Eastern red cedar vital to environmental reclamation
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a juniper and not a cedar, is known by many different names, including Virginia juniper and Tennessee red cedar. Although a century ago, cedar trees were 300 years old and four feet in diameter, today the slow growing eastern red cedar tree is a small tree, 20 to 50 feet high and less than two feet in diameter.
This tree is ubiquitous throughout the Middle Atlantic states, especially along fence lines where birds have deposited the seeds. (The seeds must go through a bird's digestive system to facilitate germination.) In fact, it is the most widespread conifer in the East. The younger trees of today mean more knotty lumber, along with white streaks of sapwood, compared to the clear, red-colored pieces of 50 years ago.
The eastern red cedar tree is noteworthy for its many uses. It has a shallow, intertwined root system that is important for erosion control and is especially useful on strip mining reclamation sites. The tree's branches provide birds with cover for nesting and roosting. For wildlife, its foliage, although low in nutritional value, provides an emergency food supply for wildlife in stress. Its fruit, the juniper berry, is dark purple-blue in color and is eaten by many species as a source of fat, fiber, calcium and carbohydrates. The berry is also associated with gin making and is used as a spice for cooking.
On the other hand, for humans, the wood is considered toxic and the dust is an allergen.
The wood has been and still is desired for its wonderful aroma. The cedar smell reminds some people of "hope chests" that young ladies used at one time for storing linens, woolens and other fabrics, especially prior to marriage. Although the moth repelling properties of the wood and its aroma have often been overstated, nevertheless eastern red cedar lumber today is highly prized for storage chests for linens and clothing, as well as closet, dresser drawer and wardrobe liners.
During the settlement of the United States by the colonists, cedar was prized as a fencing material due to its natural decay resistance. It was also used for making small buckets, shingles and even small boats.

Processing suggestions and characteristics

Density. The density of eastern red cedar averages about 32 pounds per cubic foot at 8 percent MC.
Drying. The wood dries very easily and quickly with little warp or cracking, except for cracking in the knots. However, if temperatures in the dryer exceed 80 F, they will drive off the aromatic oils, substantially reducing the aroma after the wood is dried. Shrinkage in drying is under 4 percent. Final moisture content for red cedar would typically be between 7 and 10 percent MC.
Gluing and machining. Eastern red cedar glues very well without special preparation. The wood machines very well, especially if knives are sharp and sandpaper is fresh. Rake angles can be larger than for most hardwoods. Sanding can often restore the aroma to older wood. The dust can be an irritant to some people causing dermatitis and respiratory problems.
Stability. Eastern red cedar is very stable, changing 1 percent in size for each 6 percent MC change tangentially (parallel to the rings) and 1 percent for each 10 percent MC change radially (across the rings).
Strength. The bending strength (MOR) averages 8,800 psi. Hardness is 900 pounds. Stiffness (MOE) averages 0.9 million psi.
Color and grain. The sapwood is very white while the heartwood is reddish purple to reddish brown. Streaks of sapwood in the heartwood result in a dramatic appearance. It is common to have many tight knots that add to the character as well.

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About the author
Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.