For people asking is cedar a hardwood or a softwood, we have the answer for you. Cedar is a softwood. Despite its tremendous strength and impressive durability, this iconic tree is softwood.
Don’t be fooled by the words “soft” or “hard,” as this is not about how the wood feels when you touch its surface. Timber is classified as softwood or hardwood according to its physical makeup. Each timber is different in its appearance, wood density, and workability.
Difference Between Softwood and Hardwoods
The most significant difference between softwoods and hardwoods is their growth. Hardwood trees grow very slowly and are known as angiosperms, deciduous trees, meaning they shed their foliage yearly. Also, hardwoods are denser compared to softwoods.
Softwoods are gymnosperms which means these are evergreen trees or those that do not shed their leaves yearly. To classify whether a tree is a hardwood or a softwood also depends on the seeds that they produce. This is not always according to the density of the lumber.
What is Cedar?
Cedar wood is from cedar trees, a genus of coniferous trees from the family Pinaceae. These trees are naturally found in the western Himalayan mountains and the regions in the Mediterranean. These trees can grow from 30 to 40 meters tall, while some can grow up to 60 meters tall.
Cedar has a fantastic spicy scent with thick ridges and cracking bark. The branches are very broad and level, while the evergreen leaves look like needles. These trees grow seed cones in a barrel shape. These seeds come with unpleasant-tasting natural resin, which experts refer to as a natural defense against squirrels.
Cedar trees are well-adapted to climates and environments in the mountains. These places have winter seasons where the trees get a thick blanket of snow yearly. Also, cedar trees are well-adapted to scorching summer temperatures, which are common in the Mediterranean areas. Meanwhile, cedar trees in the western Himalayan mountains may receive summer rains and occasional snow.
Cedar trees are also food to insects such as the larvae of Lepidoptera, such as the turnip moth and the pine processionary.
What are the Characteristics of Cedar Wood?
Cedar is a softwood that is known for its durability, moderate workability, and fantastic beauty. Let’s find out more about cedar wood according to its appearance, grain, smell, workability, and other properties.
Timber appearance and characteristics
True cedars have similar colored timbers. Cedar has a light brown heartwood, while the sapwood is much lighter. This slight difference in color makes it easier to tell which part is which.
Cedar wood also has a unique pungent smell. This odor is also one of the similar characteristics present in true cedar woods. The growth rings of cedar are marked by the early timber and the latewood areas.
The wood has a resinous to a medium-fine texture. The wood grains are straight, which is why it’s the favorite among wood carvers and woodworkers. Because of the variety of growing conditions of various cedar species, their outer appearance may vary.
Cedars from the Atlantic and Lebanon are suited to parkland growth conditions, and thus, these trees develop knotty grains with occasional disturbances along the surface. Meanwhile, true cedars often create bark pockets which are considered a defect in the lumber industry. Cedar trees with bark pockets are classified as trees with lower wood grades.
According to experts, the Atlantic and Lebanon cedar wood is brittle and soft. These wood species have low strength and thus, are more preferred in building non-load-bearing projects, carving, turning, and as veneers.
Meanwhile, deodar has properties that are comparable with European redwood. This wood has high bending strength and is very stiff. However, this wood has little shock resistance and is not as tough as other cedar species.
Generally, cedar wood has good workability. It is easy to use for different projects as it rarely affects the cutting edges of knives, saws, and blades. Some cedar species may blunt saws and cutters, but the best way to avoid this is to use very sharp tools.
This wood accepts finishes and varnishes without any issue. You can get a good finish as long as you follow the instructions for these products. There may be occasional problems with bark pockets and knots on the wood surface, but these can be remedied using good tools.
Cedar timber is helpful in many projects and takes paints and varnish well. Expect faster drying times compared to other woods too. This wood accepts nails, screws, and other fastening materials and tools.
What are the Uses of Cedar Wood?
Cedar wood is primarily ornamental and grown in temperate regions’ gardens and parks. Cedar wood has cedarwood oils and is known to repel moths. This unique insect repellant characteristic made this wood a typical lining for closets and chests. You’ll also find cedar furniture, cabinets, and other ornamental projects.
Cedar trees are also known to be used in the art of bonsai. These trees train at a young age to follow bonsai styles like the formal and informal upright style and the cascading or slanting style.
What are True Cedars?
True cedars are natural cedar trees. Other trees have the name “cedar” but do not belong to the same family. The best and the easiest way to find out if the cedar tree is a true cedar is by looking at its cones. Trees under the genus Cedrus have upright cones with a barrel shape.
Male cedar cones are smaller than female cones and will remain on the tree until the cedar seeds have become ripe. Once the seeds mature, the female cones will start to disintegrate and soon release flowers and seeds. Every source comes with resin that tastes sour and bitter, plus it also has natural chemicals known to keep pests and other insects away.
Are There Species of Cedar?
There are only four completely recognized species of cedar wood: the Atlas cedar, Cyprus cedar, Deodar cedar, and Lebanon cedar. But let’s get to know other prominent cedar species to help you decide which type of cedar wood is best for your project.
Aromatic Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana
The aromatic red cedar is not a true cedar that belongs to the cypress family. It is closely related to the junipers in the Juniperus genus. The fragrant red cedar tree is widely distributed in the eastern region of the United States. It is a slow-growing tree and has smaller diameters compared to the true cedars.
- Distribution: This tree is native to the eastern North American region.
- Tree Size: 100 to 115 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 33 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .44, .53
- Janka Hardness: 900 pounds-feet
- Appearance: The Aromatic red cedar has a reddish or violet-brown heartwood and pale yellow sapwood. The yellow in the sapwood may spill to the heartwood, which is why the wood has natural streaks and prominent stripes.
- Texture: This wood comes with a straight grain with some knots. The grain has a delicate surface which is one of its valuable properties.
- Resistance to Rotting: This cedar tree is resistant to insects and rotting. This is the main reason why this wood is commonly used to build fence posts without the need to pre-treat wood.
- Presence of Smell: This wood has a distinct scent. This unique odor is a natural deterrent to insects, especially moths.
- Workability: Aromatic red cedar is one of the easiest cedar woods to work with, even with the knots present on the grain. This wood has high amounts of silica, which can cause the dullness of your cutting tools. This wood can accept finishes and glues well, but most of the time, this wood is left untreated or unpreserved to keep its aromatic characteristics.
- Availability: It’s hard to find large sections of this wood. However, narrower or smaller Aromatic red cedar boards with knots are readily available in lumber yards and from local suppliers at affordable prices.
- Uses: Aromatic red cedar is helpful in so many ways. It can be used to make outdoor furniture, carvings, fence posts, birdhouses, and small ornaments.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis)
Alaskan Yellow Cedar’s identity is still in the works, and it has undergone many scientific name changes over the years. It was once classified as Cupressus genus but later changed to Chamaecyparis genus. There are recent re-classifications that moved this cedar from the genus Chamaecyparis to Xanthocyparis and many others.
- Distribution: The Alaskan Yellow Cedar is found on the northwest coast of North America.
- Tree Size: 100 to 120 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 31 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .42, .50
- Janka Hardness: 580 pounds-feet
- Appearance: The Alaskan Yellow Cedar tree has a light yellow heartwood with whitish and pale yellow sapwood. The heartwood and sapwood are not distinct. You’ll find this lovely fair color change into a dark gray because of age, exposure to light, and other factors.
- Texture: This wood has a straight grain which could become wavy. It has an even medium to fine grain texture.
- Resistance to Rotting: Alaskan Yellow Cedar is very resistant to rotting, decay, and other insect attacks.
- Presence of Smell: This wood has a distinct odor. Some say that the smell is like raw potatoes.
- Workability: This wood is easy to work with whether you’re using hand tools or power tools. It has a wavy grain that can lead to tear-outs when planning. This wood can hold paints, glues, stains, and finishes.
- Availability: There is a very limited supply of Alaskan Yellow Cedar, and thus, expect high prices, especially for wood with no knots.
- Uses: Alaskan Yellow Cedar is mainly used for carving, flooring, outdoor furniture, boxes, chests, musical instruments such as flutes and guitars, and many construction uses.
Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides)
Atlantic White Cedar is stable and resistant to decay. Another name for this tree is Southern White Cedar to help describe it as different from Northern White Cedar wood.
- Distribution: This tree is native to the coastal plains of the eastern United States
- Tree Size: 65 to 100 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 24 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .31, .38
- Janka Hardness: 350 pounds-feet
- Appearance: This tree has light red-brown heartwood and a pale yellow brown to white sapwood. The two are clearly demarcated.
- Texture: It has a straight grain and an even texture.
- Resistance to Rotting: Atlantic White Cedar is resistant to decay and insect attacks
- Presence of Smell: This wood has a cedar-like characteristic smell.
- Workability: This wood is one of the easiest to work with using hand tools and power tools. This can hold stains, paints, and glues very well.
- Availability: This tree has a limited growing time while the tree is small; thus, the wood from this tree can be very expensive. The price for this wood can range from medium to high as a domestic hardwood species.
- Uses: This wood is helpful in boat building, construction, carving, shingle-making, etc.
Australian Red Cedar (Toona ciliata)
The Australian Red Cedar tree has many similar characteristics to the Spanish Cedar. These species belong to the Mahogany family and are also called Indian Mahogany.
- Distribution: This tree is from Southern Asia and Australia
- Tree Size: 100 to 130 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 30 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .40, .49
- Janka Hardness: 700 pounds-feet
- Appearance: The Australian Red Cedar has a pinkish to reddish brown heartwood and a paler color sapwood. The two are clearly demarcated.
- Texture: This wood has a straight to interlocked grain. The surface is coarse with an uneven texture. It also possesses a natural shine.
- Resistance to Rotting: This wood is slightly durable to rotting and insect attacks.
- Presence of Smell: This has a cedar-like smell when it is worked
- Workability: You’ll find the Australian Red Cedar easy to work on whether you’re using hand or power tools. There is some difficulty, especially when resurfacing wood with an interlocked grain. This wood can cause gumming up of cutters, blades, and saws. It can accept glues and finishes.
- Availability: This is not exported, and the price is moderate.
- Uses: Australian Red Cedar is used to make furniture, and musical instruments, specifically guitar tops, veneers, and boatbuilding.
Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani)
This tree was named after the country’s extensive cedar forest. The cedar tree is featured on the Lebanon flag. It is also a Biblical tree as it was referred to as the wood used to build King Solomon’s temple.
- Distribution: Lebanon Cedar is from the mountainous areas of the Mediterranean
- Tree Size: 100 to 130 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 32 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .41, .52
- Janka Hardness: 820 pounds-feet
- Appearance: This wood has a cream to light red brown heartwood while the sapwood is a pale yellow to white.
- Texture: This wood has a straight grain with occasional knots, which can make the grain look irregular. This wood has a medium to coarse appearance and a natural shine.
- Resistance to Rotting: This wood is very durable and resistant to insects and pests.
- Presence of Smell: This wood has a longer-lasting, fantastic scent which is a common ingredient in making perfumes.
- Workability: This wood is easy to work with whether you’re using hand or power tools. The occasional knots can lead to machining issues, but other than this, it turns, finishes, and glues really well.
- Availability: This wood is not for sale, and this is available only in small amounts.
- Uses: Cedar of Lebanon is used in cabinets, veneer, turned items, and building or construction.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
The Incense Cedar is used in making wood pencils because it’s soft and splinter-free cutting.
- Distribution: This wood is found in Western North America, especially in California
- Tree Size: 65 to 100 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 24 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .35, .38
- Janka Hardness: 470 pounds-feet
- Appearance: Incense-cedar has a light to medium red brown heartwood and light tan sapwood.
- Texture: This tree has a straight grain with medium to fine texture.
- Resistance to Rotting: This wood has pockets of fungus decay. The dry wood is durable to decay.
- Presence of Smell: Incense cedar has a spicy aroma typical in pencils.
- Workability: You’ll find Incense-cedar easy to work with. It can hold stains, paints, and glues very well.
- Availability: This wood has a moderate price.
- Uses: Incense Cedar is common in making pencils, sheathing, chests, siding, Venetian blinds, and furniture.
Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentialis)
Northern White Cedar is an ornamental tree with many cultivars. It is also referred to as balsa wood in the United States because its lightweight and soft.
- Distribution: This wood is native to Northeastern North America
- Tree Size: 50 to 65 feet tall and 1.3 to 2 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 22 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .29, .35
- Janka Hardness: 320 pounds-feet
- Appearance: Northern White Cedar has a light red brown heartwood and white sapwood. There are many pin knots, especially in smaller trees.
- Texture: This wood has a straight and fine grain with an even texture and moderate shine.
- Resistance to Rotting: Northern White Cedar is durable to decay and resistant to powder post beetles and termites.
- Presence of Smell: This wood has a distinct cedar-like odor when it is being worked.
- Workability: This wood is easy to work with by hand or using power tools. It does not hold screws well and can sand unevenly. It can hold paint and glues well.
- Availability: Northern White Cedar is available in small lumber for exterior construction such as shingles, fences, etc. The price is mid-range for domestic species.
- Uses: This wood is suitable for making posts, piles, canoes, shingles, railroad ties, paper, and furniture.
Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
The Port Orford Cedar got its name from the area where it was first seen: along the Port Orford in Oregon. This is a strong yet lightweight wood with incredible strength, modulus of elasticity, and modulus of rupture.
- Distribution: Pacific northwest areas of the United States
- Tree Size: 150 to 200 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide
- Average Dried Weight: 29 pounds per cubic feet
- Specific Gravity: .39, .47
- Janka Hardness: 590 pounds-feet
- Appearance: The Port Orford Cedar tree has a light yellow brown heartwood and a pale yellow brown sapwood. The color of wood can change to gray when it is left outdoors.
- Texture: This wood has a straight grain with an even medium to fine surface texture.
- Resistance to Rotting: This wood is very durable to decay and insect attacks
- Presence of Smell: This wood has an unwelcome pungent to ginger smell.
- Workability: This wood is easy to work with using power tools or hand tools. It can hold paints, stains, and glues very well.
- Availability: This wood is limited, and thus, prices can be very high.
- Uses: Port Orford Cedar is used to make arrow shafts, millwork, boatbuilding, boxes, decks, and musical instruments. Most logs are exported to countries like Japan to make toys, novelty items, shrines, temples, and various woodenware.
Cedar wood is softwood. This is because it is from a group of plants known as gymnosperms. This group includes fine trees and other conifer trees. Cedar is available in many species, but only four species stand out.
Cedar wood is very beautiful, versatile, and has a distinct spicy aroma which is why it’s used to make chests, veneers, and small carved objects. This wood is not readily available in lumberyards and from local distributors as its growth is closely regulated.
If you’re planning to use cedar wood to do projects, be sure to buy cedar wood only from reputable dealers and distributors. Find out the different cedar species and varieties to find the wood that will match the project you plan to do.