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How Fast Does Cherry Darken?

An unscientific observation...
and Mahogany is similar to Cherry

©2003-2014 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

Stress flaws in Cherry As I was sanding the top of a cherry coffee table, I noticed a stress-flaw in the wood - look closely at the picture on the right. The finish might hide it, but it also might split in the future. Darn. I had to replace that portion of the table top. Fortunately I had enough wood left from the same piece of rough cut lumber, and it was still early in the process.

I cut out the bad part, cut a new piece, and joined it to the good part of the table top, exactly as the pieces had originally been joined. And then sanded the new board to match the "old" part from the previous day.

 Cherry aged one day

Above with more color saturation Above with less color saturation

This is where it got interesting. Look at the four sections of the picture at the right. The right half of the picture is the part that was sanded the previous day. The left half was freshly sanded. Both halves were taken from the same original board - the same part of the same tree. The picture is a quick snapshot, taken outdoors without special lighting, but the difference is obvious. The change between the left and right halves is the first day's aging.

The bottom half of the picture incorporates a well-known woodworker's trick. If you wet a board with a solvent such as water or mineral spirits (paint thinner), you can get an idea what the wood will be like with a clear finish. So the bottom portion of the wood is moist with paint thinner, with no other changes to the left and right halves. The "finish" is a little uneven because it was evaporating while I took the picture - a few minutes later, it was gone.

Remember though, that this is not a laboratory calibrated picture, and your computer may be adjusted differently than mine. To give you an idea of how much the pictures could mislead us, I gave the two smaller pictures below a little more and less color saturation - like a different exposure with the camera. In fact, I might choose the picture at the lower left as the most realistic to me at this moment on my computer. When I print this page and look at the pictures, they seem entirely different. And viewed on a different computer monitor, they also look different.

How much will cherry darken over time? If you wait 50 years (or even 5 years), it will be a warm dark brown, almost like walnut. If you are still checking in 100 years, it might look like the deep dark cherry antique furniture we see today (although the darkness in Cherry antiques may be due to the oil or shellac finishes common a century ago, not just the color of the wood). But in six months or a couple years ... the cherry will be a rich brown color, but still fairly light. The cherry wood in the pictures below and in the main list of woods was made about 6 months before the pictures were taken, with a plain oiled finish. A year later the cherry continues to darken, but still would be considered a very light brown. Two years and it is darker but still a rich light brown. Some folks on the Internet have reported that by 10 years the change gets so slow it seems to have stopped - after 10 years, you won't notice the change.

I am often asked how to match a new cherry piece to one that is several years old. Cherry changes color quickly in the first hours or days. But if it continued to change that fast, it would be black in weeks or months - the change becomes more gradual over time. A new piece of cherry furniture (or a repair) will "catch up" to an older piece that has already darkened with age. Likewise, a "shadow" in the surface color caused by an unmoved book or piece of art (or clutter) will gradually blend with the rest of the piece, with no special action. It is much like a suntan - the tan lines from the first day of summer disappear in days. So patience is the best way to make a new piece blend with the old.

What do I recommend? Whatever you prefer.

What would I do myself? Originally I thought that, as an impatient person, I would probably routinely dye cherry (not stain it), so that it starts a little darker, especially for the first few months. Over the years dyes fade slightly, bleached by sunlight, but as the cherry wood darkens naturally, I won't care if the dye fades slightly - maybe even hope the dye does fade. This is the cherry coffee table, lightly dyed, just before it was delivered. Looking back, I probably could have had the same effect with that cherry coffee table by just leaving it in the sun for a day or two, with two advantages: it would have eliminated the question of dye if we wanted to match the furniture in the future, and would have eliminated a step in the finishing.

If cherry has been stained or dyed, it becomes very difficult to match a new piece to the old. The color of the underlying wood has changed and will change in the future, so you can't just say "match this piece." Perhaps the best solution is to use the same type of stain or dye as the original piece, but even that won't be perfect - the color of stain or dye depends on the technique when it is applied, as well as the formula changes that come from evolving technology and environmental regulations. Which makes an argument for not adding color to cherry. These pictures of the cherry toy chest (not stained or dyed) were taken a few days after it was built, before it was delivered. In some lighting the toy chest looks even lighter than these pictures.

The question was "what would I do myself?" Cherry is a beautiful furniture wood - I love things made of cherry. The cherry sapwood is almost white, and is normally turned to the inside or used where it won't show. For myself, I would dye any sapwood that is visible, but leave the rest of the cherry natural with just a clear finish.

Cherry dyed, aged, and new This is a single picture of three pieces of cherry. Only one picture so the light was the same and the camera settings didn't change. On the left is a new piece of cherry that I just lightly dyed and covered with a clear finish. It will continue to darken. The middle is a sample of natural (oiled) cherry, with no artificial color, about 6 months old when the picture was taken. It started very light, and will continue to darken. And on the right is a new piece of cherry with a clear finish but no dye - from the same board as the dyed cherry on the left. If you prefer no dye, your new cherry furniture would be this light when it is new, but would darken like the middle sample in less than a year.

Natural flaws in cherry Note that there are little dark marks in the cherry wood. Some people call these sap pockets "flaws" and others say they are the "features" that are characteristic of "real wood," the feature that makes every piece unique and special. The big picture at the top of this page is the bottom side of the tabletop, chosen to be the bottom because there are far more marks here than on the other side, but there are small marks on the top side also. Some of the marks didn't appear until the final sanding, when it is "too late" to change boards (and replacement boards are likely to have similar marks). The cherry coffee table was made 1/16 inch narrower than planned to remove a particularly large mark on the edge. The picture at the left is a closeup of some flaws from a couple scraps of wood. Realistically you should expect to see some small marks such as these in any piece made from real cherry wood.


The common assumption is that Mahogany will be stained. Ugh. I delivered a pair of mahogany bookcase to a customer with no stain or dye - just a clear finish. The bookcase was light tan when it was delivered, but had already turned much darker brown when they sent pictures of the bookcase in use, just weeks later. A couple years later they ordered another couple bookcases. I had some of the same wood, which had turned brown, but needed more - quite white. It was a challenge to let the new wood darken enough (exposed to light) to look good with the wood left from the previous project. Bottom line, like cherry, I like the way the color of mahogany ages.

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©2003, 2004 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.