Walnut And Cherry Are Great Exterior Woods
I’ll admit it, I am not as fast as I’d like to be. I always think that I will get things done quicker than I do. And, I always say that things are done when I mean they are “basically done”, which means that I still have a few things left to do (therefore not done). I like to think of it as being optimistic. Well, while I am being “optimistic”, a lot of other things aren’t getting done (mostly because I am busy working on the thing that I thought was already done).
The one thing usually not getting done is sawing. After all, the logs aren’t going anywhere and a lot of them are just getting better with age. I’ll let them sit for a while, depending on the species, and try to play it just right for special things, like spalting, to happen. Sometimes I push it too far and the log rots and becomes unusable. Species like ash and maple, which have a lot of sapwood, need to be milled sooner than the rest. They (especially maple) will quickly stain, spalt and then rot, while others will be fine. I often use this rotting process as a gauge to decide which log to mill next. I like all of the logs I bring in, and I don’t want any of them to turn into dirt before they get turned into lumber.
Through the years, as I have kept tabs on the disintegrating logs, I have learned what it means to be “durable”. In the books about different species of wood, they always list their durability, which I thought meant how they handle wear and tear, like from a hammer, but they mean from the weather. Turns out some woods last longer outside than others. I knew this, of course, but only from reading it. Now, after all of my “wood collecting”, I know it from watching it happen. Some woods go fast, but some never seem to go. And, they are not necessarily the first ones to come to mind.
I was inspired to write this because of the two that are extremely durable, but no one ever thinks to use outside – two of my best friends – walnut and cherry. These two just don’t rot. I should say the heartwood doesn’t rot. The sapwood on both of them rots as fast as any other sapwood, but the heartwood doesn’t rot. I commonly find old logs with no bark and sapwood that just flakes off in my hand, but the heartwood is fine. It might have cracks in it from the log drying out or bug holes from sitting too long, but the heartwood will be just as solid as the day it was cut down.
Of the species I mill, these are not the only ones that perform great outside, but they are the surprises. I bet almost no one would think of using walnut or cherry outside. They always end up inside because they are so nice, maybe too nice to put outside. I will tell you that this one has me baffled, and as of yet, I have no idea why this is. However, my main interest is to spread the word that walnut and cherry are great outdoor choices. Walnut may not be the best because the price is going up, but cherry is becoming an even better choice as its price is on the decline. If you don’t mind a few knots in your outdoor work, common-grade cherry is very affordable. And, if you are doing a high-end outdoor piece clear walnut may make sense. It is more expensive than Ipe (an imported wood great for outdoor work), but it is easier to work with and it just feels right to use an American wood.
Again, the sole reason I know that these woods are durable is from my own experience. If I have a walnut or cherry log and it doesn’t get cut right away, I don’t sweat it. I know that years down the road that logs from these two species will still have solid wood in them, while others have rotted away. The best example I have is from a recent post about a walnut that I found on the Missouri River. It was the driftiest piece of driftwood you will ever find and the inside still looked like new (click here to check out the post and video from the picture above and to see the inside of the log).
Agree with you about using walnut outside. I find that it not only is durable and strong, it is beautiful and works so nice. I have a cherry stump in my ward that is the result of a tree that was cut down 25 years ago and I believe I could get a fair amount of material from it. I am from south Louisiana and now live in North Louisiana and love working in wood. I have cut plenty logs with a chain saw and enjoyed seeing the inside of these beautiful things before anyone else. Keep up the good work. Larry
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You sold me walnut for an english garden bench 8 years ago. Still solid — and I thought it was me
You are solid! I can’t believe it has already been eight years. Seems like just yesterday.
what finish do you recommend for cherry furniture to be used outside? I am replacing the slats on a bench.
It really doesn’t need anything, but it will turn gray. If you are looking for something with some sheen I am a fan of Sikkens Cetol Door and Window, now called Proluxe. It builds a finish like polyurethane, but lasts longer. It is still a losing battle though. It needs to be maintained every other year and will eventually fail if not maintained. I use it for doors regularly.
Scott, are you familiar with Kentucky Coffee, or called American Walnut in the North. I have read accounts of fence posts made from it lasting over 50 yrs, in the ground. I had several American Walnuts downed from storms in May of 2015. Had then milled in Dec. of 2016 and the wood is beautiful, no sign of any rot after laying on the ground all that time. Obtained 6ft to 16ft slabs, live edge, 14″ to 24″ width, 2″ and 2.5″ thickness. Basically, are you familiar with, and, any comments. Thank you
I have only milled kentucky coffeetree once, so I don’t know much about it. I can’t comment from first-hand knowledge on its durability. The wood looks like honeylocust and not far off from red oak.
Scott, My mistake, it is called American Mahogany in Pennsylvania region. In the South it is known as Kentucky Coffee, and is a beautiful grain. I really should be more rested before posting anywhere! Thanks for the great site you have.
Hi there, I came across this article trying to find out if I could use live edge cherry for siding on my house in Pennsylvania. It’s just one east-facing wall, not a huge commitment. I’m guessing it would be about 1” thick, basically whatever thickness that is best for this application. My concerns are insect damage, rot (from this article it sounds like sapwood on the live edge may be a concern), and I guess warping. I would finish it to preserve it, and hopefully preserve the color too.
In researching this topic, I keep seeing the same types of wood recommended—redwood, cedar, pine, etc.— but can’t find much information that gives hands on reasoning why NOT to use hardwoods like cherry or walnut. Often, people just copy advice they learned and then preach it blindly, without really knowing. Your knowledge is based on observation and not preconceived notion.
I also have access to black locust, which I know to last a while outside.