It’s too easy in our modern world to forget about the role trees have played in our built existence. Today, the lowly spruce framing stud is the predominant reminder of our forests rich history in providing us with shelter and comfort.
However, there is one species of tree that continues to remind us of our longstanding, intimate connection with the forest – the Cedar of Lebanon.
The importance of the Cedar of Lebanon is well documented in historical records. 4500 years ago the Mesopotamians chose this tree to be one of their primary building materials. It originally grew throughout the mountain ranges of Asia Minor, and many of the local cultures took advantage of its unique properties.
Cedar of Lebanon
Cedar of Lebanon end-grain
Adapted by the Phoenicians as a prime shipbuilding timber, it quickly became a prized boatbuilding material and helped fuel a generation of sea trading nation states. Biblically it was known as the wood of choice for King Solomon’s palace and the Temple of Jerusalem. Prized throughout the Middle East, it was widely planted as an ornamental wherever people need to be reminded of their religious origins. Cedar of Lebanon reached England in 1638 and the New World shortly thereafter.
Of course, the original Mideast forests were diverse with other species, including Fir, Pine, and Juniper. So, what was it about the Cedar of Lebanon that created such enthusiasm? Part of the answer is size. With a flat tabular crown that originally could attain 130′ in height and a butt diameter approaching 9′, it elicited metaphors of divinity, as it reached towards heaven and the afterlife.
A more practical reason for its popularity was its strong scent. The pleasant odour tells us that this specie is a biological chemical factory producing chemicals that inhibit insect attack and decay, making it ideal for shelter construction and shipbuilding. Traces of Cedar of Lebanon sawdust has also been found entombed alongside the Egyptian Pharaohs – no doubt the resins of the Cedar of Lebanon were used to embalm their dead.
So, where does that leave today’s woodworker? Many of the ancient forests have disappeared as generations overcut this unique resource. However, there are still some highly protected forests in Lebanon, and replanting efforts in Turkey are gradually reviving forest strands. Fortunately, Cedar of Lebanon can be cultivated easily, success is high, and consequently there are existing stocks of trees outside of its original range.
Forest trees yield an easily worked straight grained timber, though ornamental stock is knotty with resin pockets and bark inclusions. Typically the timber is flitch cut with the individual planks reassembled into a boule. This offers wood from a single tree, so colour and grain is consistent. It also allow the woodworker access to flat sawn, rift and quartered material.
Since Cedar of Lebanon is sourced from Europe, it will be kiln dried to about 12% moisture content, and it will have a seasoned density of 35 pounds per cubic foot. Cedar of Lebanon machines reasonably well, and with sharp hand tools it works easily, especially the clear material. It can be somewhat brittle, but its pleasant colour, unique scent, and compelling history offer a unique palette for today’s woodworker.