Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) is a small, short (35 feet is a fairly tall tree), branchy tree found in the high plains in eastern Oregon and northern and eastern California. The tree can live for a 1,000 years, so the stem is often several feet (up to 13 feet) in diameter. This growing region is characterized by low rainfall.

Many ranchers believe, and they are correct, that this tree is using valuable water resources that could be used for growing grazing grasses. The tree can out-compete the grasses for moisture. Therefore, it is not unusual to see these trees removed totally from grazing land without any utilization concerns for the wood, except perhaps for firewood or an occasional fence post. Nevertheless, the amount of western juniper at present is fairly large within the growing region.

The wood is quite similar to eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in color and properties. Of special note is that thin strips of the wood, 1/32 to 1/16 inch in thickness, can be soaked in very hot water for several hours and then can be removed and quickly tied into intricate knots with twists and loops without splitting. Then, as the wood strips dry, the knots become rigid and quite a showpiece.

Because of the presence of many knots, this wood has potential uses for novelties and for furniture, paneling or cabinets with a wonderful rustic appearance. (I think the aroma is actually more pleasing than eastern red cedar, so closet and armoire builders should consider this wood.)

Processing suggestions and characteristics

Density. This wood has a density of 32 pounds per cubic foot at 9 percent MC. This is about 2/3 the density of oak, similar to eastern red cedar, and 25 percent heavier than eastern white pine. This density means that a dried, planed piece of lumber, 1 x 6 x 4 feet, weighs about 3-1/2 pounds.

Drying. The wood is easy to dry. To maintain the aroma, drying temperatures should not exceed 85 F. The presence of many knots means that the wood will warp in the vicinity of the knots. Low humidity can be safely used, although some knot checking results with fast drying.

Final moisture should be between 9 and 12 percent MC.

Gluing and machining. Gluing is excellent with all common woodworking adhesives.

Wood moisture should not be under 9 percent MC, as the wood becomes even more brittle than it is naturally. Grain tear-out is more likely with less than 9 percent MC. Sharp tools are very important for premium surfaces. Standard processing rules for a medium-low density species should be applied.

Stability. Like other cedars, this wood is very stable when the humidity changes in use. It requires at least a 6 percent MC change to result in a 1 percent size change.

Strength. The strength of western juniper (MOR) is 8,900 psi, the stiffness (MOE) is 800,000 psi and the hardness is 630 pounds. These properties are almost identical to eastern red cedar. Although not as stiff as eastern white pine, western juniper is as strong and is harder. (EWP numbers are 8,600 psi, 1.24 million psi and 380 pounds.)

Color and grain. The sapwood is white, but the heartwood is reddish brown with a very pleasant fragrance. The annual rings are fairly close due to slow growth and so the overall appearance is close grained. The presence of many knots means that the grain patterns are quite swirly. The white sapwood is often intermixed with heartwood, giving a special appearance characteristic.

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