Yellow cedar

Category: Softwood
Region: Coast
Title: Yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis)

Photo credit: Jonathan Taggart

Yellow cedar is one of the world’s most durable woods. It resists corrosion and offers natural resilience making it is ideal for industrial uses and is used extensively for boat building, sauna manufacturing, fine cabinetry and interior and exterior millwork.

Yellow cedar grows on B.C.’s coast. It is a beautiful tree that is tough, solid and extremely durable. Its wood is valuable commercially because of its straight grain, yellow colour and resistance to decay.


Where it grows

Yellow cedar grows on B.C.’s coast west of the Coast Range in uneven-aged, mixed-species stands, usually as single trees or in small clumps. It is common in old-growth stands at low elevations, especially in the mid or north coast regions, and it grows with western red cedar, western hemlock and plants such as salal and deer fern. At higher elevations, it is found with mountain hemlock and amabilis fir. Yellow cedar often reaches 1,000 years of age, and some may be as old as 2,000 years.

Did you know?

Yellow cedar is one of the slowest growing conifers, with closely packed growth rings and little distinction between earlywood and latewood rings. This makes for a dense, consistent colour and high degree of stability.

yellow cedar species map 600px credit

Identifiable characteristics

Yellow cedar is a medium-sized tree that grows up to 24 metres tall and 90 centimetres in diameter, often living to be 1000 years old. It has a broad, grooved trunk that spreads out widely at the base. The crown is sharply cone-shaped. The branches spread out and droop and have small loosely hanging branchlets. On young trees, the bark is thin, greyish-brown and scaly. On mature trees, it has narrow intersecting ridges. The inside of the bark smells like potato skins.

Leaves are scale-like, dark bluish-green and slender with sharp points. Unlike western red cedar, yellow cedar leaves are all alike, so the leaf-covered twigs appear four-sided rather than flat. Cones are round and 6 to 12 millimetres in diameter. They are berry-like in the first year and become woody as they mature. Mature cones have 4 to 6 thick umbrella-shaped scales.

Did you know?

The wood of yellow cedar has natural extractives that make it decay-resistant and aromatic when cut. It is free from pitch and resin.

Photo credit: Jonathan Taggart

Close up daytime image of Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) needles on a living branch

Common uses and applications

Yellow cedar has exceptional longevity and is very durable. It is an excellent choice for shingles, posts, poles, marine pilings, small boat hulls, oars and paddles, water and chemical tanks, exterior doors and window boxes. Structural grades are commonly used for exterior applications such as bridges, decking and stairs and for landscaping. It is sometimes used in specialty construction projects such as temples and shrines.

Yellow cedar is well suited for flooring and bridge decking because of its strength, hardness and wearing properties. It resists corrosion and the elements so it is ideal for industrial uses like flumes, chemical containers, horse stables, floors or outdoor seating in sports facilities. It is used extensively for boat building, sauna manufacturing, fine cabinetry and interior and exterior millwork.

Indigenous Peoples use almost every part of a cedar tree. Roots are dried and braided to make hats and baskets. Withes are strong, lightweight and naturally grow in long strands, so they are suitable for ropes and lashing. Bark is dyed and processes into thread for mats, clothing, blankets and hats. Bark is also used for ropes, baskets and fishing nets. Inner bark is soft, so it has been used for baby diapers, bedding, sanitary napkins and towels. Dried bark is an excellent tinder for matches and torches. Cedar wood is used for totem poles, masks and longhouses, as well as canoes, paddles, hooks, spears and fishing floats. Fish are preserved in cedar smokehouses or dried on cedar racks.

Yellow cedar is also used by Indigenous people to make bentwood boxes to store food or other goods. The boxes are made from a single cedar plank which is steamed until pliable and then bent. The two sides are pegged together. The boxes are decorated with paint or carvings.

Photo credit: KK Law

Close up of yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) log which has been carved by First Nations artist to form a totem pole

Commercial properties

Yellow cedar is one of the world’s most durable woods. It has a distinctive and uniform yellow colour, and the narrow band of sapwood is very similar in colour to the heartwood. The wood is fine textured and straight grained. Its natural extractives make it a decay-resistant wood that is aromatic when cut.

Yellow cedar is considerably harder when dry than most commercial softwoods so it is strong. It is known for its exceptional working properties and can be easily machined and finished. It turns, planes and shapes well and can be sanded to a smooth finish. The wood glues satisfactorily, has moderate nail and screw holding ability, and takes a good finish.

Yellow cedar wood is incredibly easy to work and prized for applications such as joinery and carpentry, decorative panelling, furniture, mouldings and cabinet work. It is sometimes used in specialty construction projects such as temples and shrines. Structural grades are commonly used for exterior applications such as bridges, decking, stairs and landscaping.

Unlike most softwoods, yellow cedar’s density across single growth rings is quite uniform making it a good species for carving and woodworking. This effect accounts for the lack of visual grain.

Photo credit: Michael Bednar

Several smooth finished yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) dimensional lumber boards shown as examples

Commercial availability

In North America, structural grades of yellow cedar are in accordance with the National Lumber Grades Authority (NLGA) rules for dimension lumber. It is produced in appearance grades according to NLGA rules, most commonly as clears, shop lumber and moulding stock. Yellow cedar is also offered in export grades for Japan and other markets.

Yellow cedar lumber is often sold green due to its unique properties. The lumber is dried according to end-use and customer specifications. Kiln drying inhibits natural staining of the wood, improves its strength and stiffness, enhances its appearance, and increases its resistance to decay and attack by insects.

Sasaki House, Japan | Photo credit: Seji Takakuwa, World Spread

Cloudy exterior daytime image of two storey wood frame residential home with wood siding and deck, showing use of Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis)

Yellow cedar – physical properties

Density (kg/m3)Green419
Air dry431
Specific gravity (12% m.c.)Standard0.42
Hardness (N)Side2510
MOE (Mpa)Green9240
Air dry11000
MOR (Mpa)Green45.8
Air dry79.7
Compression parallel (Mpa)Air dry45.9
Compression perpendicular (Mpa)Air dry4.74
Shear (Mpa)Air dry9.21
Cleavage (N/mm width)Air dry45.4
OD = oven dry
air = air dry 12%
Radial (OD)3.7%
Tangential (OD)6.0%
Volumetric (OD)9.4%
Volumetric (air)5.0%
Tang / rad ratio1.6

Yellow cedar – visual properties

HeartwoodPale yellow to dark yellow.
SapwoodPale yellow in fresh wood to greyish-yellow in older wood.
Heartwood / sapwood contrastThe sapwood is narrow and there is little contrast between the heartwood and sapwood.
Latewood / earlywood contrastThe annual growth rings are very narrow and there is a gradual transition from earlywood to latewood.
The wood is generally straight-grained and has a fine, even texture.
Plainsawn lumber or rotary-cut veneer: faint growth ring.
Quartersawn lumber or quarter-sliced veneer: none.
Tight knots.
Wood of yellow cedar is aromatic, especially when freshly cut. Free from pitch and resin.
Wood tends to develop brown discoloration when it is in contact with iron or iron compounds under damp conditions.

Yellow cedar – working properties

PlaningExcellent planing qualityRecommended planer settings: 20° hook and 8, 12, 16, or 20 kmpi (knife marks per inch). No major defects. Slight dulling effect on cutting tools.
TurningMedium to high surface qualityGood surface quality when turned using a rotary knife lathe.
SawingEasy to work with toolsKnown for its exceptionally good working qualities.
BoringModerateMuch better boring quality with brad point bits than with single twist bits.
MortisingGood to moderate Excellent mortising quality is found with a hollow chisel mortise.
ShapingGood shaping qualityRecommended: the use of a counter piece for end-grain shaping.
ScrewingModerateAverage screw rentention: 476 lb.
Nail retention GoodEquivalent to Douglas-fir.
Lateral nail holdingN/A
GluingSatisfactoryBonds satisfactorily with good-quality adhesives under a moderately wide range of bonding conditions.
StainingModerately easyNatural finish looks best. As stain gets darker, uneven colour is pronounced. A wash coat would even out colour differences.
PaintingModerate paint holding abilityOlder wood should be wiped with paint thinner to remove surface “greasyness”.
LacqueringGood to moderate Reasonably smooth results with only two topcoats.
WaxingGoodGood results are obtained when using light- to medium-coloured waxes (e.g., mellow pine, chestnut).
Ease of dryingModerately easy Dries without difficulty, but there is a tendency for surface checking to occur in thick stock with some end splitting if the drying is forced.
Natural decay resistanceDurableAppropriate for outdoor usage.
TreatabilityImpermeableCan be improved by incising.

Data for these property tables has been compiled by FPInnovations from internal and external scientific sources.
FPInnovations is a not-for-profit technical research institute serving the Canadian forest sector.