Cedarwood is an excellent choice for woodworking projects, construction projects, building needs, and other applications. It’s also a good material for roofing shingles and wood cabin construction.
However, a common challenge when shopping for cedar timber is whether to go with the western red cedar or eastern white cedar.
The two are almost identical, thus hard to differentiate at a glance. However, they possess different physical and aesthetic properties suited to different applications.
This guide makes it a little easier to choose between the two as you anticipate your next project.
Red Cedar vs White Cedar: What’s the Main Difference?
The main difference between the western red cedar and eastern white cedar is that red cedar is slightly stronger than white cedar. It’s also less prone to knots. Interestingly, white cedar items last longer than red cedar objects.
Red Cedar vs White Cedar: The Basics
Let’s begin with a brief background of each wood type better to understand their origins and physical properties.
What’s Red Cedar?
There are two species of red cedar; the western red cedar and the eastern red cedar. Unfortunately, the eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, isn’t very common. Therefore, we’re talking about the western red cedar whenever we mention red cedar.
The western red cedar, scientifically known as Thuja plicata, is a slow-growing cedar species native to and primarily grown in the west coast states of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.
It thrives in the cool, wet, and shady environments of the Pacific Northwest forests. The trees can grow to enormous sizes. So, trees 200+ feet tall and 13+ feet in diameter aren’t uncommon.
The trees can grow to 1500+ years but are often harvested between 10 and 20 years. The following is a summary of red cedar history and properties.
Thuja plicata is native to the west coast, specifically the Pacific Northwest forests. Originally, the bark of the red cedar was used for blankets, clothing, and baskets, while the logs were used to make canoes, masks, and community loghouses.
However, local communities later discovered its excellent woodworking qualities. As a result, red cedar is currently one of the most in-demand wood types.
The western red cedar is primarily characterized by its rich, striking colors. The colors vary from tree to tree and sometimes from one section of the tree to another. However, generally, it has a pinkish or reddish-brown to dark, chocolate-brown heartwood.
The color becomes more even after exposure to the sun’s UV rays and gradually “fades” to a pleasing silver-grey color over time. It has a straight grain texture.
The western red cedar is also impressively resistant to decay. Indeed, it’s the most decay-resistant cedar and the longest-lasting softwood in North America. It’s also very sustainable and highly versatile.
Pros and Cons
- It’s strong
- Has pleasant aroma
- Highly decay-resistant
- High dimensional stability
- Extremely versatile
- Prone to insects and pest attacks
Western red cedar is applicable in many projects, from woodworking to building and construction. The most common uses are;
- Chests and closets
- Red cedar shingles
- Red cedar fences
- Cutting boards
- Greenhouse fittings
What’s White Cedar?
White cedar, also known as the eastern white cedar, northern white cedar, or arborvitae, is an evergreen coniferous tree in the cypress family.
It is native to eastern Canada, and much of the north-central and northeastern USA and is widely cultivated as an ornamental tree.
It’s notably smaller than the western red cedar. Mature trees grow to about 60 feet tall and are typically two feet in diameter. However, white cedar is long-lasting. Here’s a lowdown on this wood type;
The eastern white cedar is indigenous to Europe and first rose to prominence in the 1500s. It was called the arborvitae. Originally, the foliage from the white cedar was used to treat scurvy, thus the nickname “tree of life.”
However, later the tree’s physical properties, especially its durability and weather resistance, shone through, earning it a role in other applications, such as building warcraft canoes and pipes. It also became one of the most preferred woods for fences.
White cedar is primarily characterized by white sapwood, often with a hint of yellow. However, the sapwood is much thinner than red cedars.
The heartwood is reddish-brown too, occasionally with red tones. However, it’s much paler than the red cedar’s reddish-brown color. White cedar is straight-grained with a fine texture and lightweight softwood that lasts many years.
Pros and Cons
- Highly decay-resistant
- Good-looking texture
- Excellent insulation properties
- It ages elegantly
- It has a sweet aroma
- It has a lower decay resistance than red cedar
- It’s hard to come by large logs or wood plates
White cedar has endless applications in the woodworking and building and construction industries. These include;
- Constructing fences
- White cedar shingles
- White cedar roof
- Cabin construction projects
Red Cedar vs White Cedar: Head to Head
Now we have a brief background of the eastern white cedar and western red cedar. So, how do the two types of wood compare, and which is the better option ultimately?
Red cedar is native to the east coast, growing mainly in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. It’s a massive tree that grows to a staggering 200 feet tall, with diameters of 13 feet.
Red cedars are best known for their water-repellant properties and have historically been used in roofing. By comparison, red cedar mainly grows on the east coast, especially in the northeastern states and upward to eastern Canada.
It’s a much smaller tree that grows to 60 feet tall and twee feet in diameter. The tree is most famous for it’s decay-resistance and is the go-to lumber for wood fences.
Red cedar and white cedar are almost similar in appearance. Both have a reddish-brown to light golden-yellow heartwood with a yellow to nearly white sapwood.
Indeed, it’s almost impossible to differentiate the two at first glance. The striking resemblance is even greater once the woods try up into a silver-grey color. Also, both have straight, even grains.
However, you may be able to spot a few differences with a keen eye. First, red cedar has much thicker sapwood. The heartwood is also bigger, thus larger logs and wood plates. Secondly, white cedar is much lighter/paler than red cedar.
First off, cedar is a softwood. Many people think it’s a hardwood because of its incredible strength. However, it’s not. More importantly, though, cedar is a very strong softwood.
The aromatic cedar, for instance, scores 900 lbf on the Janka scale, making it harder than Douglas fir, silver maple, and even redwood.
Unfortunately, neither the eastern white cedar nor western red cedar comes close to the Aromatic cedar’s hardness qualities. Both are much softer, often comparable to redwood.
The western red cedar is slightly harder at 35o Janka, while the eastern white cedar comes in at 320 Janka.
Strength and density
Always remember that hardness and strength are two different factors. They affect each other. Nonetheless, they are different.
Nevertheless, the western red cedar wins here, too, with compressive strength (modulus of rupture) of 7,500 lbf/inch-2, equivalent to 51.7 MPa. Meanwhile, the eastern white cedar’s modulus of rupture is 6,500 lbf/inch-2, equivalent to 44.8 MPa.
Red cedar is also denser than white cedar. The average dried weight of red cedar is 23 lbs/cubic foot, whereas white cedar weighs 22 lbs/cubic foot.
Aroma/odor and natural oils
Cedars are known for a characteristic lingering smell that makes them valuable in the aromatherapy industry. Extracts from the barks of the trees are regularly used in essential oils and other beauty and wellbeing products.
The smell is stronger in red than in white cedars. Additionally, cedars produce natural oils known as cedarwood. The essential oil is produced in the foliage, roots, and stumps left over after logging.
Cedar oil is mainly used as a deodorant to repel insects and prevent mildew. However, it also has applications boosting body relaxation and improving concentration. White cedar’s oils are stronger, though.
Dimensional stability describes how wood shrinks or swells due to changes in weather conditions. As a result, it impacts the durability of wooden items, floors, and buildings.
Low dimensional stability means that the wood easily shrinks in winter and readily expands in hot temperatures. fortunately, both red and white cedars are highly dimensionally stable, though white cedar is slightly better in this regard.
Red cedar has a radial shrinkage ratio of 2.4% and tangential shrinkage of 5%. On the other hand, white cedar only shrinks by 2.2% radially and 4.9% tangentially. It’s a small difference that means a lot, especially in wooden flooring.
Decay and insect resistance
Both red and white cedars are highly resistant to rotting and decay. This is because the trees produce valuable natural oils that repel water absorption and fungi that cause rotting, allowing the wood to remain healthy for many decades.
It’s why white cedar fences and western red cedar shingles last 30+ years. However, white cedars are slightly more decay-resistant.
Both species are also highly pest resistant. Again, the natural oils repel insects and pests. However, white cedar is slightly more pest-resistant than red cedar. White cedar fences are especially very resistant to termites and powder post beetles.
Uses and sustainability
As you’d expect, white and red cedar applications overlap. For instance, both are popular among woodworkers seeking affordable lumber for regular wooden items, especially outdoor furniture.
However, red cedar is the more common choice in woodworking, where it’s used to make boxes, crates, and musical instruments. Other common uses of red cedar include boatbuilding, shingles, and exterior siding.
On the other hand, white cedar is primarily used in fences, posts, and railroad ties. Other applications of white cedar include piles and paper/pulpwood.
Finally, red and white cedars also differ in pricing. Although both are considered affordable, red cedar is more expensive than white cedar.
For instance, whereas white cedar shingle prices start from $7, red cedar roofing shingles/shake prices start from $8.5.
Similarly, red cedar posts and fences are more expensive than white cedar alternatives. White cedar fences cost $4 to $8.5 per linear foot while red cedar fences cost $5.5 to $10 per linear foot.
White Cedar vs Red Cedar Fences
Both red cedar and white cedar make excellent fences and posts that last many years. However, white cedar fences are more decay-resistant and durable, typically lasting 30+ years compared to 10+ years for red cedars.
White cedar fences are also more pest and insect resistant. Interestingly, red cedar fences are more expensive than white cedar fences.
The most obvious difference between the western red cedar wood and eastern white cedarwood is that red cedar trees are bigger, stronger, and more expensive than white cedars. Meanwhile, white cedar is more decay-resistant.
What is the difference between white and red cedar?
The main difference between white and red cedarwood is that red cedar is slightly stronger than white cedar. Both are very soft softwoods, typically comparable to redwood. However, red cedar is slightly stronger and therefore more expensive. However, White cedar is more resistant to moisture, rot, and decay.
The western red cedar and eastern white cedar are extremely popular wood types in the US as they are native species, thus readily available and generally affordable.
They are also similar in many ways, including appearance, though white cedar is paler. Nevertheless, they also have several notable differences.
- When to Use Red Cedar Wood: Red cedarwood is best for medium-durability projects requiring larger timber pieces. Therefore, roofing shingles, exterior siding, and woodworking lumber are excellent applications.
- When to Use White Cedar Wood: White cedarwood is best for high-durability applications that don’t require big logs. Therefore, some of its best applications are fences, posts, railroad ties, and paper pulp.
Other woods that you can use in place of red and white cedars are the Alaskan cedar and northern white cedar. In addition, heat-treated tulipwood, Douglas fir, and the Siberian Larch are worthy alternatives.