want to stain something, use alder. I stain alder with cherry dye stain often. It looks great. I even have pretty good luck if I stain cherry, but it is a waste. Waste of time, waste of money, and a waste of wood.

Take a look a Chris Becksvoort's work with natural cherry.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all for your ideas. I'm listening and will not color it, and see how it goes. I've dealt with lots of woods over the years but for some reason not much cherry. I'm having a learning experience.

One more question. One of the above posts mentions glue sizing. How do you make that?

From contributor N:
You can buy glue size from Charles Neil's web site. He calls it pre-color conditioner. I have used it and it works well.

From contributor K:
You can make your own using Elmer's glue and hot water. If I remember it is a ratio of about 1 to 10; at least a good starting point as you may have to adjust the mix to get the desired effects. Hopefully you understand when using any water based finish you have to first moisten the piece to raise the grain and then lightly sand to remove the nibs. Jeff Jewitt sells a commercial size at Homestead Finish.

I work a lot of cherry and rarely if ever stain, and I disagree that when the wood is new that after time it will all somehow match. If it does not when new cut, it probably will not after time. If heartwood, it will darken, but will probably never match.

Just as important as design, joinery and finish is the selection of wood for color and grain, not to mention strategic use and placement in a piece. If you have variations in color in your work, which I assume is the case here, a light blending with dye or a toner in a seal or topcoat would be helpful.

As an example, in the photo, like most of my work in cherry, the finish is natural - a light coat of Waterlox followed by several coats of shellac in this case. The drawer fronts were carefully selected, however the top drawer grain was perfect but the color was just a little off (too light). A little dye in the seal or first coat brought it into the correct tone. After a couple of years of aging the color is still good.

My best advice is to start selecting for grain and color at the lumberyard, buy about twice what you need, considering the matching and placement of the wood throughout the construction, and you should end up with a nicely matched piece without the need to stain.

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The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
If you are going to continue working with cherry you will most likely want to stain it someday. My advice is to get in touch with a good finish distributor. We use ML Campbell products exclusively. Sherwin Williams has similar products as well. Forget sizing and sanding differently or conditioning your project in the sun, the best process we have found to get consistent and nearly blotch free is to use a base dye to level the color instead of a fast dry non-oil stain. This works very well with even dark colors. All that being said, for a blanket chest I would still prefer natural.