New 100-year-old cherry; It is (no) lye!

Some woods stain great – some don’t. Oak, walnut and elm come to mind as the great ones. They stain easily and consistently, with no blotches or uneven color. On the other end of the scale are woods like maple and cherry, which are also consistent – consistently frustrating. Hard maple is the worst of the worst, with some of it taking almost no stain (I compare it to trying to stain a piece of glass) and other areas, like end grain, sucking up all the stain in the can. Anywhere that the grain simply changes directions is a spot for blotches to show up.

Right up there with maple is cherry. Although you can get some cherry boards to stain perfectly, many will look like a first-grader did it (and not the one first-grader that pays attention in class). The other problem with cherry is that it is usually expected to be at least medium-dark, which means the wood has to be darkened up somehow. I have a few recommendations for hard-to-stain woods, but for cherry, I have a trick. If you know it, don’t say anything yet.

This secretary was made from curly cherry and darkened with lye.

I don’t remember where I first heard of it, but I was told that lye darkens cherry. That’s right, lye, like the soap or Drano. I didn’t know anything about lye, so I did a little research. And, after using it many times, I can tell you that a little research is all I needed. It is amazingly simple and produces awesome results.

If I want a nice medium to dark cherry and don’t need to match a specific color, I will use lye before anything else. Lye is great because it does in seconds what would happen naturally in a very long time. It chemically changes the color of the wood, allowing all of the figure to show through without blotches. The new color created by the lye also goes below the surface to provide a measure of safety when sanding between coats of finish.

I use Red Devil lye (drain opener), which has apparently been discontinued. Lowe’s carries a crystal drain opener that is 100% sodium hydroxide (the active ingredient) or lye. I, however, have never used this product, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness.

To use the lye, simply mix with water. I use about two tablespoons to 16 oz. of water as a starting point. Test on a sample cherry board to see how dark it comes out – the change will be almost immediate. Add more lye to darken the color or more water to lighten it. To apply, use a nylon brush (natural hair brushes will melt away) to saturate the surface of the wood, keeping a wet edge and let it dry. That’s it.

Handle the lye mixture with caution and follow the safety instructions on the label. Specifically, wear rubber gloves and safety glasses, and make sure you have adequate ventilation.

Treat the wood as if you were using a water-based stain, by raising the grain before applying the lye. After the lye is dry, the wood can be finished and requires no treatment to neutralize the lye. I like to apply an oil finish before the topcoats to make the surface shimmer and really show off the magic of the lye.

No matter how you finish the piece, I think you’ll be amazed at how easily and quickly you can have a piece made from new 100-year-old cherry!

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

8 responses to “New 100-year-old cherry; It is (no) lye!”

  1. Martin says :

    Will the un-neutralized lye hurt the overlaid finishes?

    • wunderwoods says :

      I personally have had no problems putting the finish over un-neutralized lye, using oil-based finishes like Danish oil and/or lacquer. Taking the step to neutralize it for a margin of safety couldn’t hurt, but I haven’t found it to be necessary.

  2. Ann Haley says :

    A furniture maker just delivered a cherry table darkened with lye, finished with rubbed tung oil. It’s much darker than other pieces in my home. Is there any way to lighten it, reverse the chemical action of the lye?

    • wunderwoods says :

      Ann,

      Sorry to hear that. I don’t know of a way to lighten the cherry that has been darkened with lye. Perhaps your other cherry furniture is fairly new and will darken to match (that’s me just looking for a bright side).

      • Ann Haley says :

        Thanks for getting back to me; I won’t shoot the messenger! My guy says the piece might lighten a bit over time. We will see. Meantime, it will go in a room far from the existing cherry pieces which, by the way, are a mix of Thomas Moser originals and knockoffs. [The new table is very like the TM hall table.]

  3. Troy says :

    Hi Scott – will this lye treatment work on other woods, such as fir? I’m replacing some pieces of fir on my 120 year old interior staircase, and I’d love for my new fir to match the orangey, aged color of the antique fir…

    • wunderwoods says :

      It does work on other woods, but not necessarily in the great way that it does on cherry. I have tried it on white oak, for example, and it changed the color by darkening it, but it didn’t produce a color that looked natural for oak. I haven’t tried it on fir, but I would bet that it will work. It is definitely worth a try, especially since the colors are so similar. Let me know the results.

  4. Ken Carpenter says :

    I just saw this article. I have used lye (100% sodium hydroxide I bought at Lowes), and it works fabulously on cherry. I built home bar and back bar out of cherry, and I used lye to get the dark rich cherry color. It’s beautiful!

    I let the lye dry thoroughly, sand it with 320 grit lightly to knock down any raised fibers, then apply 2 coats of white shellac, then 2-3 coats of Deft Brushing Lacquer – sanding lightly between each coat. I finish it with Minwax Finishing Wax using 0000 steel wool, which gives a nice semi-gloss luster that looks 100 years old. The finishing wax leaves a very hard finished after buffing.

    Lye is amazing stuff on cherry, because it merely reacts with the natural chemicals in the wood, unlike stain that has pigment in it. Lye leaves no blotching at all!

    I am currently building a fold-down tablesaw outfeed table/assembly table from some non-furniture-grade cherry that has some sapwood in it that I had left over from the bar, plus a partial sheet of nice cherry ¾” plywood left over. I just applied the lye to it, and from the bar experience, I know it will come out looking great after finishing!

    Ken

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