Professionals and Amateurs Together

Applying Finish on a Cherry Table


What is the recommended method to apply a finish on a cherry table?—Jorge Torres


Tom McLaughlin replies: If your table is made with nicely uniform cherry in color and figure, there is no need to add any stain or color tone adjustment in order to make the elements more harmonious. Ideally, it’s best to simply enhance the natural beauty of cherry by applying an oil based varnish of some type. Oil finishes penetrate the surface, bringing out the maximum depth and beauty as the cherry oxidizes over time, revealing a desirable rich deeper colored patina.

More is made about potential blotching of cherry than is warranted. Blotching is only a real issue with poorer grade materials and these should be avoided when using this approach.

My personal favorite oil varnish is by Waterlox—original or satin. It can be thinned with mineral spirits, is very easy to apply by wiping or brushing, and contains tung oil resin offering excellent protection against water. Let the final top coat cure about a week before rubbing out with 0000 steel wool to a beautiful sheen. Another good oil varnish option is Arm-R-Seal by General Finishes containing a urethane resin which provides superior moisture protection. And for a lower build, “closer to the wood” but less protective finish, Danish oil is a great choice and very easy to apply.

Bob Couch replies: There are many options for finishing any table. One of the first considerations would be the type of table, e.g. coffee table, dining room or other. Second considerations would be the environment it will live in. For instance, young children or pets in the house. The latter here, only affects my decision on the final finish material.

Surface Prep—I like to bring my surfaces up to 320 grit, raise the grain and then lightly knock it back down with the 320 grit. At about the 220 grit sanding, I like to use mineral spirits or water to wash the surfaces and check for any leftover glue or other imperfections.

My “go to” finish for cherry, and many other woods is Waterlox. It brings out the color and character of the wood unlike any other product in my view and I’ve always had consistent results with the product.

My first coat is heavy with a foam brush and I keep wiping or adding more until the surface stops soaking it in. I will let it sit for about 10 minutes and then with a clean rag, wipe it nearly dry. I like this method because it brings the entire surface up to the same point of initial finish. Those areas that soak up the finish versus those that don’t are all about the same.

After 24 hours, the finish should be dry enough to re-coat or sand if you have a few nubs that have shown up. By sand, I mean a light sanding with 320. I apply 5–6 thin coats of Waterlox using a foam brush, letting them sit for a few minutes then wiping nearly dry. Because the layers are so thin using this method, it lets me recoat in about 4 to 6 hrs instead of 24.

Before my final coat, I lightly sand with 320 or 400 grit, vacuum clean and use a tack rag to remove any dust. I usually will spray my final coat but if that’s not possible or if I wasn’t experienced in spraying, I would brush on the final coat with a foam brush and not wipe it back. I prefer to let the finish cure for 48 hrs or longer before I take any final steps.

My preferred finish is a soft gloss, so I rub out the finish with a good quality 0000 steel wool and apply a good quality wax using the steel wool. The wax provide the lubricant and will buff out to a beautiful soft gloss finish.

If the table will be used under harsh conditions (e.g. pets or children), I will sand my final coat with 320 or 400 grit and spray on a coat of catalyzed varnish. This is the finish used on kitchen cabinets for its hardness and wearability. Warning, it is very toxic stuff and you need a good respirator and either be outside or have a spray booth. You could also take it to a professional finisher or to a good cabinet shop and have them apply the finish for you.

Peter Breu replies: You must first understand how that table will be used. If it is likely to get wet from drinks or hot from dishes, then a surface finish with some thickness such as lacquer or varnish is best. There are of course lots of choices and what you choose depends on how good you are at finishing. Brushing on a traditional varnish can be tricky if you are not practiced at it. Spraying on a conversion varnish (often my first choice) requires spray equipment and practice spraying. Wiping on a wiping polyurethane is easy but is a thin coat. Oil finishes (linseed or tung or “Danish Oil”  that is a mixture of oil and polyurethane are easiest to apply and can be a very attractive finish but not one that holds up to wet or hot conditions very well. Oil finishes often take the longest to cure and be ready for use.

Cherry is not any different from any other hard wood in terms of what sort of finish to use. All finishes will allow the cherry to darken with UV and all will protect the wood to some degree. Make sure you think about how the table is likely to be used and how practiced you are with the finish you intend to use. Practicing on scrap is always a great way to test your ideas. The more exactly the scrap duplicates the finished piece in terms of sanding and finishing the better.

Bruce Wedlock replies: Many woodworkers now just pad on their finishes. Viva paper towels work well. Just make a pad of several thickness and wipe the finish on. No brush marks. Of course, I always stain my cherry with potassium dichromate first. See Fall, 2015 Journal—page 30.

Joe Barry replies: I have used Lockwood Cherry dye on a cherry dining table which gives a very dark and aged look to the cherry (no sapwood) followed by Epifanes satin varnish to give a bombproof surface.

Tags: Finishing, Tables