Known for its versatility and appealing scent, cedar wood is a well-known and well-rounded option for woodworking. Unbeknownst to many, there are a wide variety of cedars available on the market, each with its own strengths for different types of applications.
Today let’s review the trees in the Cedar family and how they can be used in woodworking.
8 Types of Cedar Wood
Though not all, below is a list of eight types of cedar trees used in woodworking. The material origins, grain, finish, scent, and common applications are discussed for each.
1. Eastern Red Cedar
Occasionally called red juniper or aromatic red cedar, eastern red cedar is a conifer and member of the juniper family native to the eastern U.S. These trees grow up to 3’-4’ in diameter and can grow to 115’ tall at maturity.
The sapwood is whitish-pink in color, the heartwood turning a darker pinkish-red. Its fragrant oils have the added benefit of deterring moths and beetles, which is why it’s a common choice for chests and closet linings.
Uses for Eastern Red Cedar
Eastern red cedar is soft in texture with a fine grain, though it is somewhat brittle and has frequent knots. It takes to hand tools and power tools easily. The high silica content in the wood may dull cutters.
It glues well and holds a fine finish, and is often left unfinished to preserve its scent. In addition to storage chests and closet linings, you can find Eastern red cedar in bookcases, carvings, turnings, and trim on boats and canoes.
Availability of Eastern Red Cedar
Large boards of this wood are typically hard to find. Narrower, knotty pieces of lumber are readily available for a modest price.
2. Western Red Cedar
Western red cedar is found near the northwestern coast of North America, primarily near the Columbia and Rocky Mountains. These trees can grow up to 150’-200’ tall, with the largest width of up to 19’.
They live hundreds of years, some in existence for thousands. The wood is naturally resistant to decay and insect damage, with fallen wood from trees remaining viable for up to 100 years without damage.
Uses for Western Red Cedar
Moderately soft, western red cedar is lightweight and low in strength. It’s used for trim, doors and windows, ceiling and wall paneling, and musical instruments. Because it requires no chemical treatment, it is frequently used in exterior projects.
Outdoor applications include decking, exterior siding, cladding, and framing. It glues and finishes well, though fasteners containing iron can stain and discolor the wood.
Availability of Western Red Cedar
Construction-grade lumber is easy to find and is a relatively inexpensive material. Higher grades of lumber are available, though naturally come at a higher price point.
3. Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Found on the northwest coast of North America, Alaskan yellow cedar grows up to 120’ tall and 4’-6’ in diameter. The wood’s color contributes to its name, with the heartwood a light yellow and the sapwood a slightly paler whitish-yellow.
It is also resistant to rot and insect damage. Alaskan yellow cedar is another fragrant variety of cedar, with its scent akin to that of raw potatoes.
I compared the Alaskan Yellow Cedar with the Western Red Cedar in detail here.
Uses for Alaskan Yellow Cedar
The grain of Alaskan yellow cedar is straight, though it can be wavy. It has a medium-to-fine texture which is amenable to both hand tools and machining. Due to the potentially wavy grain, some pieces may produce tear-out during planing.
It’s commonly used in carving, siding, flooring, decking, musical instruments, and chests. It is easy to stain and paint, and holds glue and finishes well.
Availability of Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Due to its limited growing region, supply of the wood is limited and may be hard to find. The price point is high, especially for pieces with minimal or no knots.
4. Spanish Cedar
The only wood on this list that is not a true cedar, Spanish cedar is a hardwood that’s native to Central and South America and the Caribbean. Despite its lingering, cedar-like scent, it is more closely related to the mahogany family than cedars.
Trees grow between 65’-100’ tall and 3’-5’ in diameter. The wood ranges from light pink to reddish-brown.
Uses for Spanish Cedar
Spanish cedar’s grain is straight, though it may be shallowly interlocked. This, combined with the low density and high softness, means that cuts made on Spanish cedar tend to leave fuzzy surfaces unless cut with extremely sharp materials or extra care is taken during sanding.
It can be worked on with hand and power tools, though natural gum pockets present in the wood may clog cutting tools. The wood takes on a mild-to-moderate luster and is used in veneer, plywood, cabinetry, and musical instruments.
Availability of Spanish Cedar
Spanish cedar is typically moderately available. Its price range is low to moderate for standard lumber sizing. Expect thinner pieces used for lining and veneer to be priced slightly higher.
5. Northern White Cedar
Sometimes called eastern white cedar, northern white cedar comes from the northeastern region of North America. These are smaller trees, growing up to 65’ tall, and up to 2’ wide. The color of the wood ranges from white sapwood to light reddish-brown heartwood.
This wood is very rot-resistant and is particularly resistant to termite and powder post-beetle damage. It has a pleasant, albeit mild, cedar fragrance when worked.
Uses for Northern White Cedar
Northern white cedar has a straight grain, fine, even texture, and moderate luster. It is a soft and weak cedar variety and is the closest wood to balsa that the United States has to offer.
This softness lends a hand to it easily being worked with hand tools, but it is also workable with machine tools. It may sand unevenly, but it glues and finishes well, and is easy to paint. This type of wood is found in shingles, canoes, outdoor furniture, fences, and posts.
Availability of Northern White Cedar
This wood is typically priced in the mid-range and is typically sold in lumber sizes specifically for exterior purposes like posts and shingles.
6. Atlantic White Cedar
Also known as southern white cedar, Atlantic white cedar grows along the coast of the eastern united states. A thinner variety of cedar, the trees grow up to 100’ tall and are just 1’-2’ in diameter. This variety is a light reddish-brown at its heart, with narrow bands of sapwood being a very light yellowish-brown color. It holds the characteristic cedar-like scent.
Uses of Atlantic White Cedar
This tree has a straight, fine, and uniform grain. It is a very soft wood and is easy to work on with hand and machine tools. It is used for carving, siding, shingles, boatbuilding, and as construction material. It is easy to paint and stain. It also glues and finishes well.
Availability of Atlantic White Cedar
Due to the small stature of these trees, plus the limited growing range, this lumber is more expensive than other cedars that are readily available. It is often sold out or hard to find.
7. Atlas Cedar
Native to Africa, Atlas cedar grows in the mountainous regions of Morocco and Algeria. In its natural habitat, it grows up to 115’ tall and between 3’-5’ in diameter. In non-native areas, like the southern United States, it typically grows to approximately 60’ in height.
The heartwood ranges from a straw-yellow color to a light reddish-brown. Sapwood from this tree is a pale yellow-tinted white.
Uses for Atlas Cedar
Atlas cedar is a very durable wood, overall very resistant to boring insects. The grain is straight, though large knots that distort the grain may be present. Its texture is medium to coarse, but it is workable with hand and machine tools.
Due to its natural luster, this wood is found in veneer, cabinetry, the interior lining of boxes and chests, and turned objects. It is also used in construction. It glues and finishes well.
Availability of Atlas Cedar
Atlas cedar is moderately hard to find in the United States. It is more readily available in Europe, though prices are still higher than other varieties.
8. Incense Cedar
Also called California white cedar, this wood grows in western North America, primarily in the state of California. They grow between 65’-100’ tall and up to 5’ in diameter. Its sapwood is an off-white color, with the heartwood a light or medium reddish-brown. It is called incense cedar due to its fragrant, spicy scent.
Uses for Incense Cedar
Incense cedar has a straight grain, with a medium-to-fine texture. Unfortunately, it is common to find pockets of rot due to fungal infections, but in dried wood or trees untouched by fungus, it is quite durable and resistant to decay.
It is easy to work by hand or machine and holds paint very well. It also stains, glues, and finishes well. Incense cedar is most commonly used for pencils, though it is sometimes also used for fence posts. It can also be found in blinds, chests, siding, construction lumber, and other exterior furniture.
Availability of Incense Cedar
Incense cedar is priced moderately due to its limited growing range and susceptibility to some fungi. It is harder to find than other more common cedar varieties.
What Is the Best Type of Cedar for Woodworking?
There are so many types of projects that involve woodworking that I can’t identify only one type of cedar that is best. Instead, I’ve identified one or two cedar varieties that are best for different types of handling, such as hand carving, furniture, and construction.
The best hand carving results can be anticipated from eastern red cedar, yellow cedar, and northern white cedar. Cedar is relatively difficult to carve sharp, detailed reliefs with. It is best suited to simpler carvings. The density of eastern red cedar and its red color makes for the most appealing hand-carved items.
Most often, cedar used for pieces turned on a lathe is from Atlas cedar, though cedar isn’t an ideal wood for turned pieces. It has a tendency to crack upon drying, and the dust from the turning process can be dangerous to breathe in due to the oils in the wood.
Some other references may discuss port Orford cedar as a better option for turning. That wood variety was omitted from this article due to its conservation status following a rapidly spreading root disease that threatens that specific species. This wood was often used in turning arrow shafts due to its reliably straight and fine grain.
Furniture and Cabinetry
Interior furniture, such as chests, tables, chairs, beds, etc. will ideally use eastern red cedar. The northern varieties are not a viable option due to their comparably diminished strength. The high oil content in eastern red cedar also makes it a good choice for insect resistance. Eastern red cedar can be used for exterior furniture, though the better option for that application is western red cedar as it’s the superior wood in terms of decay and termite resistance.
Finish Carpentry and Veneer
In both interior and exterior trim and molding pieces, western red cedar is the best and most available option. It is soft and lightweight, an added bonus for ease of installation and transport.
For veneer, Spanish cedar is the best and most common choice due to its soft finish and natural luster. Atlas cedar takes a close second for veneer choices, primarily because of its limited availability.
Construction and Exterior Use
Western red cedar reigns supreme in construction and exterior use. Its decay resistance makes it an ideal choice for outdoor structures and shingles. It requires no chemical finish to withstand aging due to the elements.
In this post, we have reviewed the qualities of eight different types of cedar trees. You now should have more familiarity with each type of tree, where it comes from, and how it is best used. The Cedar family is a beautiful group of fragrant, versatile trees that are a great option for many woodworking applications.
Hopefully, you give it a try in an upcoming project! That said, if you think there might be better species for your task, make sure to check my article about cedar alternatives.