Woodsense: Port Orford Cedar

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This article is from issue 116 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The saga of an immigrant that now flies around the world

Like so many of us, Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) is an immigrant to North America. There are only five members of this coniferous genus worldwide, with four of them rooted in Asia. Scientists speculate that Port Orford cedar (POC) seeds floated across the Pacific in the dim past and found a friendly climate in the rugged terrain that is now coastal southern Oregon and northern California. Indigenous people employed its timber to make sweat lodges and a wide range of other items, including arrow shafts. Its high strength-to-weight ratio makes it an ideal candidate for more contemporary uses as well including Venetian blind slats, railroad ties, match sticks, separators in storage batteries, timber framing, boatbuilding, furniture, interior millwork, and arrow shafts again—but this time with mechanical production. In an ironic twist to the wood’s immigrant origin, Port Orford cedar arrow shafts are now an important export to archers worldwide.

POC saw its heyday in the first part of the 20th century when old-growth trees were plentiful. Today, there are virtually no old-growth trees left; most of what is cut comes from second or third growth forests, or salvaged logs. Even old-growth stumps can command a premium price. POC lumber is typically straight-grained, stable, and quite lightweight. Figured grain, while uncommon, is prized for musical instruments and turning blocks.

What’s the purpose of that? I really enjoyed turning these bottle stoppers even though I don’t understand why anybody would need one. I was always taught to finish what I started.

Another tree with health issues

Unfortunately, the trees are another species under attack from disease. A root-rotting spore is causing trouble throughout POC’s range. The Forest Service has worked at the problem with containment strategies such as road closures, along with a far more difficult solution: modifying the tree itself to make it disease resistant. A recent report indicates that researchers may have developed a new POC variety that can survive the spore. But even if this is successful, it will open many other questions of implementation.

Go straight into the arrow factory

Port Orford cedar is the Rolls-Royce of arrow shafts, according to Kaleb Sherritt, the manager of Rose City Archery in Myrtle Point, Oregon. It’s ideally suited to making arrow shafts because of its straight grain as well as a unique combination of light weight, strength, and resilience. In addition, any eventual curvature in the shaft is relatively easy to eliminate. Discerning archers can specify length, diameter, weight, and the critical value of spine—the shaft’s stiffness—a key element in the arrow’s stability in flight. Then a person can select shaft finish, banding, fletching (feather type and number), and so on. Rose City Archery buys its wood from local contractors who scour selected areas of Siskiyou National Forest under agreement with the U.S. Forest Service as well as private land for suitable stock. They can harvest snags (standing dead trees) or fallen timber. Because of the natural oil contained in the wood, POC has such incredible rot resistance that logs covered in moss or even buried for decades can still yield straight arrows. The oil also prevents damage from insects, including termites.

Straight and narrow. POC is know for its straight grain and tight growth rings. The lower sample has aproximately 32 rings per inch.

Working with POC

To check out Port Orford cedar for myself, I purchased a variety of turning blanks. The seller stated that the pen blanks were milled from root wood and given the scarcity and value of the lumber, I have no reason to doubt that. 

POC saws and drills cleanly, and the jointer gave me a smooth edge. I was pleasantly surprised when a sharp blade in a handplane yielded a nearly polished surface that sanding wouldn’t have improved. That said, the wood does sand smoothly. It also glues well and is well-known for taking stain evenly. I experimented with three finishes, and all gave good results. 

When I prepared the bottle stopper blanks, I was very conscious of the old maxim that the softer the wood, the sharper your tools need to be to achieve quality results. Port-Orford-cedar has a rating of only 590 on the Janka hardness scale, identical to red alder and larch, but less than half of red oak’s 1220 value. 

My roughing gouge gave me smoother results than its name would imply as I removed the blank’s corners to create a cylinder. I then opened a box of carbide-tipped scrapers with factory-sharp edges. The round cutter produced some easily-visible tearout, but not so serious that it didn’t quickly disappear with light sanding. I got similar results with the square cutter, but the diamond-shaped groover performed very well. I’m certainly not panning either the wood or the tools, because there’s always the factor of operator error. Your results may vary. Cuts with a steel skew were very clean.

In name only. Port Orford is not considered a true cedar, but it can be an impressive tree, growing 150 to 200 feet tall, with a trunk diameter reaching 4 to 6 feet or even larger.
Scales and cones. The tree’s foliage is composed of tiny, scale-like leaves with a feathery appearance. Its cones are about the size of marbles.

Port Orford Cedar trivialities

The sweet smell of success. Rose City Archery carefully collects all the sawdust generated in the factory and has part of it processed to produce an essential oil marketed on their website. I enjoyed the pleasant oil-infused aroma of the wood while working it, then swept up all the debris to use as potpourri.

Shoo away insects. A study by Oregon State University has shown that oil from Port Orford cedar wood is superior to DEET in repelling insects.

Wood to go. If you’re ever near Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, the good news is that you can get a permit to gather dead POC for $150 a cord. The bad news is that you then need to find it, and lug it out over difficult terrain. Happy hunting.

The sound of music. Port Orford cedar is used for a variety of musical instruments, and you can find online dealers who provide soundboards for guitars and ukuleles.

An ounce of prevention. Long-term exposure to POC dust has been linked to respiratory and kidney ailments.

A box of wood to your doorstep. Wood gets rejected at every step of the arrow-making process. Rose City Archery will sell you a box of slats that aren’t quite good enough for arrows but will still let you make small projects. See the company’s website for details: rosecityarchery.com.
Workability: High | Toxicity: Medium-Low | Rot/Insect Resistance: High | Hardness: Medium-Low


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