White Cedar vs Red Cedar: 6 Differences You Need to Know

Cedar is one of the most useful and versatile wood types around. It has a distinct and enticing smell and a beautiful wood grain and helps build all kinds of things, from closets and trunks to lining decks.

But not all kinds of cedar are made equal. There are many different species of cedar wood that carry their unique properties and attributes. So depending on the intended application, you may wish to use one breed of cedar over another.

So in this article, we’ll cover two of the most popular cedar wood breeds: white cedar and red cedar. 

The main differences between White and Red cedar are that white cedar is slightly cheaper and more versatile, meaning it can be used in a wide range of construction applications and can last a long time thanks to its stronger core. 

However, it is known to crack and have knots. Which generally needs a little more care and upkeep to keep it in tip-top shape.

Red Cedar, on the other hand, is a little easier to maintain as it’s less likely to have knots. Not only that, but as red cedar trees are bigger, it’s available in larger planks, making them better for specific applications such as decking and roof shingles.

However, red cedar’s a bit more expensive than its white counterpart. It’s also a bit harder to paint, which makes it tougher to match a pre-existing decoration scheme.

What is white cedar?

White cedar is an umbrella term used for numerous types, which can be found worldwide, including in countries such as Spain and China. These are then imported into the US, where they are grown.

You may also see it referred to as ‘Eastern Cedar’ or ‘Northern White Cedar,’ which refers to where it’s commonly grown.

They are relatively small trees (at least when compared to their darker-colored counterparts), which explains why they are not available in such large slabs as red cedar. But they are nevertheless still used heavily in standard construction.

Northern White cedar is well known for emanating a delightful and appealing aroma when cut, which lingers for many years. This has made it a favorite for furniture and cabinet makers.

It’s a reasonably lightweight wood that’s nice and easy to work with and has fantastic longevity in terms of its appearance and smell over time. However, it is susceptible to cracks and splits and can often have imperfections such as knots that must be dealt with.

Despite being generally inferior for outside construction due to its lower durability than red cedar, one massive aspect that makes it incredibly appealing for outdoor use is the lower amount of natural oils in the lumber, which makes it easier to paint and seal, making it far more resilient to the elements.

The catch is that because of the white cedar tree’s more diminutive stature. You will have to contend with a smaller single/plank size if you wish to use this for roofing or decking purposes.

What is red cedar?

Red cedar, also commonly referred to as Western red cedar, as the name suggests, has a much richer red color than its white counterpart. However, this has been known to turn somewhat dark and spotty over time.

Red cedar trees grow significantly bigger than white cedar trees and, as such, are available in large plank sizes; it’s also considered a far more sustainable wood.

One of the big downsides to red cedar is that it has a high amount of wood oil, making it difficult to paint and attracting lots of insects. 

It’s also great for things like roof shingles as its smooth texture and the lower amount of knots in the grain make it able to shed water very well.

What are the differences between white cedar and red cedar?

There is absolutely a certain amount of interchangeability between the woods. They both make fantastic choices for almost all construction applications, and you’ll be left feeling glad you picked such a versatile wood.

With that being said, each of these cedar species has its properties, which, depending on your intended use, may make one a better choice than the other.

So let’s take a deeper look at what makes these two lumber types different.

1. Color

Just in case the name didn’t give it away. One of the main things that will differentiate white and red cedar is their color. 

As you might have guessed, red cedar has substantial areas of red but is not a completely solid red color. It’s more of a tinted grain that may change over time to become darker and spotty.

White cedar has a natural and lighter wood color. Providing it’s treated, it will retain its color very when compared to red cedar, but if left untreated, it will eventually change to a grey or silver color.

2. Difficulty in painting

Due to the natural oils present in red cedar, it isn’t easy to paint. Fortunately, it is pretty resilient to the natural elements, so it doesn’t necessarily ‘have’ to be painted. But if you plan to use red cedar and then match it to another color scheme, you may have some trouble getting the paint to adhere.

White cedar, on the other hand, is exceptionally easy to paint and because of its naturally lighter color, it can be both painted to treated in any way you wish, and it will look great. This makes it ideal for use within the home, where you may want it to match your decorating style.

3. Toughness

While both white and red cedar types are relatively resilient for their respective weights and board thicknesses, due to the fact it’s less prone to containing knots, red cedar is considered slightly stronger as knots present a weak point in wood, making it less ideal for any construction that will need to bear weight.

White cedar is also slightly lighter, making it easier to work with, but it also comes as a minor cost to its tensile strength.

4. Long-term durability

While toughness is an indicator of the wood’s raw ability to withstand forces, a common consideration people need to take into account is its ability to withstand the elements.

Red cedar is undoubtedly considered a little more vital regarding how well they hold up against the weather. Both are considered very good. Even when left untreated, you can expect red and northern eastern white cedar to last up to 15 years.

What may make eastern white cedar a slightly better choice is that it can be painted and sealed to make it last significantly longer. You can still somewhat increase the longevity of red cedar by sealing it with an oil-based product.

But unless you need it to last multiple decades, both kinds of wood make great choices.

5. Size

Because the red cedar trees are inherently larger when compared to the northern white cedar tree, you will find that the red cedar has a far more comprehensive range of board, plank, and shingle sizes which can make them a better option when you have large areas of roof or decking that you wish to use red cedar for.

White Cedar trees, on the other hand, are much smaller, meaning there isn’t such a vast availability of plank sizes. This makes them popular for smaller applications such as furniture/cabinet making.

6. Smell

While cedar is well known for its very appealing sweet smell, it is a tremendously popular choice for things like lining the inside of saunas or ceilings where that incredible smell will linger for many years.

Red cedar does have a smell that people often describe as similar to fresh pine, but this is not nearly as strong as white cedar’s aroma, and you shouldn’t be picking red cedar for the smell alone.

White cedar vs red cedar: Are they the same?

Both cedar species are robust and capable of handling many kinds of constructions. But these critical differences in their properties make them stand out from each other and have their strengths.

  • Red cedar has an uneven yet vibrant red color running through it that may change to a darker and spotty color over time. Whereas white cedar has a lighter tone that, if left unfinished, will turn to a grey/silver color over time.
  • Red cedar is tough to paint due to the natural oils that are present. But white cedar takes both oil sealants and paints exceptionally well.
  • Red cedar is a little trickier than white cedar. White cedar is also prone to having knots and cracks, which can make it more structurally unstable when compared to red cedar.
  • While red cedar is tougher, when accounting for the fact it can’t easily be finished, whereas white cedar can, it can happen without the elements a little better than red cedar. Although both can be expected to last up to 15 years even when left completely unsealed.
  • Red cedar trees are significantly larger than white cedar trees. This means that red cedar planks and shingles are available in various sizes. Whereas white cedar trees are smaller and, as such, have a limited range of plank sizes.
  • White cedar has a strong and appealing scent that makes it desirable to many as it adds a wonderfully natural and alluring smell to any building it’s used in. While red cedar does have a scent, it’s pretty weak, and you wouldn’t pick it just for its smell alone.
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