Western red cedar has some of the most durable timber in the world and has been used for centuries to make everything from Native American canoes and roofing shingles to garden greenhouses and external cladding. The bark has also been used to make mats, baskets, clothing, rope and other soft goods. Western red cedar is tall and beautiful tree and is sometimes called an ‘arborvitae’ which is Latin for ‘tree of life’ because the evergreen foliage is seemingly sustained without any obviously visible buds
Western red cedar timber has a very high natural resistance to decay and when milled has a tropical fruity aroma.
The heartwood is a red-brown colour which will turn to a silver-grey if exposed to the weather for a long duration. It is often sought after by architects and builders but cedar also has the added bonus of being able to take and hold stain very well without any discolouration. The timber is non-resinous making it a joy to cut; it is straight grained and has a fairly prominent grain pattern.
The timber has been extensively used for external construction all over the world for the likes of posts, cladding, decking, shingles and even lightweight sailboats and kayaks. It is also used to make guitars, sometimes in combination with other types of wood. Due to its light weight, 390-400kg per cubic meter when dry, it makes it a very versatile, although slightly brittle timber.
mythology and Symbolism
It is an important tree with extensive history in Native American culture, especially on the Northwest coast where some tribes refer to themselves as “people of the red cedar” because their dependence on the tree for their day to day living was so high.
Coast Salish people have a lovely legend about the creation of the tree: There once existed a good man who gave his belongings to people in need. When he died, the Creator created the western red cedar on top of his burial site so that the people could continue to receive what they needed. The timber has been used for totem poles, masks and musical instruments and it has been long celebrated for its strength. Tales say that a person could receive the trees strength even if standing with their back to it.
Western red cedar is a tall tree that has been recorded at heights of nearly 70m and can live for over a 1000 years. The oldest ever known was nearly 1500 years old. It can sometimes have heavily buttressed trunk which is great for the tree’s stability but not so good for the saw mill.
The bark of the western red cedar’s trunk is dark reddish-brown to grey. It tends to be brown when the trunk spends most of its time in the shade and grey when it’s often exposed to the sun. It is often flaky, and the foliage smells like pineapple when crushed. The bark is fissured and when it’s mature, it can be pulled off in strips. Fibres from the western red cedar bark have been used to create baskets, cords, ropes, and fishing nets.
Western red cedar has an aromatic fragrance which can be retained for long periods of time and it also contains a natural preservative that prevents decaying fungi.
Cedar tends to be prone to collecting moisture at the centre hence contributing to the internal cause of honey-combing sometimes causing a collapse
It has low strength properties due to its light weight and soft timber attributes. The timber holds its position well after drying , with little to no warping or checking. Very durable in regards to decay but sometimes prone to insect attack.
A good finish can be obtained, but cutters must be kept sharpened. Care is needed in order to obtain the best results during mortising, planing and moulding.