Western Red Cedar – How to Finish & Maintain

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Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is also called giant arborvitae. It grows in the Pacific Northwest United States and Canada but nowadays, you can find it in Britain as well.

Western red cedar is a gorgeous, durable, and ever-popular choice of wood that we use for use outdoors in fencing, decking, and cladding. We also use it indoors for making furniture, shelves, and flooring. With so much going for this versatile and durable wood, it is worthwhile to know how to finish and maintain it.

The trees are massive and can grow up to heights of 200 feet with tree trunk diameters of up to 13 feet!

Western red cedar is best-known for its attractive pinkish-brown color with a warm, reddish hue which gives a warm ambiance to any home.

Unfinished Western Red Cedar

A western Red Cedar Panel in a loungeroom

With a fine wood like western red cedar, the most frequently asked question is what finish to apply and how to apply it. But there is also a strong case going for unfinished western red cedar. What happens if it is left untreated?

You can leave your project without any treatment, due to the durability, and rot resistance of this particular wood. It can still give you outstanding results.

If you leave western red cedar exposed to the elements, the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun bleach the wood. It takes on an appealing silvery-grey patina, even creating a variation called “silver fox” weathered cedar. You can procure it in already weathered form, to install it without applying any finish.

In case you would like to preserve the silver-grey but want added protection, you can apply a natural water-based preservative. Allowing western red cedar to become grey is a trend amongst architects who appreciate the rustic, untreated beauty of the wood.

Not finishing western red cedar is a win-win situation. You save money, time, and end up with something that looks good. If you want to accelerate the aging process, you can get products to make it happen faster.

Applying a Finish to Western Red Cedar

So much about leaving western red cedar as it is. But if you want to apply a finish to red cedar, then there is a variety of oils, finishes, and treatments that you can apply.

Western red cedar is mostly free from aberrations and resin. Any finish that you apply will adhere well to this wood. The primary precondition here is that you need to apply a finish before the weathering process begins.

There are three categories of finish that you can use on western red cedar – opaque, semi-transparent, and transparent or untreated. The opaque treatments offer maximum protection and completely block out the features of the wood. Transparent coatings offer the least protection but enhance the wood’s natural beauty.

Useful Tip: If you want to get the maximum utility from western red cedar in terms of longevity, choose planed wood as opposed to textured wood.

Opaque Finish

Best Practices for Staining Wood


One or two complete coats of acrylic-based paint will provide the maximum protection possible to your wood. Although you get a lot of protection from the weather, the color and grain of the wood will be thoroughly blocked.

The advantage of opaque finishes is that the sky is the limit when you want to choose colors. You can get your wood to match any decor. You can make a statement in colors.

Painted western red cedar lasts for between 8 to 12 years.

Semi-Transparent Finish

woman applying stain

You can achieve adequate protection for western red cedar while retaining the natural look by applying a semi-transparent finish. You need a considerable skill level to apply the finish.

If done well, this finish will bring out the grain pattern and knots and give the wood character. You have two options here – oil-based or natural, water-based finish.

Oil-based Finish

Here, you will get better penetration into the wood, resulting in a more pronounced color change, and maximum protection from the elements. Read more about the different types of finishing oil in another interesting post of ours.

Natural Water-based Finish

The level of penetration is less but enough to protect the wood from mildew. This type of finish contains fungicides and is an environmentally-friendly option.

A semi-transparent finish, water-based or oil-based lasts for up to two years before needing to touch it up again.

Transparent Finishes

Craftsman at work on a wooden chair.

You get a variety of types of transparent finishes and oils. You can add a water repellent preservative or a bleaching oil. Although such finishes don’t offer much in the way of UV protection, you can preserve the natural appearance of the wood.

Western red cedar with an application of transparent finish will develop a silver-grey patina over time if left exposed to the elements. But the process will be slower.

A transparent finish on western red cedar will also last for up to two years before you need to touch it up.

Criteria to Choose the Type of Finish for Western Red Cedar

Now that you know about the different types of finishes, you may wonder about the type of finish to use for your project. Would you paint your western red cedar, or use a transparent finish?

To make an appropriate choice, you would need to ask yourself these questions, and the answers will decide your choice:

What is the level of protection you need?

If your wood will be exposed to the elements, then you probably need to apply oil-based acrylic or latex paint. You may want to use it for a tabletop in a dining room or kitchen. Then, you’d want to use a semi-transparent or transparent finish to highlight the natural beauty of the wood.

What result are you looking for?

Think of how you want your wood to look after applying a finish. For example, if your intention is for the wood to gradually acquire a weathered look, then go for a transparent oil. A children’s play table would look and fare better with a coat of brightly-colored acrylic paint.

How much maintenance are you looking at?

If your wood is going to be difficult to reach its final location, then a low-maintenance opaque finish would suffice. If you can re-apply the finish every couple of years, then you can go for a semi-transparent or transparent finish.

How to Apply a Finish to Western Red Cedar

Painting bare wood

Once you decide on the finish that you want to use for your project, let’s look at how to apply it. The first thing you need to do is to assess the condition of the wood. It shouldn’t be wet.

Further, you should not apply a finish to deteriorated or aged wood. In such a case, you would have to resort to a restoration process that we will discuss in the next section. But if the wood is dry and in good condition, here is how to go about it:

Applying Paint or Solid Color

We usually apply paint or solid color with a paintbrush. Use natural bristles which tend to be soft for best results. Only dip the tip of the brush in the paint and use light, even strokes in the direction of the wood grain.

You first need to apply a coating of primer, followed by one or two coats of paint. Ensure that the previous coat is completely dried before you add the next one. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions before proceeding.

Semi-transparent Finish

Here again, you will use a brush, but when you have to cover a wider area, you can use a roller, spray, pad, or dip. Use the same procedures as described above while using a paintbrush.

Transparent Finish

A transparent finish usually consists of oil, but it could also be transparent polyurethane or lacquer. This type of finish is not recommended for exterior use, as it will soon deteriorate and crack on exposure to the sun and rain.

You can get the best results by wiping on transparent finishes like oils. Even some of the synthetic finishes like polyurethane show the best results wiped onto the wood using an applicator. You need to exercise a bit of skill to apply a transparent finish to western red cedar. Incorrect application can result in blotches and lumps on the surface.

You can read more about the best way to stain wood in another of our interesting posts.

How to Maintain Western Red Cedar

The finish you apply to western red cedar will not last forever. After a few years, you will need to restore the wood by re-applying the finish, unless you have decided to let it look rustic.

The restoration process is quite simple. You need to wash the wood with soap and warm water. It will get rid of the mildew and dirt. Once the wood is dry, you can apply the finish of your choice, as if you were finishing it for the first time.

If the wood has deteriorated a lot, you may have to use mechanical or chemical means to clean the wood. You may need to use the following:

Paint Strippers

You can eliminate stains along with the old paint with a paint stripper. It comes as a ready-to-use liquid, but you need to exercise caution because paint strippers are strong chemical substances. After completing the stripping, ensure to wash the wood thoroughly to prevent corrosive damage by the paint stripper.


You can get good results by using bleach to remove mildew but it won’t do much to dirt or other types of contamination. Be careful while applying bleach to wood because it can permanently damage the wood fibers, making the surface rough.

Oxalic Acid-based Products

These will help remove rust marks, but here again, wash the wood thoroughly on completion of the job.


Western red cedar is a great material to use in any woodworking project. But like most such projects, you need to consider the final look which typically involves applying a finish.

Applying a finish to western red cedar is one of the more satisfying procedures in woodworking projects. The information we have provided here should put you on the right track to achieve the perfect finish while using western red cedar.

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