American Cherry – A personal view

By Michael Buckley, MPhil, Fellow of Institute of Wood Science 

The hardwood business is like the fashion business. We consume hardwoods for two reasons – performance and personality.

‘Seven Days’ kitchen unit by Riva Italy

We choose hardwoods first because they are fit for many purposes. They perform in strength, durability and machinability; like clothes perform for warmth or coolness or resistance to bad weather. Secondly, we use hardwoods simply because we like them. We like the look of them, for their grain or colour or variety; just like we choose clothes for visual effect or camouflage or contrast. As with clothes so it is with hardwoods. They follow fashion, in cycles and trends according to traditional or contemporary design, which means individual species can be ‘in’ and ‘out’ of fashion.  One difference between fashion cycles in hardwoods and clothes is the time the cycles take and how long they last. That’s probably because most consumers keep furniture and interiors longer than we keep clothes – especially when clothes are so cheap these days. We invest much more in furniture than we do in clothes. We expect our furniture to last longer and in some cases with ‘heritage’ furniture we may even pass on to our children. That’s actually good for the environment as it sinks the carbon stored in hardwood for longer. “Quality furniture stores carbon longer.”

Cherry solid wood shelfing

Nevertheless hardwoods do suffer from changes in fashion which affects new furniture and therefore the business of furniture makers; Cherry is no exception. Not so very long ago Cherry (American forest Cherry, Prunus serotina) was the ‘in-thing’, highly fashionable with designers and consumers all over the world. That coincided with a trend for red-coloured hardwoods, somewhere between the cycles of unstained blonde hardwoods, like Maple and Ash, and the more recent fashion for dark stained Oaks or dark woods like Walnut. Cherry can go either way. It can easily be stained, which hides its beauty, or it can be clear finished which enhances it beauty. Being a relatively expensive wood there did not seem much point in hiding it with dark stain so recently we have not seen Cherry in fashion. What happened? For one thing, the price of Cherry collapsed from its peak, although it has never been very cheap.

Why is Cherry not cheap? Well there are several propositions. It has a limitation in volume, representing about 2-3% of the American hardwood resource*. That is actually a lot, but not if everyone wants it all at the same time. Cherry is not very suitable for flooring, at least in the USA and Europe, where people may keep their shoes on in their homes. So the lower grades have fewer market applications than some other species, like Oak. The yield of high grade Cherry may only be as low as 10-20% of the tree when cut for lumber. There is also some resistance in some markets to the use of sapwood, so sap-free lumber comes more expensive by commanding a price premium. Cherry has some marked natural characteristics, such as gum pockets, which some designers dislike although others may consider them a nice feature. But in any case, Cherry should command a fair price for such a brilliant hardwood.

In recent times there has been the usual volatility in many American hardwood prices, as always caused by changes in supply and demand, weather patterns and, as said at the beginning, by fashion ups and downs. The price of Cherry in recent years has been less volatile because the supply and demand has been quite stable; and many forest owners, knowing its value have been prepared to just let it grow. Incidentally, Cherry is relatively short-lived with a rotation of about 50-60 years, so forest owners have to wait less time to harvest Cherry than many other hardwood species such as Oaks. Most markets in Asia are now showing signs of a real fashion back to Cherry, and meanwhile plenty of it has been growing in the forests of the eastern United States since its last high fashion cycle.     

* 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 of the available standing trees of Cherry was at least 220 million cubic metres.

**This article was first published in the American Hardwood Southeast Asia Supplement 2016