We get cedar wood from a group of trees called “cedars,” which grow in various regions across the world. These trees have different uses, and the timber from cedar trees is much in demand for various woodworking applications.
In this post, we discuss the cedar tree and the wood it yields. There are various types of cedarwood that you can find in the market. As a woodworker, you will find it beneficial to identify each type and be familiar with the uses. Read on to know all about cedarwood.
Cedars are coniferous trees, meaning that their leaves are needle-like, and they are commonly related to evergreen fir trees. The trees grow up to 100 feet, sometimes higher. These trees reproduce through brown seed cones.
Cedar is an aromatic wood, which is why it makes cosmetics and essential oils. Cedar oil plays a prominent role as a health product and is believed to relieve stress and fatigue. It is commonly used for aromatherapy.
Cedarwood has been used since ancient times during the Mediterranean Civilization for making houses and ships. However, there was also a lot of superstition attached to cedarwood. For example, people believed that Cedar groves housed their gods, so they burnt them during ceremonies.
Types of Cedar Wood
Cedarwood comes in different sizes and colors. So, you can expect to find a wide variation in the types of commercially available cedarwood. Therefore, it is a useful thing as a woodworker to know how to identify and use the different types:
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
It is part of the cypress family and grows in the Pacific Northwest United States and Canada. Western red cedar trees are huge and grow up to 200 feet, whereas the trunks achieve a diameter of 13 feet in diameter.
The heartwood is reddish to pinkish-brown, and there may be some darker reddish or brown bands in between. The sapwood is pale yellow or white, and there isn’t a sharp distinction between the heartwood and sapwood.
Western red cedar has a straight grain with a medium or coarse texture. It has good resistance to rot and water but may not be so resistant to insect attack. This wood is quite soft with a Janka hardness rating of 350 lbf. making it easy to work with.
We use western red cedar for outdoor structures like exterior siding, decking, shingles, and boatbuilding. We also use it to make boxes, crates, and musical instruments, particularly for classical guitar soundboards.
An important thing to note about western red cedar is that although it is easy to work with, it can cause allergies for some individuals. If you are prone to such allergies from the sawdust, getting the wood cut from a third party would be prudent.
Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
You will find northern white cedar in the northeast region of the United States and southeastern Canada. The trees grow to 65 feet, and the tree trunks grow up to a diameter of 2 feet.
It is a lighter version of cedar, which is why we call it “white” cedar. The wood is very easy to work with as it is quite soft with a Janka hardness rating of 320 lbf. The wood has a tendency to knottiness, with a straight grain and fine, smooth texture.
Northern white cedar has a good level of resistance to rot, insect attack, and moisture, but a major drawback of northern white cedar is that the wood is weak. It does not hold nails and screws that well.
It also causes allergies and respiratory discomforts to some individuals in the same way that western red cedar does. However, it is highly resistant to rot, moisture, and insect attack.
Northern white cedar finds use in outdoor applications for making picnic tables, posts, decking, shingles, fence posts, outdoor furniture, and pulpwood. After balsa, it is one of the lightest forms of wood in the United States.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Eastern red cedar is also a member of the cypress family, and we also call it aromatic red cedar. As the name suggests, it grows in the eastern region of the United States. The trees grow up to 115 feet with tree trunks of up to 4 feet in diameter.
The oil of eastern red cedar produces organic oils that we use to line drawers and closets to keep away pests. Eastern red cedar is neither too hard nor too soft, with a Janka hardness rating of 900 lbf.
It is easy to work with, but allergic and respiratory issues can occur, as with many other types of cedar while sanding or machining the wood. Therefore, you would do well to wear appropriate respiratory protection while working with eastern red cedar.
This wood has a fine, straight grain with intermittent knots. The heartwood is a reddish-violet brown with pale-yellow sapwood. Eastern red cedar is fairly resistant to rot, moisture, and insect attack.
It is easy to work with but tends to blunt tool blades due to excess mineral deposits. Otherwise, the wood has various uses in making fence posts, closet and chest linings, carvings, outdoor furniture, birdhouses, pencils, bows, and small wooden specialty items.
Southern White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides)
We also call it Atlantic white cedar. Southern white cedar grows in the coastal plains of the eastern region of the United States. The trees grow up to 100 feet with tree trunk diameters of up to 2 feet.
The heartwood of southern white cedar is light reddish-brown with a pale yellow, brown, or near-white sapwood which is demarcated. The wood has a straight grain with a fine, even texture.
Southern white cedar is a durable wood and resists decay and insect attack quite well. It is soft with a Janka hardness rating of 350 lbf. therefore easy to work with and glues, and takes nails and screws quite well. It makes boats, siding, shingles and is also makes good carving and construction lumber.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis)* (See comments below)
Alaskan yellow cedar, also called yellow cedar and Nootka cypress, grows in the Pacific northwest, through Alaska, and to British Columbia. The wood is hard and dense, with a Janka hardness rating of 580 lbf. The trees grow as high as 120 feet, with trunk diameters of up to 6 feet.
The wood has a characteristic yellow color with tight growth rings that bear testimony of a tree with slow to moderate growth. The wood also comes with a creamy, white hue, interrupted by deep, dark streaks. The machines used in processing the lumber of the wood impart a natural stain which creates an attractive sheen to it.
Alaskan yellow cedar is coveted by builders who use it to make light and durable structures such as decks, interior paneling, and railings. The wood also makes canoe paddles and is a good tonewood for producing musical instruments.
*Comments: The wood species of Alaskan yellow cedar was always nootkatensis, named after the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Canada. However, the genus has been a matter of confusion, and it changed several times.
It originally started as Cupressus genus and later went by Chamaecyparis, Xanthocyparis, and Callitropsis, only to be returned to genus Cupressus later on.
Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)
Spanish cedar, or Cedro as it is also called, grows in Central, South America, and the Caribbean. It comes from the mahogany family. The trees grow up to 100 feet, with trunks of up to 5 feet in diameter.
The heartwood is light pinkish to reddish brown and darkens with age. It has a straight grain with a shallow interlocking pattern and a mild, natural luster.
Spanish cedar is a moderate softwood with a Janka hardness rating of 600 lbf.
The wood has considerable resistance to rot, termites, and weather. The older trees from the wild tend to have better resistance than younger plantation-grown ones.
The wood is easy to work with, and woodworkers use it with both hand and machine tools. But due to its low density and inherent softness, it tends to develop fuzz if the cutting blades aren’t very sharp. Additional sanding can fix this issue.
Due to the characteristic odor of Spanish cedar, it finds a place in the cigar industry for making cigar boxes. In addition, we use this wood in cabinetry and for making plywood, veneer, musical instruments (guitars), and boatbuilding.
Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
This wood is native to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The trees are very tall, up to 200 feet in height, and the tree trunks grow up to a diameter of 6 feet. We also call this wood Lawson’s cypress.
Port Orford cedar gets its name because it was first discovered in Port Orford in Oregon. The heartwood has a yellowish-brown color with a pale, almost white sapwood. The wood becomes darker with age on exposure to light.
The wood has a smooth, straight grain, making it suitable for making arrow shafts. It is slightly harder than many other types of cedar, with a Janka hardness rating of 590 lbf., this wood is easy to work with, but the sawdust can cause health issues, so you need to take adequate precautions and use protective gear while working in it.
The prices can be very high for Port Orford cedar because a lot of the wood is exported to Japan, where they use it for toys, the construction industry, shrines, temples, and other wooden articles. This wood also makes arrow shafts, musical instruments, boxes, and chests in millwork, decking, and boatbuilding.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
Incense cedar grows in Western North America (primarily California). The trees grow to 100 feet with trunk diameters of up to 5 feet.
The heartwood can be light to medium or reddish-brown, and the sapwood is light tan to off-white. The wood has a straight grain with a uniform texture. Sometimes you will notice pockets of decayed wood caused by fungus.
Despite the fungal decay in this wood, it has a good resistance to decay and is good for outdoor applications like fence posts. In addition, the wood is quite soft and easy to work with and has a Janka hardness rating of 470 lbf.
This wood is good for pencils, Venetian blinds, construction lumber, sheathing, siding, boxes, and various exterior furniture applications. Incense-cedar is particularly good for making wood pencils because the wood is soft and cuts easily with a knife without splitting.
It will surprise you to note the number of types of cedar that you can get. It is good to know about the different types of this versatile and durable wood as a woodworker. You can get cedar in almost any form and use it for a woodworking project to get spectacular results. This information should give you a better idea of what to expect.