Woods to Know: Aromatic Cedar | Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement

Woods to Know: Aromatic Cedar

Aromatic Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

by Peter MacSween

Aromatic Red Cedar is a unique tree in that its reputation derives almost entirely from its distinct aroma. This pleasant and useful odour is produced from oils present in the wood and leaves. The scent can protect natural fibres such as wool and cotton from moths and other insect pests; hence its use in cedar closets and cedar chests. This scent can also absorb unpleasant odours and will dissipate leaving clothing articles smelling fresh. The same effect is possible in luggage, drawers, and sports bags by using aromatic cedar shavings. 
It is a prolific species, fast growing and abundant. Aromatic Cedar is found in eastern North America, south of Ontario and Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, and east of the Great Plains. It can be a long lived tree and historically produced some large specimens. Today, it is a smaller tree, typically growing to 65 feet in height with diameters up to 3 feet. In poor soils it is more of a bush – better soils produce a dense tree with branches reaching down to the ground. 


Aromatic Cedar is a pioneer species, being one of the first trees to populate degraded, cleared, and eroded land. Its quick growth rate can crowd out other plants. Consequently, it can be considered an invasive species. It is also very susceptible to fire. Natural populations are kept in check by forest fires which travel up the lower hanging branches.
The wood itself is straight grained, but the lumber is usually knotty, so irregular grain is often present. It has a medium to fine texture depending on the age of the tree and associated growth rates. Some trees have a high silica content which can dull tooling. The sapwood is a pale yellowish-white with the heartwood a pinkish to purplish-brown. The overall colour pattern is distinctive, with swirling colours and the pale heartwood weaving in and out of the heart.
Finding clear knot-free lumber can be a challenge. As a consequence, Aromatic Cedar finds limited use in fine furniture and general millwork. Its rustic appearance has never stopped it from being used in cedar closets and chests. The wood's durability makes it a desirable wood for fencing and other exterior applications. Until recently, it was the preferred wood for lead pencils. It is also used for long-bows. 

Aromatic Cedar end grain
Aromatic Cedar both glues and takes all finishes well. Since most woodworkers utilise it for its aromatic properties, it is typically left unfinished. The scent can be renewed by a light sanding to bring fresh oils to the surface. The ability to renew these oils means most cedar chests and closets have a long lifespan.
This species can produce allergenic reactions. The oils can produce a mild skin rash in susceptible individuals. Despite these concerns, Aromatic Cedar can be a useful adjunct to any woodworkers list of desired woods. It can supplement many furniture projects when used as a liner in drawers and boxes. And, who doesn't desire an authentic cedar chest? Aromatic cedar is also one of the most sustainable trees we have, and all woodworkers should be encouraged to work with it.
Average Dried Weight33 lbs/ft³A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.53A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC)
ShrinkageRadial: 3.1
Tangential: 4.7
Volumetric: 7.8
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio1.5A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness900 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength6,020 lbf/in²A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
Heartwood is a swirling pink to purple brown. Pale yellow to white sapwood which can intermingle with the heart.
GrainUsually straight grained, with irregular around numerous knots.
TextureFine to medium.
Easy to work. Knots will present challenges. Can dull tools. Glues and finishes well.
UsesDistinctive odour has anti-insect properties. Used for cedar closets and chests, pencils, fence posts, and exterior projects. Popular for intarsia. 
Price$4.35/lf  4/4 stock
Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database