The forest's elder statesman

The giant of all nature's plants, the coastal redwood of California and Oregon can tower to the height of a 30-story building. Inland, the Sierra redwood-though not as tall as its cousin-grows to immense circumference. In California's King's Canyon National Park, for instance, the Ceneral Ulysses S. Grant redwood contains enough wood to build 60 five-room houses! That Sierra redwood ranks as the world's second oldest living thing. Only an ancient bristlecone pine in the mountains above California's Death Valley surpasses its 32 centuries. Even the coastal species can survive 2,200 years.

Regardless of the Sierra redwood's massive size, it's the coastal redwood that lumbermen have harvested since 1777. That's when Indian workmen felled redwood trees in the hills around San Jose to provide the wood for the Spanish mission at Santa Clara.

Wood identifucation

Grows in a narrow, coastal range from southern Oregon to California's Monterey Bay. This mountainous habitat feeds necessary moisture through frequent rains and fog. Coastal redwoods, with their thick, cinnamon-colored bark and small, flat green needles, grow from tiny seeds. In prime conditions, this fastest-growing conifer produces as much as 400 cubic feet (about 78,000 board feet) of growth per acre annually.

Redwood has a warm, brownish-red color when sawed from the heart of the tree. Boards with sapwood have contrasting, cream-colored accents. Left unfinished to weather, all redwood turns gray.

Redwood lumber has either flat-grain feature (appearing wavy) or vertical (appearing straight), depending on how it was sawed. Beautifully figured burls produce costly veneer.

Redwood grading contains as many as 45 designations at the mill, but you need only concern yourself with these quality grades:

  • Clear all-heart contains all heartwood with only minor surface defects on one side.
  • Clear, the same quality as above, but with sapwood.
  • B-grade, mixes heart and sapwood, with knots.

Uses in woodworking

Natural chemicals in the heartwood provide redwood with outstanding durability. It resists water, insects, and decay-causing fungi, making it ideal for any outdoor project. Redwood also makes excellent millwork and siding. Because the wood imparts no odor or taste to liquids, it's prime stock for water tanks and other vessels.


Redwood costs more the farther you live from the tree's home range. In California, for instance, clear all-heart runs about $1.50 per board foot for 1 X 6" stock, compared to $3.50 in New York. Unlike hardwoods, redwood lumber comes in nominal sizes-1 X 6, 1 X 8, 2 X 4, 4 X 4, and so on.

The availability of redwood in several grades often confuses buyers at the lumberyard. Follow these guidelines when buying for your woodworking projects:

  • Construction on or near soil requires redwood grades featuring durable heartwood. Above-ground redwood projects can contain boards with sapwood.
  • Architectural grades (Clear all-heart, Clear, and B-Grade), sold kiln-dried, provide the finest material for attractive paneling, cabinetry and other interior or exterior project applications.
  • Garden grades (Construction heart, Construction common, Merchantable heart, and Merchantable) are usually air-dried, and have tight knots and other defects that only affect appearance. These grades are suitable for decks, porches, fences, gazebos, furniture, and other outdoor, garden-type projects.

Machining methods

Redwood, although considerably light at 23 pounds per cubic foot, has surprising structural strength. And, it remains stable when kiln-dried. However, the straight grained wood does have a tendency to split and splinter, so take the following precautions:

  • Planing requires a shallow cut to avoid chipping and tearout. Joint with a table-height setting that removes no more than 116 " per pass.
  • Ripping redwood poses no special problems, but crosscutting requires a fine-toothed blade to reduce splintering and tearout.
  • Avoid tearout in cross-grain routing by using a backing board.
  • Redwood joins easily with all types of glues. You will, however, want to drill pilot holes for screws and blunt nails to avoid splitting. And, because the softwood can tear out in projects subject to stress, such as outdoor furniture, consider adding strength by joining with nuts and bolts.
  • Some penetrating finishes-formulated especially for redwood-retard the wood's tendency to turn gray. Other formulations renew the wood's natural color.

Carving comments

  • Due to its softness and straight grain, redwood carves effortlessly. Beware of the wood's tendency to splinter, though.
  • Redwood will take detail, but it lends itself best to outdoor signs and sculptural forms.

Turning tips

  • Keep in mind that sharp tools reduce splinters and tearout.
  • Reduce possible tearout in the end grain that appears in the bottom of bowls by sanding the vessel to final shape.

Shop Tested Techniques

Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species, appear under 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 wood with figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 132 ".
  • For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade that has 24-32 teeth. Smooth cross-cutting requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
  • Avoid drilling with twist drills. They tend to wander and cause breakout. Use 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 like redwood generally means fairly steep gouge bevels-greater than 20°-and deeper cuts.