Sorting out the cedars

Timber
Western Red Cedar

To some woodworkers, cedar ranks high as the wood of choice for building decks. Others rely on it for lining closets or cigar humidors. How can one wood be so versatile? It's because multiple varieties exist with different properties and uses. We'll slice through the five most common species so you can choose the cedar that best suits your project.

Western Red Cedar

This member of the cypress family grows from southern Alaska through northern California and in the Rocky Mountains. The trees may grow 200' tall with trunk diameters of 10'.

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) reigns supreme for the production of decking, siding, shingles, and outdoor structures because of its natural decay resistance, ability to repel water, and abundance. Low density and light weight make it easy to cut and shape using hand or power tools. But contact with the sawdust can cause rashes and respiratory problems.

The heartwood of this species bears a consistent reddish-brown tone, sometimes tinged with pink. Knots prove prevalent in lower grades, though "clear" grades are available. Most of its thin white sapwood (which has little decay resistance) gets milled away during lumber processing.

Sources: Find knotty grades in dimensional sizes at home centers and lumber yards; clear grades at hardwood dealers.

Price: $1 to $3 per linear foot in dimensional sizes. $4 to $6 per board foot (clear 4/4 S2S stock).

Yellowish board
Western Red Cedar

Northern White Cedar

This cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is sometimes called "arbor vitae" (tree of life). It grows in southeastern Canada and the northeastern quarter of the U.S., south to Tennessee and west into Iowa. Trees grow 50' tall with 2'-diameter trunks.

Northern white cedar resists decay and insect infestation like its western red cousin, making it similarly suitable for outdoor projects, such as shingles, posts, and decking. Canoe builders use the wood to fashion their boats.

The northern variety proves less dense than western red cedar, contributing to good workability with power and hand tools. The wood tends to be brittle, tearing out without sharp cutters and backer boards. And some woodworkers report rash and respiratory problems.

A thin band of creamy white sapwood surrounds the wood's light brown heartwood, with knots often present.

Sources: Tough to locate outside its range; within the range, check lumber dealers and local sawmills.

Price: $1.75 per board foot (4/4 S2S stock).

Board with a strip of sap in it
Northern White Cedar

Eastern Red (Aromatic) Cedar

This tree (Juniperus virginiana) also belongs to the cypress family. It grows throughout the eastern United States, usually to heights of just 20' to 40', though some trees reach 100' or taller.

Most people refer to this wood as "aromatic cedar" because of its pungent natural oils, and use it to line closets and hope chests to ward off insects. Little scientific data exists, however, to show the wood repels bugs effectively.

It works easily with hand and power tools, but use a respirator and gloves if you experience rash and respiratory problems. Nonetheless, pencil makers prefer the wood, as do producers of souvenir wooden novelties.

Eastern red cedar heartwood bears pinkish-red tones with an occasional purplish tinge and deep reddish-brown streaks. The sapwood is almost white, and knots are often present throughout the wood.

Choose polyurethane or lacquer for the best finishing results. In confined spaces, the resins in eastern red cedar can cause finishing problems, as they inhibit proper hardening of oil finishes.

Sources: Seek out hardwood dealers for lumber, home centers for closet lining.

Price: $3.50 per board foot (4/4, S2S stock).

Board with a big knot hole in it
Eastern Red (Aromatic) Cedar

Yellow Cedar

Also known as Alaska cedar, this tree (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) grows in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska through British Columbia and into Oregon. The wood ranks as hard and dense, with tight rings indicative of its slow growth. Even so the wood remains lightweight, giving it an impressive strength-to-weight ratio.

Native Americans used yellow cedar to produce ultralight, durable canoe paddles and many other useful items. Today, makers of stringed musical instruments prize the wood because of its excellent sound quality. Boatbuilders use it for decks, railings, and interior paneling.

Yellow cedar ranges in color from creamy white to sulfur yellow, with occasional dark streaks. The wood machines beautifully, glues and stains well, and develops a satiny sheen.

Sources: Luthier's supply companies, specialty hardwood dealers.

Price: $6.50 to $7 per board foot (4/4 S2S stock). Prices for instrument-grade wood run much higher.

Cedar with smug on the end of board
Yellow Cedar

Spanish Cedar

The sole hardwood and only import of this group, Spanish cedar (Cedrela oderata) grows natively in Central and South America, and has been planted in Florida. This relative of mahoganies can grow to 100' tall.

Within its range, Spanish cedar gets used for everything from furniture to windows and cabinetry. Builders of lightweight racing boats fashion the wood into sleekly curved hulls. Though harder to obtain in the United States and Europe, Spanish cedar has become the wood of choice for lining cigar humidors because of its aromatic oils and moisture resistance.

The lightweight wood bears straight grain and proves easy to machine and finish. Spanish cedar heartwood has a pinkish to reddish-brown tone that darkens over time.

Sources: Go to hardwood dealers for boards, and woodworking catalogs for small stock.

Price: $7 per board foot (4/4, S2S stock).

Dark cedar
Spanish Cedar

More resources

  • Find information about 100+ wood species in our online wood reference. woodmagazine.com/woodprofiles
  • Aromatic Cedar: Myth or Mothbuster? woodmagazine.com/aromatic

bug

  • Cedrus libani, the cedar of the Bible: woodmagazine.com/biblicalcedar
  • Build a mahogany and aromatic cedar blanket chest. woodmagazine.com/blanketchest $

Cedar chest

  • Construct a made-in-the-shade cedar tree bench for your backyard. woodmagazine.com/treebenchplan $

Bench around tree

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