One Good Thing About Aging

It isn’t getting what my dad used to call the “gray hair discount” and it isn’t the fact that almost everyone calls you “sir”. Those things don’t make up for the creaking joints and failing eyesight. It’s the color that cherry develops after several years of exposure to air and light. Here’s a piece I made from some birds-eye cherry I had been hoarding for about fifteen years, and this medicine cabinet (a reproduction of the one in the chauffeur’s restroom in the Gamble house garage) was built in early 2009.

Greene & Greene medicine cabinet by Robert W. Lang

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There are innumerable ways to stain or dye cherry, but nothing comes close to what you get by being patient. If you add color when the piece is new you’re likely to wind up with something dark and muddy in a few years. My favorite cherry finish is good old Danish oil, followed by some paste wax after the oil has dried. It looks too light for the first year or two, but eventually the color develops into what you see in the photo at left.

There are a couple of tricks to speed up the process. You can set the finished piece in the sun for an afternoon, or put it in a tanning bed if it’s small enough. There are also chemicals that will oxidize the wood like lye or potassium dichromate. There isn’t any harm in that (if you’re careful with the chemicals and the birds don’t poop on your work) but the color still needs a few years to mature and age gracefully.

I think that’s a good thing and don’t mind the wait. If something is well made, those first few years don’t matter much. It’s fun to watch the process and look forward to how it will look later on. It’s similar to watching a kid become an adult. Nothing wrong with the early version, but it just gets better with every passing year.

Greene & Greene medicine cabinet by Robert W. Lang

Click on the image for a larger version

Pieces we build are a reflection of where we were at the time we made them. There is always a flaw in an older piece that teaches us a lesson for the next piece. We remember struggling or worrying over this joint or that detail but those former concerns are now routine tasks.

After six years, this cabinet is starting to look really good. My son has a cherry coffee table that I built several years before he was born. I spent most of an afternoon fretting over the three boards that I glued together to make the top, and didn’t sleep for a few nights in fear that the base would fall apart. The top looks better than ever, and the base is still together. I’ll have to challenge him to find the joints in the top boards next time I see him. It isn’t the best piece I ever made, but it served us faithfully for a long time. If nothing else, the color is fantastic.

Bob Lang


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