Eastern White Cedar vs. Western Red Cedar: What's The Difference?
Updated: Apr 2
Eastern white cedar and western red cedar are two popular species of wood that, at first glance, you might have a little trouble distinguishing. After all, they have a lot in common: both have that pleasant aroma we associate with closets and attics, both have a similar face grain and both are valued in exterior and interior building for their exceptional durability and decay resistance.
However, if you take a closer look, there are also notable differences between the two, which we'll cover below:
Western Red Cedar
Western red cedar is considered one of the finest softwoods in the world. Native to and primarily grown in British Colombia, Washington and Oregon, this slow-growth timber thrives in the cool, wet and shady environments of the Pacific Northwest forests. This species can grow to enormous heights, with some trees reaching heights of 200 feet and diameters of 13 feet.
The western red cedar was valued by local indigenous tribes for millennia and used for many purposes. The bark was used to make blankets, clothing, baskets and rope, and the logs were used for canoes, masks, community longhouses and intricate totem poles. The outer bark was used for roofing materials due to its water-repellent properties. It's also been used for hundreds of years to treat ailments like colds and rheumatism.
It wasn't until the 20th century that other places discovered the many uses of western red cedar. Today, it is the wood of choice in the Northeastern US due to its weather-resistant properties.
Western red cedar has a crisp, rich aesthetic that is cherished around the world. The wood's color varies, even in the same tree. Some are deep brown, whereas others are light yellow-gold. The heartwood, however, retains the characteristic blushed-red color that cedar is associated with.
Western red cedar is commonly used for shakes and shingles where its natural appearance makes the building feel warmer and more welcoming. Some of the other advantages of western red cedar include:
Resistance to decay: Western red cedar is the most decay-resistant cedar, making it great for outdoor construction projects like shakes and shingles. It is also one of the longest-living North American softwood trees.
Stability: Western red cedar has twice the stability of other softwood species.
Fast drying time: Once a western red cedar is cut down, it dries quickly and experiences little shrinkage.
Aroma: It's also loved for its distinct pleasant smell, which makes it great for interior design.
Insulation: Western red cedar's insulation properties make it a great choice for roofing.
Sustainability: Western red cedar is the most abundant species of cedar and can be sustainably harvested.
Versatility: It can be used to make a project more contemporary or traditional, depending on the project's design and the character of the wood. Its versatility is one of the most appealing aspects of western red cedar. Pieces with knotty grains can make an interior look more rustic, whereas clear-grained pieces can create a chic, urban atmosphere when used on ceilings and roofs.
Straight grain: The species features a straight grain texture, making it perfect for most kinds of building projects, including shingles, siding, decks and furniture.
In addition to roofing, western red cedar is also used for the following applications:
Ornamental trees: Western red cedar is often cultivated as ornamental trees, and to a lesser extent for hedges and screens.
Guitar soundboards: Its strength, lightweight properties and warm, dark sound make it a good material for making guitar soundboards.
Chests and closets: The strong aromatic oils of Western red cedar are thought to deter carpet beetles and moth larvae, which are known to eat natural fibers like wool.
Eastern White Cedar
The eastern white cedar tree is smaller than its western red counterpart and provides a wood that is exceptionally lightweight and fine-graned.
Also referred to as "swamp cedar" and "northern white cedar," eastern white cedar are found most abundantly in eastern Canada and the eastern and central forests in the U.S. Compared to the western red cedar, which can grow up to 200 feet tall, the eastern white cedar only reaches 30 to 60 feet. The trunk diameter is only two feet.
Eastern white cedar is sustainably harvested and long-lived, making it an excellent roofing material.
Eastern white cedar was extensively used by both indigenous cultures as well as the Europeans settlers to the area. In the 1500s, Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, wrote about a miraculous tree called "arborvitae," which the native Iroquois and Wabanakis showed him. He also learned from the natives that the tree's foliage, which is rich in vitamin C, could be used to treat scurvy, leading to the tree's nickname, "the tree of life."
In addition to its healing capabilities, eastern white cedar has a lower density than other types of cedar and does a good job in environments where it's exposed to soil and water. For that reason, through much of history, white cedar was the preferred choice for building watercraft like canoes and weather-tolerant fences. In European colonies, settlers even used white cedar to make pipes.
Eastern white cedar's outer sapwood layers are primarily white but have a hint of yellow. Its inner heartwood is mostly pale brown but has occasional red tones.
The wood is finely textured, lightweight and makes for an efficient material when it comes to building. Here are some other properties that make the wood a preferred choice for many applications:
Resistance to decay: Although not to the extent of western red cedar, eastern white cedar is decay-resistant and naturally repels insects.
Good looking texture: Eastern white cedar has a fine, dense texture and an even grain pattern.
Lightweight: Eastern white cedar is one of the lightest and softest commercially-available woods in the U.S.
Aroma: Its welcoming scent makes it a great choice for interior design.
Customizability: The wood's dense, fine texture provides a neutral, uniform color and tone. Its pale color makes it appealing — it takes almost any stain, bleach or paint, meaning you can easily customize it to suit your project perfectly.
Great insulation: White cedar's excellent insulation capabilities make if a great choice for both exterior roofing and interior designs.
Elegant aging: If exposed to the elements, white cedar quickly turns an attractive gray, which adds more visual interest.
Eastern white cedar is used often for sidewall and roof applications and is commercially used for lumber, rustic posts and fencing, poles, shingles and log cabin construction. The species replenishes itself in approximately 35 years, allowing for sustainable harvesting.
Which is Better, Red or White Cedar?
Now that you know a considerable amount about each species, you may be wondering which one is better. The answer will depend on your application, the look you're trying to achieve, and your project's size.
Here are some factors that may make one choice better than the other:
Western red cedar is available in larger pieces. If you require larger pieces of cedar for your project, you may have to go with western red cedar.
Western red cedar is slightly stronger. Western red cedar has a bit more strength than white cedar and is less likely to knot. However, eastern white cedar is still strong enough to meet the needs of most construction projects.
Eastern white cedar tends to last longer. One significant difference between the two cedar species is the oils they contain, which affects their rot resistance and lifespan. The oils found in eastern white cedar are considerably stronger and can last up to a decade longer.
One choice may cost more and/or have a greater environmental impact. It's also important to consider the impact your choice will have on the environment. For instance, if you live on the West Coast and would like eastern white cedar, which only grows in the East, then the wood will have to be transported a long distance. If you care about protecting the environment, you should try to purchase the kind of wood that is closer to your area.
Which is Better, Red or White Cedar Shingles?
One of the most common uses of cedar is for roofing, which offers a unique look for the exterior or a home. With a color range including reds, ambers, browns and golds, cedar is a naturally beautiful roofing material that provides many practical benefits as well. Used on residences and commercial buildings around the world, cedar roofing is available in shingles, shakes and hip and ridge unit formats.
If you're planning to install cedar roofing or siding, western red and eastern white will often be the two options available to you. These two types vary significantly in terms of style, color, durability, resistance and environmental friendliness.
Color and style: When it comes to colors, shingles provide lots of possibilities. Eastern white shingles, if left unfinished or unpainted, will turn an elegant silver-gray. Western red shingles, which cannot be painted, have a rich color in their natural state. Eastern white shingles can be painted in any color you desire, as they absorb paint very easily. Not only does this mean you can easily customize your white cedar roof to match the rest of your house, but the stain or paint you put on the shingles will help protect them from the elements.
Resistance and durability: White shingles contain oils that naturally enhance their ability to resist decay and insects — two common threats to wood. However, because eastern white cedar is also more fibrous, it's more prone to cracking and splitting — perhaps even during the installation. This makes white cedar shingles less durable than their red cedar counterparts. Because red cedar shingles are more durable, they don't need as much maintenance and, if properly installed, can last for several lifetimes. In terms of resistance, western red shingles are good at resisting moisture, which prevents warping. However, although more durable than eastern white shingles, western red shingles have an acid that causes them to appear darker and blotchy over time, an issue that doesn't occur with white shingles.
Eco-friendliness: Western red cedar shingles are overall more eco-friendly and energy-efficient than eastern white cedar. This is in part because of the unique cellular composition of the red shingles that captures tiny air pockets and enhances its insulation capabilities.
Choose Cedar Roof Coatings for Your Cedar Roof Maintenance
Cedar Roof Coatings is the leading company for cedar roof restoration, preservation and repair in Fairfield County. If you suspect there's a problem with your roof — whether it's just some loose shingles or a more serious issue — we encourage you to get our Full Roof Inspection as soon as possible.
During the inspection, we will honestly evaluate your roof. We won't simply recommend that you replace it — if we can save you money by performing a roof restoration, that is what we'll recommend. We perform an in-depth inspection of your roof to determine the level of care it requires.
You will find that getting an inspection can end up saving you lots of money in repairs in the long run. Even a tiny issue with a roof could become major in a short amount of time, so you should make sure to get an inspection as quickly as possible.
Our highly experienced roof inspectors will cover your entire roof to identify and photograph all deficiencies they observe and document their findings. Our inspectors' expertise allows them to discover not just the obvious deficiencies, but also the less obvious ones that could eventually lead to major issues and perhaps even premature roof failure.
Then, a report is generated that documents the data gathered and suggests a course of action to correct the deficiencies. This report will also provide estimates for the recommended repairs.
It is our goal to help you save as much money as possible by maintaining the roof you have — and giving you the curb appeal that your home deserves. We provide professionalism and high-quality workmanship at a reasonable price. If you would like a quote for an inspection, fill out our contact form or call us at (203) 847-5740. Let us know what you need to be inspected and we'll get back to you as soon as possible to arrange a date and time to meet.