Cedar wood is a versatile and durable domestic hardwood that grows on both the East and West coasts of the US. Although there are many different types of cedar trees, the ones most commonly used for their lumber are Eastern and Western Red Cedar.
Cedar is prized for many reasons. It is naturally weather and insect resistant, gives off a pleasing and recognizable scent, and is aesthetically attractive to look at. The color of red cedar wood starts out a rich reddish brown- a slightly redder color than cherry wood- but can vary greatly depending on the growing conditions of the tree and tends to change over time as it is exposed to sunlight and oxygen.
Although it’s not uncommon to find Cedar used indoors for things like moulding and blanket chests, it is most well known for its use in outdoor wood furniture. It’s the most weather-resistant domestic hardwood, making it a solid alternative to Teak (which is harvested from dwindling forests in Central and South America and carries a high environmental cost) for outdoor wood furniture.
Because cedar wood is a common choice for flooring, decking, and furniture, people often have questions related to its appearance, durability, eco-friendliness, and the various types of cedar wood used today. We’ll address these below.
There are dozens of types of cedar trees that grow all over the world. A few of the most commonly used are highlighted below.
Most types of cedar wood are a pinkish-red color, though it can have some purple tones as well. As it ages it loses its reddish hues and becomes a silver or gray color.
All natural wood changes colors over time due to chemical reactions which occur between extractives in the wood, like oil, and the environment—chiefly oxygen and UV rays. Lighter woods will usually darken, and darker woods will lighten. Cedar is unique in that, instead of mellowing out, blending, or developing a patina, it turns silver or gray. The color shift is quite dramatic and can happen rapidly.
Cedar wood has many applications. It is naturally rot and insect resistant, so it is frequently used for outdoor applications, such as outdoor furniture, decking, and siding. However, cedar is also frequently used to create indoor furniture like chests and tables, as it has a unique reddish hue and gives off a welcomed scent. Some variants are used to make boats, musical instruments, and other small objects as well.
As a gymnospere tree, Cedar lumber is often knotty and is usually straight-grained, though it can sometimes be figured too.
It’s a common misconception that the terms “hardwood” and “softwood” relate to the durability of wood. The phrases really denote whether the wood comes from a tree that’s in the gymnosperm or dicot group.
Gymnosperms are usually trees with needles, such as fir and pine. They’re considered softwoods. Dicots are usually leafy trees, such as cherry, walnut, oak, and maple. They’re considered hardwoods.
Eastern and Western red cedar are gymnosperm trees, so most cedar wood is considered softwood. Spanish and yellow cedar, however, are hardwoods. With that said, Eastern red cedar, although considered a softwood, has a significantly higher janka rating than the other varities and is thus stronger and more durable.
Cedar is one of the least dense domestic wood types, which is why it’s been historically used to make canoes and boats. To better understand the denseness or hardness of cedar wood, we can use the Janka hardness test and resulting ratings.
Eastern white cedar and western red cedar are 320 Janka and 350 Janka, respectively, which places them near the bottom of the scale. Yellow cedar and Spanish cedar are 580 Janka and 600 Janka, which puts them in the neighborhood of chestnut and red alder. Eastern red cedar has the highest rating of the group at 900 Janka, which still places it well below virtually every other wood used for furniture, floors, and construction.
Read more about the Janka Values of North American Hardwoods.
Different types of cedar trees grow all over the world. Red cedar, the wood most commonly found in woodworking, grows on both the East and West coast of the United States. Eastern red cedar is a significantly harder and stronger wood than the red cedar that grows on the West coast. White cedar is also found along the East coast.
There are also cedar trees in Alaska (yellow cedar) and Central and South America (Spanish cedar). We recommend against the use of these two types of cedar wood due to the environmental impacts of harvesting and transporting them. Spanish cedar exists in the dwindling forests in Central and South America and is considered “vulnerable” to extinction. Despite this, Spanish cedar is still commonly found and used in the US. The yellow cedar population is also declining.
Cedar is seen as the most weather-resistant domestic hardwood. It is often used for outdoor applications, but over time it will decay in the elements, just like any other wood on the planet.
Because of these factors, we recommend recycled pastic lumber (RPL) instead. It’s made from recycled high-density plastic, so it’s maintenance-free and lasts forever. We have a line of outdoor furniture made by Polywood.
It’s difficult to measure the environmental impacts of using cedar wood. For the most part, Eastern and Western Red Cedar are both sustainably harvested and abundant in their respective growing climates, as is Eastern White Cedar. However, other types of cedar trees are less fortunate.
Spanish cedar is considered “vulnerable” to extinction, and the forests where it grows are under siege by organized crime. Supporting the logging of these forests, whether for Spanish cedar or some other exotic wood, is discouraged. Not only that, but the importation process results in a higher carbon footprint.
Alaskan yellow cedar is also facing declining populations, so we recommend not supporting the harvesting of these trees.
Complicating the supply chain of cedar wood, most lumber yards won’t distinguish between any of the above listed varieties of cedar. Because of this, it would be easy to unknowingly purchase Spanish Cedar.
If you’re going to use cedar wood, take extra care to make sure you’re buying domestically harvested lumber.
Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types: