Eastern Red Cedar
Favored for fragrance and flavor French Acadians, deported from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755 to what is now Louisiana, found a familiar softwood growing in their new land. For its red bark and red wood, they called it baton rouge, meaning "red stick," the name the French settlers adopted for their capital city. Eastern red cedar, the "red stick" of the Acadians, belongs to the juniper family of conifers, one of the oldest on earth. Ancient Egyptians used a juniper to make chariot wheels in 1300 B.C. And the Dutch, who first distilled gin in the 17th century, flavored their concoction with juniper berries, a practice that continues today. Juniper leaves and twigs also furnish a fragrant oil for medicines and perfume. But moths and buffalo beetles find juniper's sweet smell highly repugnant. That's why eastern red cedar; made into chests and closet linings, has been prized for protecting woolens since colonial times. When large stands of large trees were abundant, eastern red cedar was used for lead pencils because it shaves so nicely. Now, an African cedar has replaced it as pencil wood, and woodworkers make use of knottier; narrower boards.
Sometimes called red juniper and aromatic red cedar, eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) grows from north to south in most of the eastern U.S. and even west into North Dakota and Texas. For soil, it likes every variety except wet, spongy swampland Eastern red cedar averages about 16" in diameter and 20' to 50' tall. Rather than the needles typical of evergreens, this tree has lacelike fronds that brown with age. Its bark appears reddish-brown and shredded, and easily strips from the trunk. By autumn, eastern red cedar trees develop pale, blue-green berries, much appreciated by birds. The wood of eastern red cedar is light, weighing about 33 lbs. per cubic foot air-dried, and, surprisingly, is 80 percent as strong as white oak. The thin, white sapwood has a pale pink hue, while the heart- wood darkens to pinkish red. The oil in the wood causes its pleasant, unmistakable aroma-especially around the knots.
Eastern red cedar has a fine grain, but a soft texture. It works easily with hand or power tools, despite the fact that it is somewhat brittle. In stability, it ranks quite high. If you want the wood to remain fragrant, don't cover it with a finish. Otherwise, use anything but polyurethane or plastic finishes-oil in the wood makes it difficult for them to adhere. Note: Unfinished eastern red cedar eventually becomes less fragrant as its oil hardens in the wood surface. You can renew the fragrance by sanding with fine-grit sandpaper. Fresh oil from the inner wood will rise to the surface, renewing the aroma.
Uses in woodworking
Eastern red cedar works well for trim in boats and canoes, as cedar chests, for closet linings, jewelry boxes, bookcases, carvings, and turnings.
Cost and availability
Although it's a softwood, hardwood grading standards apply because eastern red cedar is used primarily as a cabinet wood. Since clear wood is hard to come by, most eastern red cedar boards carry the "common" grading label, and a fairly inexpensive price of about $1.50 per board foot. Readily available boards rarely exceed 7" widths, 6'lengths, and 1" thicknesses. Veneers, plywood, and particleboard are other products.