Aromatic eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) has been the traditional choice for blanket chests and closet linings for generations because of its purported moth-repellant properties and fresh smell. Is it a miracle wood or too good to be true?
Two culprits commonly damage cloth: the casemaking clothes moth, shown at right, and the webbing clothes moth. These reclusive, small critters (about 1⁄4 " long with a 1⁄2 " wingspan) don't resemble your standard porch-light moths. If you see them at all, it may already be too late to save your sweaters because it's the larvae, rather than the adult moths, that munch on wool, fur, and feathers. So how does aromatic cedar contribute to your pest-control solution? When concentrated in a tightly-sealed space, such as a blanket chest, the vapors from this wood species will kill hatching moth larvae. But those vapors have little or no effect on larger larvae, adult moths, or eggs, and less effect still in wide-open areas, such as closets.
That said, it has been found that aromatic cedar blocks bugs no better than simply sealing uninfested clothes in a plastic container or bundling them in taped-up butcher paper.
Skip the finish
Top-coating aromatic cedar seals in, and therefore negates, its insect-repellent properties. But you should also avoid applying any stain, paint, or finish to the non-cedar interior surfaces of a cedar chest. That's because the resins in cedar share characteristics with turpentine, and the solvent-like vapors can cause oil- and water-based stains, paints, and finishes to soften, making lids (and clothes) stick. If you include a cedar lining or tray in your blanket chest, leave the interior unfinished.
The cedar-lined bottom line
If you want to give your blanket-chest project a traditional look (and smell), search no further than aromatic cedar. However, as a pesticide, aromatic cedar makes a better preventative medicine than it does an ultimate cure. So don't expect miracles.