You need wood for your building project, and you’ve settled on cedar. You might think the buying process would be simple from here on out-go down to the building supply store and grab some cedar, right? Not so fast, friend. There’s actually more to cedar than you might realize.
Western Red Cedar and Inland Red Cedar are two similar but not identical wood products on the market. So if you’re a cedar beginner, here’s a Cedar 101 crash course for you.
1. Know your background
The scientific name for Western Red Cedar is Thuja plicata. It’s a variety of softwood that grows in the western U.S. and Canada, known for its extreme durability, natural preservatives, and of course, untreated beauty. The innate characteristics of Western Red Cedar make it well-suited for the best-quality cedar siding, decking, shakes and shingles.
Even once you’ve made up your mind that Thuja plicata is what you need for your building project, there are still a few things you should know. Most Western Red Cedar comes from British Columbia, western Washington and western Oregon. However, some Western Red Cedar also grows further inland. You’ll find it on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, in Idaho, Montana, as well as parts of Alberta and eastern British Columbia.
The cedars from the more eastern, higher-elevation forests are still Thuja plicata – the same botanical species as the cedars that grow to the west – but there are differences in the wood. In fact, the two varieties are sometimes processed, graded, and even labeled differently: the wood from trees grown in the coastal forests as “Western Red Cedar,” the wood from trees grown further east as “Inland Red Cedar.”
Now that you know the background on these woodland wonders, here are things to consider when you’re trying to determine which type to purchase.
2. Take a closer look
Paul Mackie is the western area manager of the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association, but he also answers to “Mr. Cedar” for his ability to answer cedar questions.
Mackie said that while botanists may not make a scientific distinction between the trees grown inland and trees grown on the coast, you will see a visual difference if you examine both types side by side.
“The inland fiber is different from the coastal materials,” he said. “The inland fiber will be lighter, striped in appearance, and the percentage of clear is much less.”
Cedar decking and siding specialists who look for the highest-grade products source their Western Red Cedar from trees grown in the coastal climate. These coastal trees are giants, growing up to 200 feet tall and more than 10 feet in diameter. Their native habitat is anywhere from sea level to about 4,000 or 5,000 feet in altitude, and in warmer, wetter conditions than the cedars grown on the other side of the mountains. They also offer a more diverse appearance.
“In the coastal fiber, you’ll see a wide range of color occurring in the tree,” said Mackie. “You’ll have everything from a dark chocolate to a light straw color, and all those colors might occur within the same piece.”
3. Does size matter?
The larger coastal cedars also tend to have a higher percentage of “clear” grade material that the best quality cedar siding, cedar shakes, and large beams are made from. In the higher altitude and drier climate regions, Inland Red Cedar just doesn’t get as big. If you need large-diameter beams or timbers, they’re going to have to come from Western Red Cedar that was grown in the coastal forests.
The smaller inland trees are better suited for different products than coastal trees, Mackie said. Split-rail fencing or smaller pieces of lumber are two common uses for Inland Red Cedar.
“There’s not nearly as wide of a product range for inland cedar,” Mackie said.
4. Making the grade
The two types of cedar are also processed and graded differently. Cedar is usually sorted into “clear” and “knotty” grades. “Clear” is the most visually perfect wood, while “knotty” is what it sounds like-it’s quality wood that’s structurally sound, but it has some knots or other visual imperfections. Within the “clear” designation, lumber is further sorted in grades from A through D, with “A and better clears” the highest grade, and “D” the lowest.
According to Mackie, Inland Red Cedar has a lower percentage of clear lumber – so small that most producers of Inland Red Cedar don’t even sell A-grade materials. “D and better clears” is usually the highest grade available for Inland Red Cedar. This is still quality wood, but it’s not as knot- and blemish-free as the “A” or better. Western Red Cedar producers have enough volume to offer a wide range of clear grades, all the way up to the very highest grades of clear vertical-grain heart.
What’s more, two different pieces of wood could be labeled similarly even though they were actually graded by different standards. According to Mackie, different lumber producers grade by different rules. Producers of Western Red Cedar grown in the coastal regions grade by cedar-specific rules-inland mills don’t.
“Many of the coastal mills only process cedar,” Mackie said. “The inland mills might do a run of ponderosa pine, then of white pine, then of cedar.”
Because cedar is just one of many products inland mills offer, they don’t go by the cedar-specific rules. Mackie said that in the “knotty” grades, inland cedar is often graded according to Ponderosa Pine grade rules. It all depends on where the wood was milled and what set of standards that particular producer was using.
5. Making the choice
So, just because two pieces of wood both look like cedar, smell like cedar, and may even be botanical brothers, doesn’t mean that they are identical. If you’re looking for a smaller piece of cedar where durability matters but appearance isn’t as crucial, Inland Red Cedar might fit your needs. If you’re looking for a really large beam or timber, and you need the highest-quality cedar available, Western Red Cedar is your best option.
Know your source, consider your project needs, and you’ll be sure of getting the kind of cedar that’s right for you.