The durable, decay-resistant tree of life

Botanist Louis Nee discovered western red cedar on Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest about 1794. Long before he ventured there, the region's Indians were making planked lodges of the light weight, yet highly durable, wood. Outside, next to the lodges, stood towering, carved totems depicting family histories. Also made of western red cedar, many of the poles still stand near Ketchikan, in southeastern Alaska.

This versatile tree, once called giant arborvitae, the "tree of life," was exactly that to the coastal tribes. It provided them with long, tough strands of bark that they wove into baskets, braided for rope, and cast as fishing lines. For travel, they made 50'-long canoes of hollowed logs.

The first daring pioneers in that wild land soon learned to work western red cedar, too. Since then, the wood has been extensively used for outdoor construction, shingle and shake roofing, siding, boats, and just about any project demanding decay-resistance.

A tree of the cool, damp coastland, western red cedar (Thuja plicata) grows in moist soil from southern Alaska to northern California. The western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia form the eastern limit of its range. On the rain-washed coast, the tree can reach heights of 190' and diameters of 10' or more.

Western red cedar may have as many names as branches. Some people call it canoe cedar, or shingle wood, while others refer to the tree as Lawson cypress and Pacific red cedar. Western red cedar's latin name, though, loosely translates to "sweet-smelling wood with plaited leaves." And the characteristic smell as well as the leaves help you identify it. The flat, lacy-looking sprigs of small, braided leaves (not needles!) give off a spicy aroma, as does the wood. The thin reddish-brown bark resembles cinnamon in color, and comes off in strings.

Medium- to coarse-grained, western red cedar completely lacks pitch or resin. The small amount of sapwood you'll find is almost pure white. The heartwood varies from a dark, reddish brown to a pale yellow. With age, the color dulls to a silver-gray.

Lightweight at about 28 lbs. per cubic foot, western red cedar has low shock resistance. It's also only moderately limber, but you can count on red cedar's stability.

Work this wood with both hand and power tools. Use caution, though, when planing or sanding so you won't catch and tear the grain. While western red cedar does not hold nails well, it glues easily.

For exterior use, western red cedar takes and holds paint and stain with persistence. Inside, finish it with lacquer, varnish, or clear wax.

You can rely on western red cedar anywhere you want the warm color of wood and durability. Outdoors, it's perfect for carefree, long-lived decks, fences, and furniture; indoors, for wall treatments, cabinets, and moldings and millwork.

Because it's soft, it makes it a good carving wood. Combat the brittleness with a sharp blade.

Clear heart western red cedar, the best grade, costs about $2 per board foot. A-grade, which can include some knots as well as hints of white sapwood, sells for less.

You can find it in standard softwood dimensions, both rough-cut or surfaced, at most lumberyards from the Midwest to the Pacific. Cost of shipping limits its availability in the East.

Illustration:Steve Schindler