Northern White Cedar
Native Americans of the Great Lakes region knew northern white cedar's value. Its wood was light yet strong enough for canoe ribs, and easily split along the growth rings to form the thin planking that was covered by birch bark. The tree also provided an oil that they extracted from twigs and foliage to relieve chest congestion. When lumbermen first entered the vast forests where the northern white cedar grew, they instead harvested the abundant white pine. Except for furnishing decay-resistant wood to shingle bunkhouses, the northern white cedar was ignored. But by the turn of the century, as its use for cooperage, posts, poles, and shingles became appreciated, northern white cedar reached record harvest levels of nearly 100 million board feet per year. Loggers in the northern Great Lakes states, Maine, and Canada still harvest northern white cedar. Like more familiar cedars, it is durable for everything outdoors, from fences and decks to boats and furniture.
The tree flourishes in company with hemlock, larch, alder, and balsam fir. In the moist soil that it frequently grows in thick stands. Favorable conditions produce trees 70' tall and up to 6' in diameter. Normally, northern white cedars grow to about 50' with a diameter of 2-3'. No matter its size, the tree has an attractive pyramidal shape, often with twin trunks. Northern white cedar's orange-brown bark features fissures that break into twinelike strings. Rather than having needles like most conifers, northern white cedar has tiny, scaly leaves that overlap on the twigs and branchlets. By late summer, reddish cones up to 1⁄2 " long appear. Northern white cedar's aromatic wood is a light tan and weighs about 19 pounds per cubic foot air-dried. Although quite stable and easy to work, it is soft, brittle, and coarse-grained. However, the wood is durable in contact with soil and water, and strong for its weight. The fact that it easily splits along its growth rings was a blessing to the Native Americans, but is rated a defect called "ring shake" by the lumber industry.
Uses in woodworking
Traditionally destined for posts, utility poles, shingles, siding, and boats, northern white cedar's lightness and durability make it ideal for outdoor furniture, too. The wood is still a favorite for strip canoes. And because it holds paint and stain well, it's used for decks and fencing.
In New England and the Great Lakes states, you'll find northern white cedar at small local mills as well as lumber outlets. Elsewhere, it's replaced in the marketplace by Western red cedar, which is logged in far greater volume. Where you find it, expect to pay about $1 per lineal foot in thicknesses up to 4". Unlike the more abundant and thus widely used Western red cedar, northern white cedar isn't offered in clear or vertical-grain grades. However, the highest grades—C Select and D Select—work well for interior trim, cabinets, and outdoor furniture because they are graded for appearance from one side. "Board" grades of northern white cedar come in plain Common, and Nos.1-5 Common (in descending order of quality). You also can buy the wood in construction grades. Air-dried northern white cedar should be stickered when stored. If not, moisture that works its way between the boards can sometimes cause a surface mold.
Users of northern white cedar, one of the lightest of the softwoods, also find it among the most stable, especially when kiln-dried. However, the wood's brittleness, which results in splits, splinters, and tearout, requires some care in machining with sharp cutting edges.
- Plane northern white cedar with a shallow pass, and joint it so that you remove 1⁄16 " or less.
- You won't have problems ripping this straight-grained wood if you feed it slowly.
- Reduce splintering when crosscutting by using a fine-toothed crosscut blade.
- Avoid tearout while routing across the grain by applying a backing board along the edge where the bit will exit.
- Saw or rout thin stock slowly to avoid breakage.
- Northern white cedar's lack of sticky pitch allows you to join it with little trouble using your choice of adhesives. Screws, though, require pilot holes, and should be noncorrosive aluminum, brass, or silicon bronze.
- Nails also should be zinc-coated. And, use screws and nails about one-third longer than normally required so they won't pull out.
- Exposure to weather will eventually turn the wood a silver-gray. Some people like the look, but it can turn out uneven. A clear protective finish will slow the graying process if occasionally recoated. Pigmented stain or paint best protects the wood from damaging ultraviolet rays.
- Tighter grained, the wood takes detail well.
- Watch out for the northern white cedar's softness and brittleness that leads to breakage.
- Use sharp gouges. For end grain, which easily tears out, sand to final shape.
Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this featured wood species appear under bold-face headings elsewhere on this page.
- For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 1⁄32 ".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
- Avoid using standard twist-drill bits. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
- Carving softwoods generally means fairly steep gouge bevels-0° or more-and deeper cuts.