A Tale of Two Cedars

A reputation for fragrance clouds their true identity. 

Not unlike the masked Lone Ranger and his Spanish counterpart Zorro, there are two tree species from different geographic origins that hide their real identity. What they share is a desirable fragrance.


What are these mysterious trees? The first we know as eastern red cedar, which, in fact, lists as a juniper—one of the 50 or so junipers native to North America. Juniperus virginiana was once highly prized as the worldwide stock for lead pencils.

Spanish cedar accounts for the second species. It’s not a true cedar either, but rather a hardwood of the mahogany family that grows from southern Mexico through Central and South America and into the West Indies. Yet, Cedrela odorata has the sweet scent associated with eastern red cedar, the probable reason for its name.

History in woodworking


Due to their strength and durability, boat makers chose both “cedars” for skiffs, canoes, and other light boats as well as above-deck trim on larger vessels. However, the favored use of both woods was and remains for storage chest and wardrobe lining. (See the Arts and Crafts chest on page 54.) Their sweet fragrance proves unpleasant to moths and other wool- and linen-ravaging insects. Spanish cedar also saw use in cigar boxes, and remains popular today for humidors. Additionally, the “cedars” resist termites and rot, making them highly durable outdoors.

Eastern red cedar continues as a popular wood for rustic furniture and small novelties. In its homeland, Spanish cedar, due to its abundance and great size, finds employment anywhere strength and lightness are required.

Where the wood comes from


Native to the eastern half of the U.S., eastern red cedar ranges from Maine west to New York, Quebec, Ontario, Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, then south to Nebraska and Texas and east through Florida and Georgia.

Often called aromatic cedar (and frequently spelled redcedar), the smallish tree of 40' to 60' heights and 12" to 24" diameters will grow practically anywhere, usually standing alone or widely scattered.

Spanish cedar—also called cedro, cigar-box cedar, or Mexican cedar—sprouts in the tropics, growing in moist as well as seasonally dry forests from Mexico’s Pacific coast, throughout Central America and the Caribbean, to the lowlands and foothills of most of South America. Trees grow to 100' tall with diameters to 6' and a trunk free of branches for 40' or more.

What you’ll pay


Eastern red cedar boards, mostly #1 Common, will run 4"-6" wide and up to 8' long in 4/4 thickness and will cost you close to $3.50 a board foot.

It also comes as ship-lapped
or tongue-and-groove closet lining, most commonly in 1/4 × 33/4" strips sold in packs to cover 15 square feet for about $25. For the same use, 1/4" × 4' × 8' eastern red cedar particleboard sells for nearly $30. Expect to pay $50 for a 4 × 8' sheet of 1/4" plywood. A 4 × 8' sheet of paper-back veneer costs about $100.

Spanish cedar’s larger tree size yields lots of lumber. You’ll find it in thicker (to 8/4) and wider (over 10") boards. Most offerings are Select & Better quality and surfaced two sides (S2S). Thin stock for lining is also available. Cost per board foot ranges from $4.75 for 1/8" stock to $6 for 1/4" and $9 for 2" boards. Paper-backed veneer is available from $3 per square foot (10 mil thickness) to $4 per square foot (22 mil).

How to select the best stock

Due to its small trunk diameter, eastern red cedar typically includes thin, white sapwood with heartwood of deep red to reddish purple accented by faint white stripes and tight knots. Expect to find some sapwood on the edges of practically every board (it will have little effect on durability). Boards vary only in color, amount of sapwood, and number of knots, so select boards of similar color and appearance, but without large, loose, or encased knots.

Spanish cedar boards may display a wide range of color (due to growing conditions), from light red to pinkish orange to reddish tan without traces of sapwood. Although knots and defects in Spanish cedar are rare, boards from some trees contain more of the oil that accounts for the wood’s fragrance. This excess causes them to later “weep” under a finish or develop soft surface droplets on unfinished wood. So avoid boards that feel oily or heavier than others.

Finishing Secrets

• Oily woods always cause finishing problems because their oils retard the absorption of oxygen that oil/varnish blends and varnish require to cure completely. To help the finish adhere and cure, first wipe all wood to be finished with a fast-evaporating solvent like naphtha or lacquer thinner to temporarily remove the oil. Then apply the finish quickly before the oil returns.

• To renew the old, unfinished “cedar” aroma simply sand it lightly with 220 grit.

The "Cedars" Quick Take

COST Medium (Spanish cedar more expensive)
Durability High
TOOL TYPE Hand and power tools
COMMON USES Boat trim, cabinets, chests, boxes, closet lining, furniture, novelties

Working the “cedars” in the shop

These woods work well with either hand or power tools, but they do tend to split. Eastern red cedar’s brittleness makes it prone to  tear-out and chip-out. Machining tips include:

Ripping and routing. Carbide blades and cutters aren’t required, but always help.

Jointing. Trim eastern red cedar boards to eliminate knots on edges before jointing.

Assembling. Although all adhesives work well with the “cedars,” first remove their natural oil from joining surfaces with acetone or lacquer thinner.

Sanding. The wood sands easily; and, in fact, eastern red cedar takes a high polish if abraded through the finest grits.

Deciding on the right finish

Age turns both woods an attractive warm brown, so staining isn’t necessary. And don’t coat either with a clear polyurethane finish—the oil that gives the wood fragrance also prevents plastic finishes from adhering properly. To protect your project, use lacquer, shellac, varnish, or even finishing wax, and don’t finish the inside of a chest or storage unit or you’ll lock in the wood’s aroma.

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