(Thuja occidentalis) & (Thuja plicata)
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo
What we commonly refer to as cedars are really not “true” cedars but arbor-vitae – the tree of life. Cedars are part of the genus Cedrus, while arbor-vitae are of the Thuja genus. However, we’ll use the more common term cedar in this article.
Only two kinds of cedar grow in Canada – eastern white (or northern) and western red. Eastern cedar is found in the Maritimes, the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence forest region of Québec and Ontario, and in parts of Manitoba. A modest sized tree, it reaches a typical height of around 50 feet and a diameter of 1 to 2 feet – though some have exceeded 80 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter. Western cedar is found in British Columbia, particularly along the coast, and in parts of Alberta. Western cedars are renowned for their incredible size and stature. The Cheewhat Lake cedar on Vancouver Island is almost 62 feet in diameter and 190 feet high. It’s still a youngster compared to the 1,460 year old cedar in Olympic National Forest, Canoe Creek, WA.
Eastern White Cedar
Western Red Cedar
Cedar is prized for its natural resistance to decay and insect damage, which makes it ideal for outdoor projects. This wood is often used for shingles, shakes, posts, poles, outdoor furniture, interior paneling, house siding, decks, and saunas. Also, cedar is lightweight and this makes it an excellent choice for fishing net floats and canoes. First Peoples made extensive use of cedar for medicines, perfumes, teas, clothing, tools, baskets, mats, nets, and canoes.
Cedars are more durable than other softwoods. They are dimensionally stable and dry with little shrinkage, but have low strength and shock resistance, as well as poor steam bending qualities. Western cedar can range from a light to medium brown, with the heartwood brown and pinkish and the sapwood almost white. Eastern cedar is lighter in colour, with whitish sapwood and light brown heartwood. Both trees usually have a straight and even grain. While eastern cedar has a fine texture, western cedar is more coarse. The cedar trademark is actually its scent, which is described as spicy. If you are working with this charismatic wood, keep in mind that it can cause an allergic reaction in some people.
You will find that cedar machines easily and works well with hand tools. It’s easy to split or cut along the grain. Cutting across the grain, however, may cause tear out, because of the long fibers. The wood is quite easy to glue, while pre-drilling is recommended for nailing or screwing. Western cedar stains and finishes somewhat better than Eastern cedar. For an outdoor, weathered look you can leave cedar unfinished, and the wood will change to a silver colour over time. While cedar may not be your main choice for indoor furniture, it makes an excellent wood for home renovation and outdoor furniture projects.