cherry countertop finish

laurielou177September 28, 2011

I've posted some things earlier on kitchen forum regarding the cherry countertops that our cabinet maker made because I wasn't sure how we'd finish them, but now that we have the countertops, have some more specific questions related to cherry that you might be able to help with.

When he brought the countertops in, we were dissappointed because they weren't the red color that we'd envisioned. We have a red bar stool of indeterminant wood that we showed him and said that's what we were looking for, and he said that was fine. Well, when they arrived they were more white looking w/a pinkish cast, some boards pinker than others, but definitely not red. They are definitely nice looking counters, but nowhere near the color we were imagining.

Then, someone told my husband they'd turn red over time, and my aunt said her cherry cabinets turned red over 3-4 yrs. Is that generally the case? And, if so, will they redden even if a wiping varnish like waterlox is applied? I would imagine a sealer like that would change how the wood reacts w/air and light, so maybe the wood could not redden?

Furthermore, if we instead use a mineral oil w/wax or a 100% tung oil, will that redden the wood? We were already having difficulty deciding whether to waterlox or do a mineral oil or pure tung oil with or without a wax, but the possible color change (or limit of change by sealing w/waterlox) further changes what we might want to do. I do have mineral oil I'll try on a sample scrap he brought in today.

So, we WANT it to redden if it will do that naturally, that's one factor. AND, we'd prefer more natural oil and wax for counters that will not see chopping, but will have lots of food contact, BUT, we are a messy family of 4, so not sure oil & wax will be practical. We don't want it to necessarily look pristine-and-magazine-cover-like-no-one-really-cooks-there, but also don't want it to look completely abused! Any experience w/cherry appreciated. Thanks.

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Yes, cherry will darken. Applying an oil-based finish will help bring out some of the red immediately. However the sapwood is more of an oatmeal color and will not turn red.*

A good schedule to enhance the color is the following:
- A liberal coat of boiled linseed oil, allow to sit for 15-20 minutes, then wipe off the excess (read: all you can). Hang the rag to dry outside. Let cure for 4 or 5 days.

- A coat of garnet shellac. Garnet shellac is naturally dark red. You will have to mix your own from flakes and alcohol, as this is not available, to my knowledge, in canned form. Allow to dry 30 minutes or more.

- Several coats of Waterlox Original. This is an excellent varnish, highly waterproof, and deep amber color.

Even though it's work and expense, I'd suggest you try this on some scrap before committing to your final countertops.

* Most places will trim off the sapwood as waste. But there is a Celtic harp maker that I know that leaves it in (artistically) and calls it "Vanilla Cherry." Marketing, gotta love it.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 1:50PM
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Cherry is one of my favorite woods because it changes color. The change is due to exposure to light, mostly. I used to live in Maine and there was a furniture showroom (mostly Shaker style furniture) that had cherry pieces at all stages of color change. Most pieces age regardless of finish, with the exception of poly w/ UV blockers. Stained cherry often loses the character of naturally aged cherry. Oiled cherry often looks better somehow, but other finishes can still work. I love tung oil (providing it is real tung oil and not "tung-oil finish" which is not truly tung oil). I'm not sure tung oil is recommended for food surfaces,anyway, mineral oil is. I've not used mineral oil on cherry; cherry isn't often used for counter top or chopping block applications and there is probably a good reason, I just don't know what it is.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 1:57PM
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One other thing. Although Waterlox varnish is a very good finish, it contains UV retardants and will likely inhibit further color change. I have just finished a "butcher-block" cherry trestle table with a varnish finish. I used a 100% tung oil/phenolic resin varnish without any UV blockers and then "rubbed-out" the finish. I can't walk by it without touching it somewhere.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 2:14PM
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RRM1 what is the name of the tung/phenolic mix that you used? And do you have a source for it and the garnet shellac? The only woodworkers store in town recently closed after 50 years in business. :( I'm contemplating a cherry island top for a new project and want it to look rich and hand rubbed. Moisture ressitance is also a factor as it has a prep sink in the island, so how would marine varnish work in that equation?

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 5:39PM
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If you treat cherry with sodium hydroxide (lye), it will darken immediately. Then you can oil or varnish it. The darkening is permanent and since it's a chemical reaction it doesn't dull the grain like a stain does.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 6:32PM
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The only problems I have with chemical treatments is

1. They can be dangerous to handle. Eye and skin protection are very much needed.

2. It is very much a "ready, fire, aim" approach. You don't have a lot of control over it except to control the concentration. No saying that two boards are going to react the same.

Lye can also be very hard to find these days.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 8:05PM
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Lye is just either NaOH or KOH. (Caustic Soda or Potash). Here's my problem with Casey's suggestion. One reason cherry is often NOT stained is that it is very hard to get even, non-blotchy results. The same goes for chemical "staining" and, in addition, handling strong bases is not easy especially if you don't have lots of experience. I have lots of experience and I would think very hard about doing it. It's my experience the best way is to spray a dilute NGR stain with methanol. It will eliminate most blotchiness and give an even color. But then you lose the character of the wood.

laurielou, unfortunately the varnish I use is not available in any retail setting. In addition,for industrial use it is available only in 55 gal. quantities. However, the reason I began using this varnish was for brightwork on boats. I then started using on furniture; it is a dream to work with. It is an "old style varnish" and harder than modern varnish resins and not called for much anymore. This hardness makes it an ideal finish to rub out and can look "burnished" or shiny, it's all in the technique.

However, there are marine varnishes available with part tung oil/phenolic resin although they are not common. Epifanes, is probably the best of the few choices. They make many marine finishes, so you'll have to sort through their catalog to find the right one. It's good, but isn't the joy to brush on as the one I use now. If you decide to use varnish make sure you use a high quality brush meant for varnish. They can be quite expensive.

I'm not sure a garnet shellac, or any shellac is the best choice for a sealer coat, although there's nothing wrong with using it. If you want to seal it, GF, General Finishes, makes a water base sanding sealer that I like a lot. It can be brushed or sprayed, then sanded before topcoat is applied.

I'm rattling on here. My point is, why varnish? I thought these were food prep surfaces. If a hand rubbed finish is what you want, an oil might by what you're looking for. If done correctly, it can be quite rich and lush. You'll also need lot's of elbow grease. Also, not readily available.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 9:25PM
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The lye worked extremely well for me or I would not recommend it, but as always YMMV.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2011 at 9:28PM
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Wow! Lot's of specific info and suggestions. In fact, so much, I'm still not sure what to do next, but I'll start w/some questions:

How do I know if the cherry I have is sapwood or heartwood? The person who made the countertop did bring 2 extra scraps of the wood over for use to try some different finishes on. I rubbed mineral oil on one last night, just because it's something I already had in the house. The scrap piece did turn reddish (and I chose the less-pink looking scrap over the pinker as my sample). And, it still looks reddish this morning.

If I go w/just an oil, or oil and wax method, I see suggestions for linseed, tung, and mineral oils. I don't own any 100% tung oil, or linseed oil, and not sure if I can buy local or will have to order, but among these 3, is one more likely to make cherry redder than the other?

I do worry about using just oil and wax, as we will be using both countertops for prepping meals, unloading groceries, and as our family is generally messy, laying down the occassional glass, bowl, etc leaving water rings. BUT, maybe it would work to use the oil/wax method through next summer to allow the cherry to continue reddening, and then if it's not holding up to our abuse, seal it w/waterlox at that point? (From looking at waterlox site, it looks ok to apply over an oil treatment, after allowing to dry for certain amount of time?)

As for the lye method, sounds good to force a quick reddening of the cherry (if we can purchase and apply correctly), but, would you need the shellac coating before waterlox, and, how safe can it be to have lye where we will prep food (again, no cutting, but all other prep)even it it's then coated w/waterlox (and possibly the shellac between)?

As far as just going the waterlox method, does anyone have experience w/whether cherry can continue to redden despite being coated w/waterlox? I would think not, but maybe someone has some experience with this?

Also, no one mentioned this, but any reason to use beeswax vs paraffin wax if we go the oil-wax route? I have some of both on hand, but just wondering if anyone has experience w/both for comparison.

Hope I haven't confused anyone w/my questions. You've provided so much info! Thanks.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 10:52AM
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I don't understand your preoccupation with wax. Mineral oil, only, is recommended for food prep surfaces. It takes upkeep and good surface prep initially, but any oiled surface does. Wax just builds up and becomes a pain to clean; save it for furniture and not for prep surfaces. BLT and tung oil are similar in colorizing, but BLT is much cheaper.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 12:07PM
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RRMI I'm not preoccupied w/wax at all, but read stuff by other posters who add beeswax or paraffin to their mineral oil for countertop. Wax is always in smaller proportion to the oil. We definitely don't want to add any additional steps when not not necessary, just know wax sometimes added by others.

And, sorry, but what does BLT stand for? I'm assuming the mineral oil, but what are the letters for. Or is it boiled linseed something? Again, I'm a beginner in this, that's why I ask! Thanks again.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 1:10PM
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Sorry, I meant BLO, just wasn't paying attention. Yes, boiled linseed oil

    Bookmark   September 29, 2011 at 1:31PM
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