Quality of Cherry Lumber

      Cabinetmakers discuss cherry quality, grading standards, and the market. August 17, 2006

What's with the quality of cherry these days? I just ordered 100 bf and half of it is unusable. The other half isn't worth writing home about. There is too much sapwood. The salesman told me he'd order me the top grade but it'd be at best 90% heartwood on one side - the other side - who knows. If this is as good as it gets, I'm not using cherry again. It is too much work - and waste.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
Can't say I've had that experience before. I do know my supplier supposedly gets some of the best cherry available, and according to him it has to come from PA. I guess I believe him since I've always been happy with what I got.

From contributor B:
We've been getting beautiful cherry, 12 to 16', 8" average and 80% heart. We usually buy in 1000' bundles and there will be a few poorer boards but there always are some. There is probably some leverage in larger purchases but there is really nice cherry out there.

From contributor C:
I think my last purchase of cherry was about 150BF, and I used 95% of it. It was really nice. I bought it from my local supplier. I find I have better luck with the local suppliers than I do with the big guys. The big suppliers send the good stuff to the big shops and the junk to the little guy like me. The local guys don't supply the huge operations, so they have to take care of the little guy.

From contributor D:
Cherry can run from heart-stoppingly beautiful to absolute crap from my local suppliers, but has been decent lately. My last buy was about 100 bf, and it took me less than a minute to select and load it - absolutely perfect unit! I think my local supplier just got tired of the complaints and realized it made sense to find better material and charge a little more. You have to be able to select - no reason to buy material without pulling it yourself. Just think of each of those rejects as a $20 bill. My supplier tells me that grading for cherry FAS requires 80% heart on the face, but no standard on the back, so you can get an all-sap back piece that's useless for nearly any kind of cabinet work but still qualifies as FAS. When the quality gets marginal, we spend a lot of time selecting, then set aside the stuff we can't use for the next paint-grade project.

From contributor B:
FAS grades from the worst face, FAF1F grades from the best face, but either way I don't think sap is considered a defect unless specified by the buyer.

From contributor E:
Most users of lumber don't know anything about grading lumber. Some resellers know this and will push #1 as FAS. I actually got into milling just because of this issue. The reseller was constantly trying to sell me cherry with 70-80% heart and trying to explain to him that I needed 95% or better heart, got to be to frustrating. Buy the time I would have finished the job, I would have had two truckloads of cherry into the job and should have had less than one. Why? Because they were charging 19% shrinkage - then I would have had to lose another 50-60% to get all heart. That would have come up to $13.00 bf for rough saw lumber. Sapwood should be considered a defect. Who has ever ordered cherry all sapwood?

From the original questioner:
It sounds like the supply runs the gamut. I think maybe Byron's right: the big suppliers sell all their best stuff to the big buyers. I've bought good cherry in the past from this outfit but they're telling me 80% heart on the face is the best grade they can get. What I'd like is no sapwood anywhere - whatever that's called. Anyone know of a supplier in the Seattle area who might have it?

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor Sawing and Drying Forum:
Please understand that the normal NHLA grades for cherry do not have a sapwood requirement. Further, the rules that allow small knots (1/8" diameter maximum) are ignored. Gum streaks are also allowed without limit. Should someone want to specify the amount of sapwood allowed, it is necessary to indicate how the amount will be calculated. For example, best side or worst side, only in the cuttings used to establish the grade or on the entire surface.

From contributor G:
I will push my limits here and say that if you want good cherry you are pretty much going to have to find a local sawyer. I notice that most of them don't grade their lumber. They'll sell it as log run and for the most part if they won't use it (sapwood) they won't sell it to you. That's how it seems around here at least. I don't necessarily think it has to come from PA, it just has to come from the right sawyer.

From contributor E:
The NHLA needs to re-write the rules on FAS Cherry. The product has gotten very bad for the guy that only buys a few hundred feet or a few bundles.

From contributor B:
How many people know the grading rules? FAS does not mean clear heartwood boards! You can download the rule book or order a copy here: NHLA Rule Book

From the original questioner:
If the grading requirements don't reflect what the user's requirements are then the grading method isn't very useful. With cherry, the cabinetmaker wants heartwood. If I have to mess around selectively staining, I'd be better off staining soft maple to look like cherry. Like I said, the wood used to be pretty good. Now it isn't.

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
The NHLA rules are the starting point and the NHLA encourages a user of the rules to add or modify the rules to reflect what quality that they need. These rules for FAS cherry for example are used every day world-wide and they work well for most people. If you need heartwood on one face, then that is an additional requirement that must be added. Every couple of years the NHLA reviews the rules and makes any changes that either buyers or sellers believe would be helpful. In truth, there are very few rule changes.

What is wrong with the FAS rules for cherry? If you want all heartwood, that is easy to add to your purchase order. The rules for FAS cherry have not changed in many decades, so the quality we get today is the same as 30 years ago.

From the original questioner:
I don't think that statement is true "the quality we get today is the same as 30 years ago". The rules from 30 years ago are the same, not the quality. I think mills were more selective 30 years ago and maybe put out a better product with less sapwood. Just because the rules are the same doesn't mean the product is. But I will agree that the rules are the rules. Not that everyone likes them, but they are the rules.

From contributor A:
This is an interesting post as it seems like once again the little guy gets second rate service. I wonder with all these bigger furniture plants closing if things will change for us. With less of the big boys to sell to, maybe we small timers will start getting a little better service.

As for the cherry quality, I think you guys getting bad wood need to find new suppliers. I personally have not been in the business for thirty years, but I have a hard time believing that the quality of wood has changed in that time period, especially when the wood I get is usually top notch.

I think it's far more likely that the quality of the wood you are getting from your supplier has gone down in thirty years. I usually only order 100-400 bd ft. lots and can ask for whatever I need - all wide pieces or all narrow pieces, longs or shorts. If I need all clear I just ask, and if I'm doing paint grade I'll ask if he's got any soft maple with sticker stain around to save a little money. In short I tell him what I need and if he's got it, that's what I'll get. A little communication goes a long way as long as you can find someone who will listen.

On the other hand once you get that type of service you can't really try to get the cheapest price also. If you want quality it usually will cost a little more. I personally am willing to pay it, and like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
The NHLA rules define the clearness and thickness required. So, if No.1 Common provides 67% clear in a required number of cuttings and has for 30 years, what other quality factors are there (in addition to sapwood) that need to be considered? In other words, specifically, how has quality changed?

From contributor E:
Sapwood is the biggest issue. Sapwood isn't what most people want. Excessive sapwood causes several drying defects.

From the original questioner:
One thing that I've noticed that apparently isn't considered in the grade is the board edges. My supplier sent me some boards that were not only mostly sapwood but had edges that were originally the outside of the tree. They're not close to straight and severely tapered so that by the time the board is trimmed up to a beautiful chunk of sapwood, it's about 3" wide. It seems like that kind of waste ought to be taken into account.

From contributor G:
I think everyone understands the rules; it's just that maybe years ago people were getting less sapwood. You can actually physically have a piece of cherry with zero sapwood that grades out a #1 common board. This, I believe, is what people are talking about. They were getting #1's with no sapwood. Just because the rules allow for it doesn't mean that the lumber is required to have sapwood to make the grade. You can make lower grades with all heartwood. What I believe is happening is that with cherry in demand the sawyers are sticking to the rules to get maximum yield versus a "higher quality" (in our eyes, meaning no sapwood or minimal sapwood) piece of lumber.

I would like to ask if you believe that you are getting the same cherry today that you got 30 years ago, meaning is there still the same amount of sapwood on the board (if you don't specify clear and just order FAS material or whatever grade). I'd have to bet that 99% of the people here will say that 30 or even 10 years ago they were getting better lumber (meaning less sapwood).

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
Cherry trees and logs being sawn today are smaller than trees 30 years ago, I believe. So, the number of pieces of lumber with sapwood has increased. Note that wane is considered when grading - it is included in determining the surface measure and then the minimum percentage of the surface measure that must be clear is specified in the rules (like 67% for #1, 83% for FAS, etc.). The amount of wane is FAS and Select and FAS-1-face is limited to basically 1/2 the length of the lumber on each edge. There are no limits in the other grades, although all grades require the lumber to be well manufactured.

Also note that tapered lumber is completely legal and acceptable. However, the width is measured 1/3 the way from the smaller end, so you end up with more surface area than what the piece is measured as. I am not certain, but it seems that most of the bad experiences mentioned in this thread are from the West. Does anyone in PA or surrounding areas have trouble with small quantities of cherry?

From contributor G:
"So, the number of pieces of lumber with sapwood has increased." That is the point of this entire discussion. I don't necessarily believe that the trees being smaller is the only reason. I think that mills can legally allow sapwood and they do that to increase their profits, which is perfectly acceptable (I don't have any problems with it, as it doesn't affect me, and it's also the rule until someone can get it changed). In essence "the quality we get today is the same as 30 years ago" is not true. I don't think that anything quality wise has changed except the amount of sapwood in the lumber, even though it has been allowed all along - it was just not as prevalent 30 years ago.

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