Wood in architecture
Cherry means many things to many people. To the garden enthusiast it suggests the sweet-smelling wood from a fruit tree. To the Japanese it may mean Prunus serrulata, which is sometimes called ‘sakura’ - famous for Cherry blossom in springtime. To the American forester it is Prunus serotina, one of the faster growing temperate hardwoods. To the furniture maker it is a supreme wood to work with and to finish.
Cherry varies from type to type. There are many ornamental varieties – famous in Japan and China - but the most well-known and commercially available species for timber production is American Black Cherry growing extensively in the Eastern U.S. such as Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and West Virginia.
This is a forest tree, regenerating naturally and not planted like most of the smaller ornamental Cherry trees.
American Black Cherry is unique, achieving great height and sizeable diameter compared to its European cousin which is smaller and produces lighter coloured wood. The American species has a rich red to reddish brown heart with fine straight, close grain with narrow brown pith flecks and gum pockets, which are a recognisable characteristic. It has a very smooth texture, produces a superb lustrous finish with good craftsmanship and carves and turns well on a lathe. The sap is normally pale in colour and many commercial users specify “sap-free one side” grade to enable them to maximise yield where only one surface is visible, such as in furniture. It machines well, sands extremely well and takes stain easily; although the warm colour rarely needs enhancing, but darkens with age. Cherry lumber is available in a wide range of lengths and widths. The log also slices well, so is available as veneer for matching to solid wood.
Cherry became hugely popular as a “red” wood when concerns about tropical hardwoods turned people’s attention more towards temperate hardwoods. But, once it was known the world over, Cherry became a preferred furniture and interior joinery wood in its own right – just as it was with the European settlers who discovered it when they colonised the eastern United States. There are many fine examples of Cherry furniture in the USA, including a famous chair by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and much of the “Shaker” style furniture which resumed fashion in the 1980s and remains popular in contemporary designs today.
Cherry wood for furniture makers has become a premium wood in which the image is of quality, class and lasting value. The wood has been more expensive compared to many other species but the finished product always commands a premium price. And although Cherry is used for flooring in light traffic areas, such as bedrooms, it is not hard enough for high traffic areas.
Cherry is a sustainable hardwood. In fact, it was its capacity to regenerate easily after forest fires in the early 1900s that gave us the huge resource that exists in the USA today. Now partly protected by a framework of national and state legislation, Cherry is managed on a sustainable basis, and being relatively faster growing than some other temperate hardwoods such as the oaks, it is likely to continue always to be available to bespoke and industrial furniture makers.
There is no shortage of American Cherry (Prunus serotina) growing in the forests of the eastern United States. The total standing inventory of all U.S. hardwood species was measured by the U.S. Forest Service at over 11,000 million cubic metres in 2007, of which approximately 2% was estimated to be Cherry. So an approximate estimate that the available standing Cherry is about 220 million cubic metres is reasonable.
Mike Snow, AHEC USA Executive Director
Opening photo: Sebastian Cox and his team working on Sir Terence Conran’s piece for The Wish List. Photography by Petr Krejci Photography