Killer Finish on Cherry (and other woods)

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Blog entry by Alin Dobra posted 12-21-2010 03:34 AM 21264 reads 41 times favorited 26 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Some people asked how did I get the deep, nice finish on my latest cherry projects. Some of you might know the answer: potassium dichromate. Since the information I see on the web about the use of this “magic substance” is inconsistent, I’ll try to give you my point of view and experience.

WARNING: I am only offering my opinion without any implicit or explicit liability or fitness to a particular purpose. Use this advice at your own risk; I do not assume any responsibility.

Note 1: As questions are asked, I’ll be adding to the F.A.Q. at the end to build more complete knowledge.

Note 2: I added a comparison with lye at the end since it is the most used other substance for same effect.

Before we look into potassium dicromate (I’ll call it PD for short), let’s first ask the question: why old cherry is so much nicer than the new cherry. It is not only the color but the depth and richness of the finish. Well, there is no secret really: most woods contain tannin. When tannin oxidizes, it colors the wood. For example, when tannin reacts with the iron in the presence of water, you get black/blue streaks in the wood (that is how you recognize nails in the wood).

How does the tannin oxidize? When the wood gets exposed to Ultra Violet light (always present outdoors and present enough indoors unless filtered), the UV rays energize the watter particles and unbond the oxygen from the hydrogen. The free oxygen combines with the tannin and color the wood. The process is usually very slow but on some woods, a good day of exposure to sun can produce visible results.

What is potassium dicromate? Without getting into a lot of chemistry, potassium dichromate is a substance that has a lot of loosely bound oxygen. In fact, it is ready to give up that oxygen at the first chance. When in contact with substances that can oxidize (combine with oxygen), potassium dicromate looses the oxygen. Now, most organic substances oxidize, so they will react with the potassium dicromate, including your hands.

Wood Samples: Each sample finished half with and half without PD followed by a coat of shellac (brushed).

A. Cherry. The PD darkened the cherry a lot and brought out the gorgeous grain

B. Pine. Notice the deeper but yellowish color

C. Pecan, sapwood. Yellowing

D. Pecan, heartwood. Nice subtle caramel color. Brings the grain and color up.

E. PD in the jar. Crystals are quite big (looks like rough salt). There is no fine dust so no need to get paranoid.

F. Handle with care. Wear vinyl gloves.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Does PD color the wood? No, at least not in a significant way. PD has a faint pinkish color (see above pictures). What PD does, though, is it oxidizes tannin and colors the wood in 1/2 hour as much as years of exposure to light.

2. If you apply more, do you get a deeper color? When PD fully reacts to the tannin on the wood surface it has no effect on the color. You can put as much as you want but the color will stay the same.

3. How hard is it to apply consistently (i.e. get a nice uniform color)? Very easy. Since the wood cannot be colored beyond the saturation point, you just want to make sure you cover the surface well. You can apply it twice to make sure you did not miss any spot. I apply PD with a foam brush (that I keep recycling until destroyed) by basically brushing it on from a plastic container. You wan to make sure you do not splash around,especially on your hands or feet.

4. How does the PD solution get prepared? I put a small quantity (1/4 tsp at most) in 1 pint of warm watter and stir until dissolved. That is it. DO NOT DISSOLVE A LOT. It is not needed and the solution is unnecessarily dangerous.

5. At what stage of the finishing process should I use PD? I usually scrape then sand to 220 the piece. I apply PD at this stage.

6. How much do I have to wait to start finishing? Until the surface is dry, usually 1 hour. I sand lightly afterwards with 220 grit since the watter in the solution raised the grain (a good thing since it raises anyway latter).

7. Will it color the sapwood? NO. It will age the sapwood making it look yellowish but not darken it significantly. The sapwood does not have tannin.

8. Does it make finishing with some types of finish more difficult? Watter and residual PD on the wood are evaporated or sanded away. What is left is just the wood with the tannin oxidized and the wood behaves the as if it natural. No finishing product will react with the color. No restrictions since it is not a stain nor a dye.

9. I’ve head it is a nasty substance. Is it? PD has a bad reputation because the chemical manufacturers have to put strict warnings. If you have to shovel a truckload of PD, then yes, be concerned, very concerned. If it gets into your nose, it produces severe inflammation, if it gets on your skin (as a solution) it produces burning. Now, if you want to use if for furniture, all you need is basic precautions: a. Wear a respirator when you mix the powder with the watter. Once in the water, there is no danger to your respiratory system. Even dust after the solution dries is inert since the PD reacted with the wood (it reacts with everything except plastic). b. Wear gloves when you brush it on. Latex gloves are no good since they are permeable to small molecules. Vinyl gloves are perfect c. If you splash yourself on hands or legs, go wash in a lot of watter. PD in solution is about as nasty (or not) as chlorine (bleach). Try not to splash yourself in the eyes. If you do, wash for 15-20 minutes (same as chlorine). d. DO NOT DRINK IT. more importantly, keep it away from children and do not keep it in beverage containers since it can look a little like soda.

10. On what woods should I use it? Well, experiment. Above you see it used on 3 types of wood with varying millage. On cherry, it is always exceptional and so is on mahogany. I used in on pecan and it produces a nice, subtle effect. On pine it is not so nice and on oak it does almost nothing.

11. Does it really keep the original wood color? I have compared pieces finished with PD and 5 year old pieces that were not but got exposed to light. I see no difference beyond the normal color variation you see in cherry.

12. Is it expensive? Where can I get it? You can buy PD from ebay or chemical supply stores for about 10$/lbs . 1lbs is enough for a lifetime so do yourself a favor and buy only 1 lb and share it with friends.

13. Can I apply it on veneer? Yes. As long as you apply it on wood, it will do its magic. On plastic it does nothing. It stains everything else.

14. Can other substances oxidize like potassium dicromate? In principle, yes but they might have other undesirable effects. Potassium permanganate, for example, is a lot more reactive, thus riskier to work with.
A mild solution of PD is a lot better; it oxidizes in 1/2 hour and you really do not want faster oxidation. Also, once the tannin is fully oxidized, there is no more coloring. You will not get a deeper color with a nastier substance.

15. What is the proper procedure to dispose of PD?(thanks sras) I usually do not dispose of the solution since it does not go bad in time. I just keep it on the shelf and use it at a latter time. Proper disposal procedure is probably similar to other nasty substances: take it to the recycling center.

16. Does it really have no effect on oak?(Dusty56) To be honest on this one, I would have to experiment again but as far as I remember, the effect is subtle to no-nexistant so I prefer not to use it. I might be wrong, hence the experiment.

17. Is glass OK for storage or just plastic? (Pawky) Glass is perfectly fine for PD (I store the crystals in a glass jar). Interestingly, glass is not OK for lye since it will slowly eat through it.

18. Do you need to scrape and sand for PD to work?(Pawky) Nothing special needs to be done for PD to work. My normal finishing routine consists in scraping followed by 220 sanding but I do that for reasons of speed and quality of result not for PD to work. Any finishing procedure is fine.

19. Do you need to use distiled watter with PD? (BigTiny I do not know but I suspect not (see section below). PD does not seem to be so reactive as lye. For example, I put PD on iron and aluminum and I got no reaction. If you have distiled water around, it never hearts to use it, though.

20. How deep does the color penetrate the wood?(Pawky) The effect of PD (and probably lye) is dependent on watter penetration, which is not much for side-grain. My guess is that the coloration only goes inside for less than 1/256 in (superficial). Sanding more than lightly will definitely discolor it (but then you can put more PD).

Comparison with lye (sodium hydroxyde or caustic soda)

Lye keeps on popping out among the substances used by other LJs so I took the trouble to look into it. Here is what I found in the form of advantages/disadvantages:

Advantages of lye

1. More available, especially if you are impatient. PD has to be bought from the web but lye is available locally.
Lye is probably cheaper as well.

2. Reacts faster with the wood.

Disadvantages of lye

1. It is a nasty substance. The Wikipedia page has a picture of a severely burned hand. Chemical gloves and full on protection is probably needed. With PD, I just wear cheap vinyl gloves and when some makes it on my skin, just flush with water. I never get burns (just mild irritation).

2. Lye reacts with everything. Distiled watter seems to be strictly needed since lye will react with residual metals and get various non-desirable side-products. I was surprised to see that it even reacts with glass (eats it away) and that it absorbs humidity. This means it goes bad, so it is irrelevant if it is cheaper than PD. Keep in mind that the 10-15$ investment in 1 lb of PD is expected to last many years since minute quantities of PD are needed even for large projects. My entire king size bed required less than 1/4 tsp of PD.

3. Lye seems a handful to handle and store properly. Cannot be stored in glass. When in contact with aluminum, produces hydrogen and can get explosive, reacts with everything violently (hands included). Any of these highly corrosive substances can produce harmful fumes. When lye was mentioned, I was tempted to volunteer to compare it with PD but after reading about it, I’m not tempted at all. I would personally not deal with it.

All in all, to me the disadvantages overshadow the advantages. Price and reaction time are not so important (I have to wait for 1 hour for the water to evaporate anyway, it does not mater if full color is achieved in 1/2 hour or instantly). Danger of manipulation is important to me so I would rather not use it. I think historically lye was the first chemical to be used for this purpose since it is easier to synthesize. PD is more modern and has been used extensively only in photography (film development) but it is a much nicer substance. I’ll keep on using PD and not even try lye.

Thanks for reading. I would appreciate feedback on the quality and usefulness of the above information (so I can do better next time).


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

26 comments so far

View Dark_Lightning's profile


4726 posts in 4273 days

#1 posted 12-21-2010 03:54 AM

One thing to consider is using too much. The unused PD will be an irritant, the same as the stuff in the bottle before adding water. So, overdoing it and then inhaling the dust from sanding could possibly be irritating.

Also, it’s interesting that this has no effect on oak, when oak has all that tannin.

-- Steven.......Random Orbital Nailer

View Marc5's profile


304 posts in 4506 days

#2 posted 12-21-2010 04:01 AM

I found this informative especially since finishing is one of the areas I struggle with. After reading this and seeing the result have you had any luck using dyes to achieve the same rich finish?

Thanks for posting.

-- Marc

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 5052 days

#3 posted 12-21-2010 04:06 AM

AtomJack: I never found the dust from the sanding irritating. I think the PD reacts completely with the wood.

Mark5: You can get a deep finish with dyes but the color is too uniform and you will have problems in the future with color matching if you have to fix a piece. PD will always do the same thing to the wood; finding the same color will be tough, though. A colleague bought 6 chairs from a reputable furniture company. Two years latter he wanted to purchase 2 more but they could not match the color. You will have to deal with the same issue. Also, in my opinion, stains and dyes make the color too uniform.

-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View juniorjock's profile


1930 posts in 4930 days

#4 posted 12-21-2010 04:12 AM

Welcome back, Alin.
- JJ

View Pawky's profile


278 posts in 3968 days

#5 posted 12-21-2010 04:41 AM

That was very interesting to read. These tricks for finishing are very nice to read since I haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot here. A couple quick questions.

You said you have to store it in plastic, can it not be stored in glass?

When using it on wood, is it just reacting on the surface? or how deep into the wood does it react?

You said that you usually scrape (to get glue and stuff off?) then sand to 220 before applying the PD. Have you tried sanding to finer or not sanding as fine or at all before applying it? What difference did you find this made in the end result?

Thank you for posting this

View SPalm's profile


5338 posts in 5046 days

#6 posted 12-21-2010 04:45 AM

Hey Alin, nice to talk.
This is interesting. I did some cherry tables many years and used lye. It did a fantastic job of coloring. It is a little nasty (like bleach) but was easy to find and use. I have not thought of that in a long time. Do you think it is the same kind of reaction going on? I also remember that it was not very deep, so sanding after application had to be done carefully.

I will have to try it,

-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 5052 days

#7 posted 12-21-2010 05:05 AM

Pawky: Glass is fine (as inert as plastic). I scrape because I can finish much faster than sanding (future post on what I do). I only touch-up the scraped surface with 220 sandpaper. You can of course just sand (if you can deal withe dust) and get the same result. About depth of penetration, you can sand flat surfaces with 220 grit safely but on corners you have to be careful. The penetration is shallow and it is limited by normal water penetration (which is not much on side grain.

Steve: lye does the same thing; produces oxidation of the tannin. Nothing penetrates the wood very deep on side-grain. All of these substances irritate the skin (skin does not like oxidants).


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View sras's profile


6260 posts in 4293 days

#8 posted 12-21-2010 05:07 AM

Very interesting post Alin. The FAQ format makes it fairly easy to go back and look for specific content.

I have only been able to come up with one area that I did not see covered – Some suggestions on responsible ways of disposing of the powder or solution would be helpful.

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View Pawky's profile


278 posts in 3968 days

#9 posted 12-21-2010 05:13 AM

thank you, I look forward to the next post you mentioned.

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 5052 days

#10 posted 12-21-2010 05:13 AM

Steve(aras): I see no reason to dispose of it since it does no go bad. I put it on the shelf and use it next time. Having it ready makes for fast finishing work and less mixing of new batches (always a little freaky). If you really want to dispose it, you should do the same thing as with bleach: take it to the recycling center. All of these substances are bad for the environment if thrown away (bleach destroys everything including DNA and PD is probably no different)


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View Dusty56's profile


11863 posts in 4852 days

#11 posted 12-21-2010 06:11 AM

Very interesting post : )
I am also wondering why it has no effect on Oak…that is the first wood that I ever heard the word “tannin” associated with.

-- I'm absolutely positive that I couldn't be more uncertain!

View BigTiny's profile


1718 posts in 4052 days

#12 posted 12-21-2010 09:13 AM

I use lye on cherry, 1 teaspoon per pint of water. You should point out that you should use distilled water for these concoctions as tap water often has mineral content that can react with the chemivals and give an unwanted discoloration to the wood.

I prefer lye as it is cheaper and seems to work faster.

-- The nicer the nice, the higher the price!

View Pawky's profile


278 posts in 3968 days

#13 posted 12-21-2010 09:25 AM

Thank you for mentioning distilled water, a good thing to know :)

Have either of you compared the difference between PD and lye side-by-side?

I was wondering about the oak as well, though assumed it had to do with it’s color is more white/neutral (how exactly do you describe oak’s color?) that it isn’t as noticeable as with cherry which you can see a big difference between a light colored red and one nice and bright. Maybe it’s a different reason though and not just perception?

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 5052 days

#14 posted 12-21-2010 01:13 PM

BigTiny: Thanks for pointing out your recipe of using lye and the use of distiled watter. I added a section to the article with my point of view on the issue. I think PD does not need distiled watter and it is a nicer substance to work with. Lye seems nasty in comparison. Again, my guess is that the same chemical reaction colors the wood so there is no reason to use any of them in particular other than convenience and safety.

Pawky: I’ll experiment on oak but not on lye. Too nasty (see the burned hands here:


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View rance's profile


4278 posts in 4325 days

#15 posted 12-21-2010 01:38 PM

Alin, Thanks for putting this together and sharing. Good information as finishing is one of my weak points. I’m gonna tuck this one away for future reference. Thanks.

I believe it is Red Oak that has the tannins.

-- Backer boards, stop blocks, build oversized, and never buy a hand plane--

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