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Why Not Cherry?

 My name is Louis Irion, and my wife Wanda, and I are the owners and founders of the Irion Lumber Company. Our lumber company is the outgrowth of a custom furniture business I started in 1977, called Irion Company-Furnituremakers. We were making high end eighteenth century furniture to order, and at that time there were no specialty lumber companies, so we were at the mercy of the local wholesalers. We lived in an area with a lot of big hardwood trees, and could see the type of lumber used in the older furniture, but at that time there was no place to obtain such material. We felt that good wood was critical to the work we wanted to do, and since it wasn’t readily available, we would have to produce it ourselves.
– -It wasn’t quite that simple or obvious, but the short story is that we started working with small sawmills, buying green lumber, with some say in the cutting process, to buying downed trees and logs and having them sawn to our specs, which morphed into dealing with log brokers and buying trailer loads of logs. We sought bigger logs, also ones that looked like they had interesting grain, and crotches and burls, etc.
– -We learned how to care for and dry the lumber, keep the lumber from the same log together, and to set the most dramatic lumber aside for the focal points of the furniture, mainly the drawer fronts, panels and tops, etc. Over time managing the lumber became a full time occupation, so in 1996 we sold the furniture shop to a few of our key employees, moved to northern Pennsylvania where we had been buying a lot of our logs and lumber, and started the lumber company as a separate entity.
Curly cherry highboy built by Irion Co.

Curly cherry highboy built by Irion Co.

Curly cherry board

Curly cherry board

I offer this information only to establish the fact that I have been involved with wood in some capacity since the late sixties.  While never claiming to be the smartest person in the business, simply from longevity and from all the mistakes I have made over the decades, I can claim some experience. I have also witnessed how lumber markets ebb and flow, the result of myriad causes such as changing tastes, supply and demand, economic and even environmental issues. When I started buying wood products walnut was king, then cherry became the most sought after species. Meanwhile, curly or tiger maple became very hot, good mahogany was available, and quarter sawn white oak ascended. The curly maple and cherry markets crashed with the great recession, and South American mahogany became more expensive and much less available due to concerns about the rain forest. In the last decade, walnut has become the hot species again.

– -Since we started this business we have gone from selling mostly plain and figured cherry, curly maple and mahogany to selling mostly walnut, butternut and less mahogany, with cherry and especially curly maple at the back of the pack. Walnut is a minor species that has been heavily harvested for the past 10 years. The quality and availability of the logs and lumber is greatly diminished, as the price of the logs and lumber have risen. It is difficult to obtain enough quality lumber to meet the demand, and this scenario is reminiscent of the cherry market just before it crashed. As lumber procurers and sellers we have to wonder where this chain of events is leading, without any certain answers. – -As for our business, we will be exiting the mahogany market when available supplies are gone and in the absence of any new and quality material coming on the market. We are not interested in carrying any other species than genuine South American mahogany, and it has to be dark and dense, not like the lighter material coming out of Central America and Mexico these days. Butternut is just about finished as a viable lumber species due to a devastating canker disease, and we don’t see much hope for the walnut market, at least in the immediate future.

Large matched set of cherry

Large matched set of cherry

Large diameter cherry log

Large diameter cherry log

-Confronted with these issues, and looking at viable choices, the main option we see for our business and customers is Pennsylvania cherry, for numerous reasons, chiefly that there are incredible logs available, the prices are reasonable, there is a good and sustainable supply, and it is a beautiful wood. – -Northern Pennsylvania is blessed with some of the finest stands of black cherry in this country. For decades I had heard this claim, and it wasn’t until we moved here and spent some time in the woods, sawmills and log yards that I came to understand why. The most sought after cherry is the clear, veneer grade butt log. Veneer buyers talk about texture, uniform grain and such things in the logs that do not necessarily pertain to those working with solid lumber, but much more importantly, it is the overall quality of the cherry trees that sets this area apart. Our state was heavily timbered in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the primary object was the hemlock and pine, the dominant species in these woods. By the time the timber industry moved on to greener forests, our northern woodlands were devastated beyond belief, with hardly any trees of commercial value left standing. What followed was years of floods and fires, the land deemed worthless and often abandoned, left eventually to form the backbone of one of the finest state forest systems in the country.

– Cherry is a very opportunistic species, shade intolerant, with a great seed distribution system, mainly birds, and it found the perfect conditions here of disturbed soil and little competition. When the forests grew back they were basically hardwood forests, with maple and cherry the dominant species in many areas, especially in northcentral Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny plateau to the west of us. — My wife and I visited our state forest lands and took some photographs of some of the stands of cherry just to try to show the quality of the trees. In my travels around this country I have seen black cherry trees throughout New England, down South, the mid-west, even the mountain states, and the majority of the trees are invariably stunted, twisted, and just plain gnarly, often full of pitch and gum. Nowhere else have I seen stands of cherry like we have here. This deforestation took place over 125 years ago, so many of these trees are in their prime and are being cut before they start to decline, as cherry is prone to do. – -Pennsylvania was the first state to have their forests certified as sustainably harvested, and the DCNR is very pro-active in managing the timber. This has actually worked to the advantage of the long term market for cherry. If all the cherry trees in Pennsylvania were in private hands during the last cherry frenzy, there would not be nearly as much available today.

Tall, straight cherry trees with Lou

Tall, straight cherry trees with Lou

Next to a large PA cherry tree

Next to a large PA cherry tree

The state control also helps assure a reasonably consistent long term supply, as cherry is another minor species, although hardly to the degree of walnut and butternut, and it too could be depleted. The price may change, but the quality and long term availability should be there. – -I have been buying cherry for over 35 years now and have seen a great deal of fluctuation in the price and supply of cherry lumber and logs, sometimes to the point where we had difficulty even procuring enough material to sell. When the cherry market collapsed, it fell like a house of cards, and no one really saw it coming in time to avoid either the wreckage or the collateral damage. Cherry went from king to pauper; saw mills had difficulty finding anyone to buy their sawn cherry at any price, and many state sales didn’t even receive a single bid. Folks in the timber business did everything possible to avoid cutting their standing cherry. Bids were forfeited and a lot of businesses went bankrupt or simply closed their doors. — I don’t think we bought any cherry logs except for a few figured logs for a good 4 -5 years, and it was hard to understand how such beautiful logs suddenly had no value. We had already started switching our emphasis to black walnut and butternut, but the sudden lack of demand was hard for everyone associated with cherry to comprehend.

As time went on and our other woods became more problematic, the cherry logs in the concentration yards just started looking better and better-large diameter, quality logs at a reasonable cost, with good availability and few restrictions. — The cherry market had changed as well. Before the fall, the Europeans dominated the export market, and larger diameter logs were in demand. Today’s market is primarily Asian, and the ideal log is 18" on the small end, so there is not as much of a market for these jumbo logs. We started actively buying cherry again in 2012, mostly figured logs at first, then bigger saw logs that were not readily available in the past. At the time it seemed a bit of a gamble, but we were drawing down our walnut stocks and had some capital to invest. We bought more logs in 2013 and again in 2014, and have managed to build a enough inventory that is either kiln dried or on sticks air drying to start actively promoting this lumber, especially the matched sets. — We are either sawing these logs on our own mill or having the big logs sawn at a local mill that can handle the larger logs, so that we can control the quality of the material. During the sawing process each log is accessed for its potential yield and proper positioning, thenre-accessed after the opening cut when we get a better look at the grain. Our goal is to get the widest, cleanest and most interesting grain/figure in the boards from each log. We saw from one side until we start to hit defects, then flip the log 180 degrees and cut from the other side until we again start to hit defects. This keeps the cathedral grain towards the center of the boards and straighter grain on the outside, which makes any glue line less obvious. — At that point we cut the 3rd and 4th faces, which may yield more matching lumber but generally yield either heavy stock or narrower boards. All of the premium boards are numbered with the log number, the side they were cut from and their sequence in the log. Some of the sets consist of 2 logs from the same tree, and this is indicated as well. We number the heavy stock but don’t keep it with the rest of the log because of a different drying schedule, and any lower grade lumber is separated out as well. The thickness of the lumber is determined by need, yield and figure.

Cherry logs in the log yard

Cherry logs in the log yard

Large diameter logs ready for purchase

Large diameter logs ready for purchase

– Whenever possible we try to cut 9/4 sets because matched sets of thick planks for table tops are the hardest to produce, requiring big logs with minimal defects. The smaller logs are cut into matched sets of 6/4 and 5/4 if we are looking for table tops, and 4/4 for panel stock if the logs are smaller, have more problems or very highly figured. Sawing the logs is challenging, and sometimes they open up differently than we hoped, but that’s why we don’t go to casinos, we gamble on logs. We are continuing to buy cherry logs while we see if there is strengthening market for the lumber. With the difficulty in obtaining good walnut and mahogany, it does seem that cherry is the logical choice, especially for table tops, as it is the only premium wood we can identify where we can produce sets of wide and matched clear lumber with good lengths on a consistent basis. Along with our matched logs, we also stock plain and figured (curly) lumber in all the thicknesses and lengths to 16′, lots of single boards and small matched sets, much of it wider stock. The figured cherry we carry is from the same black cherry tree. The figure that appears in the lumber is an aberration of unproven origin that occurs in less than 1% of the cherry logs we see. The figuring can be quite striking, particularly when used in the focal points of a project. – – We use the National Hardwood Lumbermans Association (NHLA) grading rules as our baseline, but don’t use them to define the quality of the lumber. These lumber grading rules were established primarily for industrial woodworking and manufacturing, so lumber with end splits, wane, sap and other problems can still make the top grade. Most of our customers aren’t slicing the boards up and regluing the lumber, and they use wider lumber that can’t have these problems. Also, the NHLA also doesn’t concern themselves much with cosmetic issues, it would be an impossibility due to the sheer volume of lumber that is graded at a production facility. There is a lot of tolerance for sap, pitch and gum, ingrown bark, off color or just plain ugly lumber. Ours is a proprietary grade based on our customers needs, and we try to upgrade all of our lumber to meet this standard. While sap is not considered a defect, we consider it to be highly undesirable, and work hard to keep the sapwood to a minimum. The vast majority of our cherry is not only all red, it is also mostly clear, well above FAS. We pay a premium to select our stock or have it custom cut to our specifications, and try to have the material cut extra plump, especially the heavy stock. — The logs we purchase are mainly a grade called veneer rejects, meaning that some minor quirk or problem bumped them from the top category. We mainly buy only butt logs or consecutive logs from the same tree. These logs are still considerably more expensive than standard cherry saw logs, but they yield exceptional lumber. We tally our lumber to the ½ board foot, which provides a more accurate and fairer measure for each board, and write the footage on each board so that the customer can easily verify the tally. The lumber we would buy in for our furniture business was invariably 5-10% short on the measure, so an accurate tally is important to us. Our lumber is not the cheapest on the market-we put a lot of effort into producing a premium product from some of the finest cherry in the country, with a minimum of waste or unusable material. If good lumber is critical to the success of your project or job, we can help you make a difference, and an accurate tally and fewer defects will help mitigate the higher price.

Sawing a big cherry log

Sawing a big cherry log

a 6/4 cherry table top set

a 6/4 cherry table top set

If you are looking for live edged material and slab table tops, I would recommend that you contact Max Greeley at Rawood. He specializes in this type of material, not only in cherry, but other species such as walnut, figured maple, ash and whatever other large diameter species he happens to encounter in his travels. Max has been supplying me with high quality lumber for over twenty years, and he also has the sawmill that can cut my larger diameter logs, so we collaborate a lot, and we are working together to supply this type of material. We have put together a sampling of some of our matched sets of lumber in both plain and figured cherry for you to see in the following photos. We carry a large stock of matched cherry lumber that doesn’t always appear on our website. Many are 3-6 board sets for tops in 6/4 and 5/4 as well as some matched sets of 4/4 with good widths for millwork jobs and furnituremakers. Along with the matched cherry, we also carry 8/4 cherry that ranges from 10" to 18" wide, 7′ to 14′ long, clear and all heartwood, as a less expensive alternative to the matched sets. — We also have a few thousand feet of 5/4 mahogany from 27" to 40+" up to 17′ long with really nice grain, color and density, about 4000′ of dense 8/4 mahogany 14" and wider and 10 to 16′ long. We have some matched sets of ash, and some sets of 4/4 and 5/4 walnut in shorter lengths, and a few butternut tops. We are continuing to stock mahogany, walnut, butternut and curly maple in thicknesses to 16/4. In short, we have lots of material that doesn’t appear here or on our website, and we are continually bringing in or drying lumber to add to our inventory, so if you don’t see anything on our website that meets your needs, just give us a call and we will see what we can do. After years of increasing frustration about sourcing good material for our customers, we are really excited about the availability of these cherry logs and the the fact that because of the market, our established contacts and our location in the heart of big cherry country, we expect to be able to have a steady supply of logs and lumber for the long term. So if you share that frustration and want a consistent supply of matching material in good widths and lengths, you should consider focusing on Pennsylvania cherry. It is beautiful, affordable and sustainable. If you have a long term need for specific sizes, we can work to provide that as well.

Sincerely,
Louis Irion