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What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

Posted by seedsilly (My Page) on
Wed, Apr 23, 08 at 9:41

Hello all, I am usually on the kitchen or bathroom forums, but have a woodworking question for you.

My dad, who is a woodworker, took a look at a kitchen cabinet door that I stripped. He thinks the doors might be cherry. Whatever they are, they are pretty, and in good shape. Im guessing the cabinets and doors are original to the kitchen, which is circa 1950-60. I have two questions.

The cabinet door that I stripped is not as dark as I would expect for 50 year old cherry. Does stripping it expose a new layer of wood that will darken over time? Or is the wood likely as dark as it will get? I dont know what type of wood the faces are made of, dad just said "its a hardwood", it looks different than the door in my opinion. A blonder wood, although Im guessing as I havent stripped a face yet. Whatever it is, it took the original stain/varnish differently.

Also, any suggestions on finishing the cabinets? If possible, Id like to use tung oil or waterlox or something, as Im thinking that will enhance the wood, rather than simply add color. Am I on track here? While I want a "pretty" color (to me that is deep, rich, maybe some red tones but not too dark), I dont want artificial color. If possible. I of course also want to protect the wood properly. So I guess the question is, what is the best product to bring out the natural beauty of the wood?

I dont know if this matters in what material I choose, but the cabinet doors and faces have absolutely no ornamentation. All flat. Makes it easier for stripping and sanding at least.

I know I could play around with different materials on the back of the door, but Im not the type to spend money on lots of products that I dont plan to use up. So, if I could get some ideas of where to start, it might save me some money in the long run. Also, you should know Im very much a novice at stripping/staining etc.

Hope this isnt as clear as mud as I fear it might be!!

Thanks a lot.


Follow-Up Postings:

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

How about a picture of the wood. I use cherry quite a bit and it should darken with age. If you wish I will take a pic of FRESH CHERRY AND also a piece I built in 1960 which was finish with tung oil. it is almost black now. Let me see what kind of picture I can get.
I use only Tung oil now, but a very special one that you generally must order direct. Email me and I will give your their website AND NO I DON'T HAVE ANY INTEREST in their business, I just know that they make the BEST TUNG OIL out there.

1eyedJack and the Dawg

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

You have lots of questions. I will try to answer some of them.

Cherry will darken over time. However, cherry consists of sapwood (nearest the bark) and heartwood. The heartwood starts out salmon colored and will darken to a rich dark red. The sapwood starts out oatmeal colored and does not get red. Premium work will cut away the sapwood and delegate it to the scrap pile or secondary wood (parts you don't see). If the manufacturer is trying to avoid so much waste, they may employ "sap staining" in an attempt to bring the colors together. This normally involves first staining only the sapwood, then covering everything with a blending stain. Some manufacturers even bleach all the color out of cherry so it's all bland, and then use stains to restore the uniform color.

Stripping may remove some of the added color, but it usually does not remove the patina, unless it's followed by aggressive sanding. What did you see in your stripping sludge, lots of color?

Then, of course, you could have birch wood with a cherry stain.

Cherry, for the DIY, can be particularly difficult to stain, both because it is prone to blotching, and because it may obliterate the natural beauty of the wood.


The following is from a friend of mine that I will simply call "Steve," primarily because that's his name.

You can achieve the color of the cherry very easily without the use of either stain or dye by using the schedule below. Over time the natural inclination of the cherry to darken with age will only make it better.

Begin by carefully sanding thru 220g. Make sure that you remove all sanding scratches left by the proceeding grit and don't skip grits --120g, 150g, 180g, and finally 220g. Remove all sanding dust with a shop towel dampened with mineral spirits and carefully examine the MS wet wood for scratches you have missed and for evidence of glue squeeze-out that must be removed.

Next, apply a liberal coat of boiled linseed oil (BLO). I'm talking here about applying a thick, syrup on pancakes application. Allow the oil to soak into the wood for about 25-30 minutes and then wipe away the excess and buff the surface as "dry" as you can with a clean towel. Then, set the piece aside for a few days to allow the oil to cure. The towel is a spontaneous combustion hazard so do not wad it up and throw it in a corner, but hang it up to dry.

After a few days apply a 2# cut of garnet shellac mixed fresh from flakes. Simply brush it on with an inexpensive natural bristle brush with as little over-lap at the wet edge as possible and by keeping back-brushing to a minimum. Keep an alcohol dampened soft cloth in your free hand to pick-up runs and sags as they occur. The freshly mixed shellac will dry very quickly (25-30 minutes tops).

You can then lightly sand, just enough to smooth the surface, and apply your varnish topcoat. For a light-colored varnish that will not darken itself over time use a soya oil based alkyd resin varnish such as McCloskey Heirloom. For a somewhat darker look switch to a tung oil based or linseed oil based varnish. I prefer Waterlox Original, a tung oil-based phenolic resin varnish.

--- End of Steve's process ---


1) A Tung-oil based varnish is not the same as tung oil.

2) 90% of things labeled "Tung Oil Finish" have not a drop of tung oil in them. They are either thinned varnishes or oil-varnish blends. They are NOT tung oil. This is typically true of anything you're likely to find in a home center or hardware store. It's not that they are bad products; they are just extremely over-hyped and you are being lied to.

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

Here is an attempt at photos, lets see if it works. In both photos, the door on the right is the stripped door, other has not been touched.

close up

cabinet door

Thanks, Amy

RE: and another note...

To "Steve" and bobsmyuncle,

That's a lot of work you describe! Well, from what you wrote, doesn't sound like I have heartwood, if I have cherry at all. We'll see what the experts say, hope the photos are good enough. Amy

me again...

Forgot to answer a question...the stripping sludge was very colored, very orange. Thanks a bunch, Amy

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

From the last set of pictures, if those doors are 50 yrs old, they certainly are not cherry. I think they are maple. Cherry would be quite a lot darker and redder. Even brand new cherry would have more color. Maple is what you have.

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

Could be maple, could equally be birch that was a common cabinet wood of that era.

Forget Steve's cherry procedure -- while it will work, it won't give you a deep rich red color.

Coloring wood

Here is a link that might be useful:

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

OK, so we know theyre not cherry. I questioned that myself, based on it not being very dark. Sorry, Dad!

One vote for maple
One vote for maple maybe birch.

Anyone else have an opinion as to the species of this wood?

And any more suggestions on what finish would look nice with this wood?

Thanks much!

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

Have you thought about "Pickling" it? My grandmother had a huge marble toped table from the early 1900's. It went thru a huricane in 1960 and the veneer came off in chuncks. My father cut down the base (pedistal) and he then pickeled it using a off white base coat and a puke green top coat and presto, it looked pretty good. It was an eight sided chunck of marble that took at least two prople to lift.

1eyedJack and the Dawg

RE: What finish for 50 year old cherry cabinet doors?

"Cherry will darken over time."

Only if exposed to UV.
Painted cherry will stay a very light color.
Unless you found a layer of clear finish during the stripping it is very unlikely to be cherry.
Cherry has always been a premium wood and would not have been originally painted.

Birch and maple are relatively common painted woods.
Maple will be significantly harder than birch.

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