Asking woodworkers if they prefer working with hardwoods over softwoods is like asking kids if they like candy or vegetables better. While there is no denying that the hardwoods offer up durability, beauty and variety, the softwoods’ reputation of being boring needs some serious rehabilitation. Yellow cedar is one softwood that might achieve that.
Native to the west coast of North America, Yellow Cedar is found from Alaska south to northern California. The wood is especially esteemed among the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia. Its preferred habitat is the wet mountainous regions at higher altitudes up to the tree line.
Yellow cedar end-grain
Yellow Cedar typically grows up to 120 feet with diameters of 4 – 6 feet. The heartwood is an attractive light yellow with a slightly paler sapwood which is not clearly demarcated from the heart. It is a slow growing tree which results in a dense wood with a consistent texture. While occasionally wavy, it is usually straight grained. Yellow Cedar is dimensionally stable once dried and is considered to be very durable with a high resistance to insects and fungi.
It is a joy to work by hand or machine. It planes and routes well producing meticulous surfaces. It saws with little if any tearout. Japanese wood workers whose skill with hand tools is renowned worldwide, revere the Yellow Cedar for these reasons. It glues, nails and holds screws with ease. While it is usually left unfinished, it does take to stains, although darker tones may blotch. Pre-stain conditioners should be used with these darker stains. Yellow cedar also takes to paint if that is your thing.
Yellow Cedar has a multitude of uses. It is prized for exterior trim such as siding, fascia and shingles. It does not splinter as it weathers and will turn an attractive shade of grey. Its durability makes it a good wood for boat-building where it is used in the construction of hulls, canoes and paddles. Interior uses include cabinets, millwork and trim. It is an excellent choice for carving and turning. Other uses include toys, boxes, wooden cutlery and sporting goods. If that isn’t enough, it is also used for soundboards in musical instruments.
Despite this pedigree, Yellow Cedar is not harvested in comparable numbers to other west coast softwoods such as Western Red Cedar. I suspect that this is due to its preferred habitat which may make it difficult to log. For this reason, Yellow Cedar can be hard to source outside of its natural range and can be relatively pricey for a domestic softwood.
There are some clouds on the horizon. Yellow Cedar is vulnerable to climate change. This tree is dependant on a deep snowpack to protect the vulnerable shallow roots from freezing. Higher winter temperatures leading to lower amounts of snow in the winters are beginning to affect the Yellow Cedar population. Biologists are now working to assess whether the Yellow Cedar needs protection.
For now, Yellow Cedar is available from most specialty wood suppliers, most lumberyards will not carry it. Its hardness, durability and workability make it suitable for projects that most woodworkers would not consider a softwood for. Given the way it yields to handwork, I recommend you unplug, get out the handplanes and discover the joys of working with Yellow Cedar.