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A Comparison of Cedar Varieties For Exterior Use Projects

If you are considering real wood exterior siding, decking, or outdoor entertainment spaces you’re probably seeing overwhelming evidence that cedar is the wood of choice for outdoor projects. 

That’s because cedar has a natural resistance to rot and insects. It’s known for its durability and long wear life. Finished and maintained properly, cedar will last 40, 50, 60, even 70 years!

And, you may be noticing there are different cedars … Eastern White, Eastern Red, Western Red, Inland Red, Incense, and Alaskan Yellow. That’s a lot of different cedars!

Eastern Red and Eastern White cedars are regional favorites and are limited in supply as well as vendors. We’ve included some information on them, but our article will concentrate on the more popular and accessible cedars that grow from the Rockies, west and north.

Eastern Varieties of Cedar for Exterior Use

Eastern Red Cedar Varieties

Eastern Red cedar grows in the eastern U.S., north through southern Ontario Canada. It is aromatic and popularly used for clothes chests and closets to repel moths and insects.

It is available in a knotty grade. As its name implies, it has a red hue with pale streaks running throughout. (Fun fact: pencils were made from Eastern Red cedar until 1920 when the tree was declared endangered from aggressive logging.)

Eastern White Cedar Varieties

Eastern White cedar is native to much of the northeastern and north-central U.S. and eastern Canada. It’s pale white with a light brown heartwood. They are small trees, growing only to 30-60 feet with a 2 feet diameter.

Eastern White cedar is commonly found as shingles, used in fencing and construction, and prized for its rot resistance. You can find Eastern White cedar exterior siding but its pale color lacks the luster, tonal contrasts, and character so popular in Western Red Cedar.

Eastern Red and Eastern White cedars are regionally popular woods with limited availability.

Western Cedars for Exterior Use

The cedars that grow from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast, and north through Alaska are popular throughout the U.S.

It’s hard to make comparisons between them because their attributes are many, and where it counts, almost identical. In addition to being rot and insect resistant, they are lightweight, easy to work with, and make for beautiful exterior siding, decking, pergolas, trellises and other outdoor entertainment spaces. Real cedar is a sustainable building material with a low manufacturing carbon footprint, sought after in today’s climate of eco-friendly building.

These cedars are excellent for outdoor use because they are very weather resistant and hold up in every climate zone in the U.S. When used for exterior siding, all are beneficial thermal and acoustic insulators. While Western Red, Inland Red, Incense and Alaskan Yellow cedars have all the attributes you’re looking for when choosing an exterior-use cedar, there are some differences we’ll highlight in this article. 

Western Red Cedar Planks
Western Red Cedar Planks

Western Red cedar, the most popular cedar, is known for its deeper reddish-brown coloring, beautiful subtle to well-defined wood tones, and an inherent luster. Western Red cedar siding  is, by far, the most requested siding of all the wood species. It’s the perfect wood for clear coating, to show off its natural wood tones and character. WRCedar takes all finishes well.

Mature WRCedars can grow to 200 feet tall with a 6 foot to 13 foot trunk diameter. It is sustainably grown and harvested, the perfect eco-friendly building material.

WRCedar is available in clear grade, so popular for contemporary finishes; near clear grade with some tight knots, a lot of clear wood that offers beautiful rustic charm, and a tight knot grade with a truly rustic appearance. Most premium Clear Vertical Grain cedar will be WRCedar because this coastal-grown cedar tends to be of higher quality.

Western Red Cedar timbers are a “must-have” when working with exposed beam design and looking for strength.

Western Red cedar, of all the cedars, can be pricier but when a project is specified for premium appearance and strength, there is no better choice.

Western Red Cedar Timbers, Stained
Western Red Cedar Timbers, Stained

Inland Red Cedar Varieties

Inland Red cedar is the same species as Western Red cedar; the difference is where it grows. While Western Red cedar grows exclusively in western coastal North America and is referred to as coastal cedar, Inland Red cedar grows further east into the Rocky Mountains.

Because of soil and environmental differences between the coast and the Rockies, there are some physical differences between the two cedars.

The Inland Red cedar trees don’t grow as large as Western Red cedars due to more seasonal changes and a dryer climate. This causes these smaller cedars to branch more, and more branches equal more knots. It’s harder to find Inland cedar in a grade higher than Select Tight Knot.

Inland Red cedar is lighter in color than WRCedar and has much less variation from light to dark wood tones because of soil chemistry differences.

Knotty Inland Red Cedar Planks
Knotty Inland Red Cedar Planks

Inland Red cedar is non-resinous, dimensionally stable and very durable in all climates and weather conditions. It takes stain and paint well and it’s easy to work with.

Inland Red cedar is rot and insect resistant and is a great choice for siding, fencing, decking, and outdoor entertainment spaces. If you’re looking for a rustic, lighter-colored cedar, and a price point that can be less expensive than Western Red Cedar, Inland cedar is an excellent option.

California Incense Cedar Varieties

Incense Cedar Near Clear Smooth Face T&G-Beveled Edges
Incense Cedar Near Clear Smooth Face T&G-Beveled Edges

California Incense cedar, shortened to Incense cedar, is native to California, southern Oregon, and western Nevada. It grows intermingled with pines and firs. It is very adaptable and can be found in many states.

What is incense cedar? Historically, Native Americans used Incense cedar leaves for medicinal purposes and as a food spice. Its aroma, which repels insects, makes it a favorite for clothes chests and closets.

The older Incense cedars are fairly good sized, getting to about 150 feet tall with a circumference of 4 feet.

Incense Cedar vs Red Cedar

Incense cedar is light, reddish brown. Many find this lighter color very attractive. The tonal variations aren’t as dramatic as in WRC and Incense cedar lacks a lot of the character that makes WRCedar so popular. It takes stain and paint well so you can give it some color, warmth and depth with the finish. It holds up just as well as WRCedar to natural weathering.

Incense cedar has a mildly spicy fragrance (fun fact … today, nearly all pencils are made from Incense cedar).

Incense cedar is milled in Clear, Near Clear, and Tight Knot grades. Clear and Near Clear grades aren’t always available because there’s much less Incense cedar milled in comparison to WRCedar, which will be the better choice for the availability of Clear and Near Clear grades.

Incense Cedar Timbers Clear Grade
Incense Cedar Timbers Clear Grade

Incense cedar is as durable and strong as WRCedar. It’s easy to work with, using both hand and machine tools, because of its light weight.

With its competitive price point and all the advantages of WRCedar, it could be a strong contender when choosing cedar for your project.

On a personal note, Chris Buffalo, founder of Buffalo Lumber, had Incense cedar on his office walls. Pipes burst, a flood ensued soaking the walls, and a 2-month clean-up project followed.

Typically, there’s a moldy, mildewy smell to wood after this type of occurrence. Instead, their office smelled like a cedar-lined closet. After the clean-up, a mold inspection came back negative. No mold – that was pretty amazing! He describes Incense cedar as “freaking awesome”!

Alaskan Yellow Cedar

Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Alaskan Yellow Cedar

Alaskan Yellow cedar is found from the California-Oregon border north to Southern Alaska. It has all the best attributes of cedar wood and works well for all outdoor projects.

Alaskan Yellows are slow-growing medium-sized trees that can grow to 80 feet tall and 35 inches in diameter. It’s available in Clear, Near Clear, and STK grades.

The consistent pale to golden yellow coloring lacks the warmth and character of Western Red cedar, but the monotone coloring is beautiful in its own right. Alaskan Yellow has a competitive price point and with proper protective finishing and a good maintenance plan it will stand the test of time.

Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Alaskan Yellow Cedar

In Our Opinion

Western Red cedar, Inland Red cedar, Incense cedar, and Alaskan Yellow cedar have the same strong attributes that make any one of them a great choice when considering cedar for your project.

The differences in these cedars can be directly attributed to where the trees grow. Weather and soil variables affect the size of the trees, the color of the wood, and, in some cases, the wood grades available.

If we had to rank these cedars, Western Red cedar would stand at the head of the pack for durability and longevity, character, depth of color, and luster. Western Red cedar’s consistent ranking as the number 1 choice for siding and timber projects is a testament to its all-around performance ability.

Premium grade Clear or Clear Vertical Grain WRCedar is prized by architects and designers of contemporary structures and those sourcing the best softwood available for niche wood projects and accent features.

The considerations in choosing the cedar that is best for your project will be budget, wood grade, wood characteristics (color tone and depth, grain patterns, warmth, and luster), and your style aesthetic. Cedar can be milled into most standard pattern choices that complement traditional, rustic and contemporary designs.

Lumber prices fluctuate constantly based on several variables. Availability is a key factor. If it’s harder to get, for any reason, it’s going to go up in price. We all know that’s true for any product.

Whether you want to enhance the natural cedar wood tones or add a vibrant color, Western Red Cedar, Inland Red Cedar, Incense Cedar, and Alaskan Yellow Cedar take stain and paint well.

Just a reminder that all cedars will weather to a silvery gray over time. If you want to maintain the unique color of the cedar you choose, a UV and moisture-protective coating will be necessary.

And, one more reminder. To get the longest wear life from your exterior cedar, you want to have a maintenance plan that includes a yearly inspection and general cleaning.

If you have a finish on your cedar, deep clean and refinish when necessary for long life and to maintain the natural wood tone.

Contact a mill specialist today to find the right cedar for your real wood project.

Ciao, Wood Lovers

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