Natural History of White Cedar

Learn the Lifecycle of White Cedar

Northern white cedar trees, thuja occidentalis, are softwood, coniferous evergreen trees. They grow near marshland and on dry limestone ridges in lower Canada and throughout the Great Lakes region. The name “white cedar” is somewhat misleading, as northern white cedars are not true cedars (in the pine family), but are in the cypress family. ‘Northern white cedar’ is also known as ‘American arborvitae’. Arbor-vitae means ‘tree of life’, dating back to the 16th century when Native Americans taught French explorer Jacques Cartier how to use the scale-like cedar leaves to treat scurvy.

An unusually tall conifer, the white cedar typically ranges in height from 50 to 70 feet with a pyramidal crown. The sapwood forms a narrow, nearly white band, while the heartwood dominates and is uniformly straw-brown. The dark-green scaled leaves are fan-shaped, aromatic, and turn bronze in the winter.

The white cedar can be propagated by seed or from cuttings, and will grow and prosper in most soils, but does best in limed soil. It is the origin of numerous hybrids.

The northern white cedar is valuable for wildlife habitat, particularly deer, which use it for shelter and browsing during severe winters. It is also feeds and shelters snowshoe hare, porcupine, red squirrel, and many bird species.

Cedar vs Pine

White Cedar vs. Pine? No Contest!


No need to apply chemicals to protect against insects. (Cedar shavings are valued as pet beds because they repel insects!)

to insects

Needs to be “dip-treated” and requires a costly chemical maintenance program to keep bugs away
No need to apply chemical preservatives – Northern White Cedar does not hold water, which is needed for mold and mildew to grow!

to mold and mildew

Needs to be “dip treated” and requires expensive chemical maintenance to keep mold and mildew at bay
No need to apply chemical treatments for weather – Northern White Cedar is so dense it will not absorb water

to weather

Naturally high in water, pine dries with heat and age, leaving plenty of room for weather to creep in and do damage. In order to use pine on exteriors, the logs and lumber are often “Wolmanized” and that doesn’t sound cheap, easy, or natural.
Outstanding stability, as northern white cedar grows very slowly (often 100 years or more) and is very dense, there will be far less shifting, warping, shrinking and settling than with pine.

Dimensional Stability

Due to the fast growth of harvested pine (somewhere around 50 years), the wood cells contain high amounts of moisture. As the pines’ moisture dries slowly, the logs will naturally shrink and builders will experience twisting, settling, shifting, and sometimes falling apart altogether.
Absolutely as safe and natural as the forest! Since there is no need for treatment, cedar logs, lumber, siding and shingles will not release chemicals into the air, inside or out!

Safety to Families

Because pine must be treated to resist just about everything, chemicals are infused into the wood cells, and this produces “out gassing” – a nasty process that slowly leaks the treatment chemicals into the air over time until it’s time to treat again with more chemicals.
Northern white cedar is so slow-growing and so dense that there is no leaking sticky sap or moisture on the logs to attract dust or dirt or hungry worms.


Pine is famous for tar and sticky sap, and for occasional sharp needles, too.

Northern White vs. Western Red Cedar — Easy Choice!


Strong, resilient fibrous quality.

Tensil Quality

Strong, yet brittle fibrous quality.

Less brittle, less likely to split or crack.

Tensil Quality

Splits easily, particularly during installation.

Resists decay better than any other species, except cypress. Northern white cedar shingles frequently last over 100 years.


General decay-resistant life expectancy is 35 years, at best.

Remains stable even flat sawn. Northern white cedar, at all grades, will not cup or curl.


Requires vertical grain cutting to resist warping and cupping. Western red cedar at #2 grade and lower is always flat sawn, and subject to cupping.

Accepts stain and paint evenly with superior penetration and without blotching. Excellent absorption and penetration of chemical fire retardant.


Resistant to stain and paint. Exhibits blotches and streaks. Potential for uneven absorption and limited penetration of chemical fire retardant.

Left untreated, northern white cedar will acquire a silver-grey patina within five years.

Maintenance Characteristics

Left untreated, western red cedar will acquire an uneven, blackened appearance within five years.

Produced from sustainable forest resources (35- to 70-year cycle).

Ecological Sustainability

Produced from diminished, non-renewable old growth forests.

Nature’s Best Choice

northern white cedar, the craftsman's choice

Nature’s Best Choice

Northern White Cedar for Lasting Beauty

Northern white cedar is ideal for both interior and exterior construction because it is naturally durableand resistant to moisture, decay and insect damage. Northern white cedar accepts stain and paint uniformly but requires no finish, as it resists mold and rot naturally.

The wood’s native protections mean that our lumber,shingles and decking provide the simple, non-toxic option for outdoor building materials.

Northern white cedar is virtually all heartwood, that inner core of each tree where the wood is strongest. Only a small percentage of each tree is the white-colored sapwood (approx. 1″ of a 12″ diameter tree). Once peeled, northern white cedar offers virtually all golden heartwood.

When we harvest our all-heart house logs, the large size and six-month air curing time means building materials will be dimensionally stable. Any checking will not penetrate into the heartwood. White cedar’s unique, closed-cell structure also traps air to boost the wood’s insulation values.

Properly pre-finished and installed, white cedar should be the last siding any home will ever need. There are examples all over the world of white cedar shingles lasting well over 100 years. With its richness of grain, texture and color, white cedar offers a timeless complement to any architectural style, from traditional to contemporary.

Northern white cedar is very popular with craftsmen because it can be easily worked by hand or with power tools. Even for garden structures and fences weathering decades, it shows exceptional dimensional stability. It lays flat, stays straight and retains fasteners. Northern white cedar has an even grain, fine texture and the lowest density of any commercial domestic wood. While True North Cedar uses white cedar primarily for shingleslumberhouse logs, and decking, white cedar is also commonly used for boats, ships, canoe ribs, fishnet floats, rustic furniture, saunas and novelties.