incense cedar

Confused about Cedar? I am.

I was confused about what cedar is and how useful it is as a boatbuilding material. This article is a result of my notes. This is the executive summary.

Because of the large number of regional names it's often hard to figure out what you have. Many stores just sell "cedar" with no descriptions. In fact there are no native cedars in the Americas. What we know as cedar is really cypress.

Information, historical and scientific, is a bit contradictory and difficult to sort out.

As a group cedar tends to be relatively soft except for Port Orford Cedar, which is all but impossible to get hold of except out west. This means that most cedar makes for somewhat soft planks for boat building. Yellow cedar is used for boatbuilding though.

Because cedars are often very attractive colours, soft and if you get clear lumber, can be worked easily, it has been a lumber of choice for strip building of boats where strength is not important since the boat gets coated in fiberglass anyway.

As a group they are rot and insect resistant particularly if you use heartwood. Heartwood is also stronger.

The same chemicals that make cedar rot resitant also makes it somewhat toxic. Effects range from mild irritation to severe respiratory problems, skin and eye irritation, rashes, lung problems, Kidney disease and rarely possible cancer. Protect yourself if you're going to cut and sand cedar.

Previously old growth cedar provided wood that was used for boatbuilding. Now it's harder to get suitable lumber.

There are lots of records showing that cedar was widely used in the past for boatbuilding. People tended to use the wood they had around and adjusted their boatbuilding technique to suit the material. If the wood was softer and not as strong then thicker planks were used. I don't think it is an ideal boatbuilding material unless helped with fiberglass, but there are lovely cedar boats out there proving me wrong.

I've made a table of different cedars characteristics. Compare at a glance.


Cedar is not cedar?

In a perfect world, I would be able to say Cedar, give the scientific name and go on to describe the uses and characteristics of the wood.

In the real world, the term cedar describes several different species and kinds of wood with more or less similar characteristics but sometimes very different ones. Even in the US and Canada and the UK the term 'Cedar' describes different species depending on where you live.

For this reason the term CEDAR is rarely used alone. Lumberyards often add terms such as: "Western Red", "Eastern red", "Eastern White" to further describe the actual species.

As far as boatbuilding goes, Cedar has a long history of use whatever the species because most of the various species of 'cedar' share some qualities; rot resistance, mostly sufficient strength, low weight, attractive colour.

It doesn't help that various lumbers are widely exported with no mention of country of origin or species available to the final user.

Some Cedar Species

Lebanon cedar, Cedrus libani

lebanon cedar

1- See bottom for photo details

You can't talk about cedar without mentioning the Cedars of Lebanon. This is the wood widely mentioned in the Bible and used throughout antiquity. Unlike all the American "cedars" which are really cypress, it is a true cedar. Extensively exported by Lebannon, it was used by all the great kingdoms of the area. It grows in the mountain areas of the region, not only in Lebanon.

Since the forests have been heavily exploited for a long time, Lebanon cedar is no longer of great economic importance. Efforts have been made to preserve some areas. The "Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab)" is a Unesco World Heritage Site and extensive reforestation and management efforts have been made to improve and preserve it.

It's offered by a few lumber company in small quantity. The UK grows some. It is available as an ornamental plant for landscaping.

Vastern Timber has Cedar of Lebanon timber, Got Wood has turning blanks,

Western red cedar, Thuja plicata

Western or Pacific redcedar, giant or western arborvitae, giant cedar, canoe cedar, shinglewood, is an evergreen coniferous tree in the cypress family Cupressaceae, native to Western North America. For many people in the US this is what comes to mind when the word cedar is used.

It's a native of the West Coast of the N. US and S. Canada. It is widespread in its area. It can grow in quite wet swampy area and is also found as high as about 7000 feet.

Article from the State of Alaska info on Yellow and Western Red cedar

It has been widely introduced in other continents including western Europe, Australia, and has naturalized and is growing wild in UK.

Western Redcedar can grow to tremendous size, specimens have been found over 10 feet in diameter and over 200 feet high. It lives a long time and there is at least one tree over 1400 years old.

Like all the New world cedars it is not a true cedar but rather the largest tree in the cypress family.

It is a adaptable tree that will tolerate shade and can grow in a good range of temperatures: Zone: 5 to 7 but it does not much like high temperatures.

Western Redcedar is relatively abundant in the areas where it grows and is economically significant.

Some Characteristics of Western Red Cedar

Uses of Lumber

Red cedar was used extensively by local tribes wherever it was found along the Northwest coast (British Columbia, Washington state, Parts of Alaska). A large and rich history exists in it's harvesting, use, ceremonial uses, medicinal applications. It has a huge cultural and spiritual significance. A tremendous number of household and ritual objects were made of cedar including clothing, boats, totems, houses and medicines.

Western red cedar and other "cedars" have a long history of medicinal use particularly for fungal infections where it is used topically. Avoid ingesting in large quantities.

It is used for applications where it's exceptional rot resistance, easy of working and appearance are prized. One of its names is shingle wood and wooden shingles are widely available. Western Red Cedar Shingles Red Label in Contractor Packs [CAPITOL CITY LUMBER] Cedar is used for fencing, siding, deck lumber, outside furniture and musical instruments, and of course boat building.

Although it is too soft and weak for planking boats it is the wood of choice for strip building because it is readily available, attractive and easy to use.

Many suppliers of strip boat plans and kits also supply bead and cove cut strips. Orca boats, Noah Marine, Valley Woodworking, Westwind Hardwood, Chesapeake Light Craft. My page on strip building plans lists many plan and kit suppliers.

Since boats built by strip planking are usually covered with fiberglass and epoxy, strength is not important.

Yellow cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis also Cupressus nootkatensis

Yellow cedar has many names: Alaskan yellow cedar, Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, Alaska cypress, Nootka cedar, Alaska cedar. To complicate things, it has been subject to several re classifications so it also has several latin names. Usually it has kept its nootkatensis name though.

It grows on the west coast of Canada, along the Alaskan panhandle, and North West US. The trees can live very long lives, one is 1800 years old, but they do not grow as large as the Western Redcedar.

Like the Western Redcedar it was extensively used by local Native tribes.

Characteristics of Yellow Cedar

Because it is relatively strong, relatively light and very resistant to rot, it is a suitable boat building material.

Eastern Red Cedar Juniperus virginiana

Like other "cedars" it has many names: Red cedar, eastern red cedar, virginian juniper, eastern juniper, Virginia Cedar, red juniper, pencil cedar and commonly, aromatic cedar.

It is a native of Eastern North America and can be found from SE Canada to Texas, and west to the prairies.

Uses of Eastern Red Cedar / Aromatic Cedar

In some conditions it can grow relatively quickly but most lumber available is quite small. It is not a hugely commercialized wood. It has found some niche applications though. Because of its attractive red colour and ability to repel insects, it is often used for lining closets and chests. The same chemicals that repel moths also make it irritating to people. It can cause skin and lung irritations. Care should be taken when working with this wood.

Because it is very rot and insect resistant it has been used a lot for fence posts. The name "Baton Rouge" literally "red stick", is derived from the native practice of marking their territory with cedar markers which are a lovely reddish brown colour.

The lumber is showy and aromatic but because of the large number of knots and sometimes very irregular grain, it is somewhat difficult to work with hand tools. Boards tend to be small. It is often made into boxes and other smaller decorative objects. It is also used for pencil making. Here is a YouTube video where they are making coloured pencils. The wood they use is cedar. Craftsmen have many uses for it including bow making.

It is one of the first tree to colonize an area after fire or in pastures. This habit of taking over pasture land makes it an invasive species from the point of view of farmers and ranchers. In the past the regular prairie fires would control the trees but more recently, roads and clearings have reduced fires and increased the growth of the aromatic cedar.

Because it's a tough tree that is capable of growing in many different conditions (except very wet ones) it is a good landscape candidate. It is also quite salt tolerant. One problem with it is that it can carry the cedar-apple rust so don't plant it near apple orchards. Here is a link to US dept of Agriculture and Forest.

It is not a very useful wood for boatbuilders because it is knotty and larger clear boards are harder to come by. The clear wood, or wood with solid knots if it is available is suitable. Small boats have been successfully made from it. It has good hardness.

Northern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis

Northern White cedar is also known as eastern arborvidae, white cedar, swamp cedar, eastern cedar, american arborvitae, arborvitae. It is not the same as the Australia white cedar.

It is native to SE Canada and adjacent US states. Strands can be found as far south as North Carolina and Appalchians, and has been seen as far north as the arctic tree line. It is happy with wet feet and is often grows in swampy areas. They are also often seen hanging on to cliff edges. Northern white cedar can live a long time. A dead tree with 1650 growth rings has been found. Because they grow in cool often difficult places, they don't grow very large usually.

Northern White cedar was very useful historically to local native tribes and has, like it's western counterparts, a vast lore associated with it.

Of particular interest was its widespread use for making birch bark canoe ribs and planking. Later the wood was used for canvas canoes.

Characteristics of Northern White Cedar

Uses of Northern White Cedar

Because of its resistance to rot and insects, it was used for fence posts, construction including log cabins, shingles, railroad ties. It is harvested along with other trees for paper making (pulp)

Light and rot resistant, it is useful in boat building. It is not a very strong wood however. Ausable River Boats were traditionally made of northern white cedar and pine. Canoe often had ribs and planking made from Northern white cedar.

2x4 construction "Spruce" often has the odd board of white cedar included. Look for the darker lighter boards and sniff them out.

Northern white cedar is widely used as an ornamental with many cultivars having been developed. In my area, Emerald green is a common sight and grows well.

Cedar leaf oil is distilled from leaves and used in medicines and perfumes

Several animals also like to eat it, white tailed deer (is there anything they don't like?), porcupine, red squirrel, hares.

Here is an article by the at Lakehead University.

Atlantic White Cedar Chamaecyparis thyoides

The Atlantic White Cedar has many names, atlantic white cypress, southern white cedar, whitecedar, false-cypress are a few.

It is a native American tree found along the East coast between S.Maine and Georgia, and on the Gulf of Mexico. It lives in forested wetlands. Because readily available trees have been harvested and remaining populations are in swamps they are hard to harvest so it's use as lumber is not as important as in the past.

Atlantic White Cedar grows to about 100 feet in height. Even though they can live to an amazing 1000 years old, it does not grow after the first 100 years. They tend to get blown over because of shallow roots.

Characteristics of the wood
Uses of Atlantic White Cedar

Old growth wood has been used a lot for boatbuilding. Because of its small range and small size, suitable lumber is quite expensive.

Smaller trees are used as construction lumber, shingles, siding, and carving.

Here is a Youtube series of Videos describing in detail the making of A Workskiff, by Shipwright Louis Sauzedde sponsored by Jamestown Distributors. He talks about the side planks at 5:30.

Port Orford Cedar Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

Also know as Lawson Cypress, pacific white cypress, it is difficult to get and expensive, This cypres makes a great boatbuilding lumber but demand greatly exceeds supply.

It occurs in the the North West US, Oregon and North Western California.

The tree can grow to 200 plus feet and can grow to 5 or more feet in diameter.

Characteristics of Port Orford Cedar

Uses of lumber

Prized for its strength and decay-resistance it makes a great boat building lumber. Widely used architecturally. Japan imports large quantities.

Bear Creek Lumber supplies Port Orford Cedar, as does Metcalf Sawmill Products.

Because of its qualities it can be used in furniture making. It stains and works well. It has also found a niche market in casket making.

The wood is also used for instruments such as guitars. In the past arrow shafts were made from the straight grained wood.

The attractive tree has been used in landscaping and several varieties have been developed. It is quite tolerant of growing conditions but requires a regular supply of moisture during the growing season. At Christmas time, the attractive lacy boughs are popular.

Incense Cedar Calocedrus decurrens

incense cedar

2-Photo attribution at the bottom of page

Also known as California incense cedar, California White Cedar, the Incense cedar is a member of the cypress family that can grow to 150 feet, but is more likely less than 90. It grows along the American west coast from British Columbia Oregon to Baja California. It is tolerant of conditions including summer drought. Often found at mid to high elevations.

US Forest Service has a detailed article on Incense-cedar

Characteristics of Insense Cedar

Incense Cedar Lumber uses

Number one lumber for pencil making because of straight easily sharpened even grain. It is also in demand for the lath of window blinds. One of it's main use is as fenceposts because of its high rot resistance. For the same reason it is made into outdoor furniture, trellises, paneling, grape stakes. It's attractive colour makes it a wood of choice for novelty items and caskets. It is also used for moth proofing chests and closets.

As with other cedars it is used for decking and decorative wood structures.

Mill outlet Store has decking boards, and some clear boards Pac Wood Milling offers siding and milled wood.

IF you can get your hands on Incense Cedar in relatively clear boards it can works for boats, particularly if you are doing a strip canoe that will be clad in fiberglass. A few small knots don't matter. Since there is quite a lot of variation in the strength of wood depending of speed and conditions of growth, grain, and location of tree you need to test any wood that will be used for planking. Heartwood is better than sapwood.

Plywood has replaced solid wood for planking

With the depletion of large boards suitable for planking of boats, and the increasing high price of available stocks, plywood has mostly replaced solid wood planking.

This article is a work in progress. To be Continued...

My Page with a table Comparing the Different Cedars

Photo Attributions

1- Cedars of God attribution BlingBling10 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
2- Attribution: Photo of incense cedar comes from Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database under GNU copyright email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine