Cedarwood is a popular choice for outdoor projects because of its natural resistance against rot. It is also fairly easy to work with and readily available in the U.S.
I personally used it for quite a lot of different projects and I like to work with it a lot even though it has its disadvantages as well. You should, for example, not use any iron screws or nails when working with Cedar. Cedar will literally eat the iron. You can read more about Cedar and what kind of fastener you can use with cedarwood right here if you like.
But one question that seems to arise a lot recently is about the characteristics of cedarwood. Especially about its sturdiness and if it is categorized as a Hardwood.
Cedar is not a Hardwood it is a softwood. Hardwood is wood from trees that are angiosperm. Simply put angiosperm means, that the trees are producing seeds, that are encased and that the trees are flowering. That is not the case for Cedar. Cedar is a gymnosperm tree meaning non-flowering. So Cedar is per definition a softwood.
Hardwood does not always mean, that the wood is actually hard it only means that the wood comes from angiosperm trees.
Angiosperm means, that the plant is flowering. You can find a detailed definition of angiosperm right here.
Gymnosperm, on the other hand, means that the plant is non-flowering. The seeds of these plants a mostly cones (like pines cones) or something similar.
Cedar is a tree that is not flowering. So Cedar is per definition a softwood and not a hardwood.
Hardwood is generally much denser and therefore mostly harder than softwood but there are still some softwood variants, that are equally as hard or even harder than most hardwood variants.
In short, hardwood doesn´t have to be hard and softwood isn´t always soft.
So you don´t have to use hardwood if you need a really sturdy piece of wood. Softwood can sometimes even be a better and cheaper choice.
How Strong is Cedar Wood?
Even though cedarwood is a softwood it isn´t actually all that soft, to begin with. It is only called a softwood because it doesn´t flower. Cedarwood is actually quite strong.
The strength of wood is measured with several different types of strength. We will take a look at the two most important types which is the compressive strength and the hardness of the wood.
Compressive Strength will tell us how much weight a type of wood can withstand before it will break or crack.
Hardness will tell us how hard the wood is in general. Meaning how resistant is the surface of the wood to scratches, dents, or something similar.
Cedar is generally a strong wood. Aromatic Red Cedar has a compressive strength of 6,000 and a hardness of 900. Compare that to Chestnut wood (which is a Hardwood) has a compressive strength of 5,300 and a hardness of 540. Walnut has a compressive strength of 7,500 and a hardness of 1,010. Other types of Cedar can be a little bit weaker though.
So just because Cedar is a softwood it does not mean, that it is a weak type of wood.
On the contrary, most types of cedarwood are actually quite strong. One of the strongest Cedar variants are Aromatic Red Cedar with a compressive strength of 6,020 and a hardness of 900, the Western Red Cedar with a compressive strength of 4,560 and a hardness of 350, and the White Cedar with a compressive strength of 3,960 and a hardness of 320.
That article also has a detailed list of different softwoods and hardwoods comparing their strengths in detail.
Types of Cedar Wood
There are quite a lot of different types of cedarwood. So many different types in fact, that I don´t want to list them all here or this article would get way to big.
Instead, I will only list the most commonly used types of cedar in woodworking.
Eastern Red Cedar
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginiana) also known as red cedar, Virginian Juniper, Eastern Juniper, Red Juniper, or Pencil Cedar is a cedar species that is native to eastern North America.
Eastern red cedar is also commonly known as aromatic cedar because of its unique smell that keeps moths and other insects away.
Red cedar is not a hardwood because it is, like all cedar trees, a gymnosperm tree meaning it does not flower. This makes red cedar a softwood. Even though it is categorized as a softwood red cedar is still quite sturdy and strong. But it is also quite expencive because of its slow growing nature.
Red cedar was commonly used for building fence posts because of its natural rot resistantce and it was used to build closets and chests for clothes because the natural fragrant of the wood is a moth repellant.
The wood has a unique redish color to it giving it its name.
Western Red Cedar
Western red cedar (Thuja pilcata) also known as Pacific red cedar, giant arborvitae, giant cedar, or shinglewood is a cedar species that is native to western north America.
Western red cedarwood is quite soft and therefore easy to work with in most cases. It has a very distinced red color and a unique fragrant.
Like almost all cedar variants western red cedar is also very resistant to decay.
So it is mostly used for outdoor construction such as posts, decking, or siding.
Eastern White Cedar
Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also known as northern white-cedar or eastern arborvitae commonly grow in the central and upper Northeastern United States.
It is usually used for boat construction, fence building, cabin building, and simmilar outdoor buildings.
It is naturally resistant against rot and its natural oils are used for a multitude of different applications like disinfectants, insecticides, and more.
Spanish cedar (cedrela odorata) also known as cedro is a species of cedar that is native to Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Spanish cedar is light pink or reddish brown. The older the tree the darker the color of the wood tends to get.
Like every cedar it is also rot resistant.
Spanish Cedar is easy to work with. It is generally a very soft wood compared to other cedar species.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Alaskian yellow cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) also known as nootka cypress, yellow cypress, alaska cypress, nootka cedar, or yellow cedar is mostly native to coastal regions of northwestern North America.
Alaskan yellow cedar is generally used for boat building and general outdoor construction.
Yellow cedar is quite expencive which is why it is mostly only used for finished carpentry.
Cedar Wood Properties
Cedar is probably my favorite kind of wood to use for outdoor projects but its unique properties make it useful for so much more than that.
Cedar is very durable especially red cedar. So it can be used for a multitude of big and small constructions without any integrity issues.
Cedarwood is also very lightweight. That’s why a lot of boatbuilders prefer it over most other woods.
It is easy to work with because of its lightweight. It can easily be cut and sanded by hand or with machines.
Cedarwood can be stained quite easily.
And the most commonly known properties of cedarwood is its natural resistance against rot and decay. It is only resistant to rot it is by no means immune to it. So it will decay eventually it will only take much longer than usual.
So as you can see cedarwood has a lot of interesting properties that make it a very good fit for a lot of projects inside as well as outside.