Woodsense: Spotlight on cypress

Bountiful belle of the bottom lands 

Consultant: Greg Arceneaux

An interesting tree, the cypress: botanically, it’s “baldcypress,” and although classified as a conifer, and thus a softwood, it annually sheds its needles as do hardwood deciduous trees, a trait shared with only one other species, the larch. Cypress (Taxodium distichum) isn’t really a true cypress either. Instead, it belongs to the tree family that includes California’s coastal redwood.

Unlike most trees, cypress prefers wetlands. In the swamps of the Deep South, it grows shallow serpentine roots that spread out horizontally to anchor it. Occasional protrusions of these roots above water are called “knees” and are eagerly sought by crafters to transform into novelties. But it is wood from its trunk that grabs woodworkers’ attention— cypress rates among the top North American woods in decay resistance and durability when exposed to weather.

History in woodworking

Due to its durability, cypress has traditionally been employed for anything subjected to the elements—small boats, ship decking, shingles, house siding, docks, outdoor furniture (see page 30), and more. Although cypress benefits from the same decay-resistant qualities as redwood and cedar, it is harder and stronger. This handsome wood was and still is crafted into cabinets, fine furniture, flooring, paneling, and exposed structural features.

Cypress Quick Take

COST Moderate
WEIGHT Moderate
TOXICITY None, but a possible sensitizer
TOOL TYPE Hand and power tools
COMMON USES Small boats, cabinets, light construction, doors, indoor and outdoor furniture, millwork

Where the wood comes from

Cypress grows mostly in wetlands from southernmost Illinois to the Gulf Coast and up the eastern seaboard to Delaware (about half the annual harvest originates in the South and one-quarter from the South Atlantic states). Lumber from trees growing in the deep gulf swamps of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida is marketed as “tidewater” cypress. It’s redder in color than the “yellow” cypress wood from other bottomland areas of its range.

At one time, cypress stands along the Gulf of Mexico yielded as much as 100,000 board feet of lumber per acre! Today, remnants of those great old-growth trees are salvaged from lakes, rivers, and swamps, then dried and sold as “sinker” cypress. Recycled cypress timbers from barns, factories, and warehouses become woodworking stock too.

There’s also “pecky” cypress that has been subjected to a fungus attack that leaves behind small, shallow, bug-like holes. The wood proves sound, however, and in demand for decorative use such as wall paneling.

What you’ll pay

Even though it is a softwood, hardwood-grading rules apply to cypress, as follow: Selects & Better, #1 Common, #2 Common, and Pecky. Compared to other decay-resistant woods like redwood and cedar, cypress is inexpensive at about $3 per board foot for top grade 4/4 stock surfaced two sides (S2S). Sinker and pecky cypress cost a bit more. However, where the tree grows in abundance, cypress lumber prices drop considerably.

The wood isn’t available in plywood, although cypress does furnish an elegantly-figured veneer cut from crotch wood that’s called “faux satine.” It’s expensive as well as rare.

How to select the best stock

The more durable cypress heartwood is darker than the sapwood. Avoid mixing the two together. Boards sawn from old-growth sinker heartwood and recycled timbers will have tighter grain and contain more of the extractives that ward off decay. Flatsawn sapwood boards display “cathedral” grain with a distinct contrast between earlywood and latewood, making the boards much more difficult to stain.

Working cypress in the shop

Although light at 28 pounds per cubic foot air-dry, cypress is moderately hard and machines much like white pine. Its straight grain allows you to work it with hand as well as power tools. Be aware, though, that heartwood may have an unpleasant odor.

• Ripping and routing. Although cypress lumber can feel greasy or waxy, there’s no pitch or resin to gum up cutting edges. Be sure to take light passes when routing cathedral-grain boards to avoid tear-out.

• Jointing. You’ll have no tearout or chipping problems with straight-grained boards, but as with routing, cathedral-grain boards require light passes.

• Assembly. Cypress’ greasy feel won’t hinder gluing. To avoid splitting, predrill clearance holes for skews.

Deciding on the right finish

Several coats of a penetrating oil finish (clear or tinted) suits indoor cypress furniture quite well. Outdoor projects benefit from the same, but use a product with UV protection. Unprotected wood eventually weathers to a light gray.

If you decide to stain, remember that boards with cathedral grain won’t accept it evenly without first using a conditioner or employing a gel stain.

Cypress also holds paint exceptionally well and is used throughout the South for exterior projects that require it.

It’s a fact that…

• The largest baldcypress recorded in North America grows on Cat Island, Louisiana. It’s 96' tall and has a diameter of nearly 20'.

• Baldcypress lives a long ti me. Some stands of ti dewater cypress have been estimated to be upwards of 1,000 years old.

Cypress Finishing Tips

• To add color without blotching, try applying a thin coat of your final oil finish, letting it dry, and then use an aniline dye. Finish with three or four coats of oil. Rub the surface down with #0000 steel wool between coats.

• For the cypress porch swing seen on the cover, the builder chose an exterior water-based polyurethane, and had no problem with application.

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