Yellow cedar

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

Yellow cedar is one of the world’s most durable woods. It grows up to 24 metres tall and often lives to 1,000 years. It resists corrosion and the elements so 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 BC’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 BC’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 pine 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.

Identifiable characteristics

Yellow cedar is a medium-sized tree that grows up to 24 metres tall and 90 centimetres in diameter. 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.

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.

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.

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