Birch and cedar are both readily available kinds of wood. But what exactly are these two kinds of wood, and which is better for furniture, flooring, and cabinets, birch or cedar?
Cedar is easier to work than birch, but both finish well. Cedar excels in applications that require rot and pest resistance, whereas birch is only perishable and susceptible to insect attack. Birch has advantages for applications that require harder wood, such as flooring.
Let’s examine the differences between the different types of birch and cedar in more detail to understand better which wood you should choose.
What is Birch Wood?
Species in the deciduous hardwood genus Betula, widespread across temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, yield birch wood.
The genus contains 30 to 60 species, most of which are relatively short-lived pioneer species.
The wood tends to be fine in texture and light in color with a moderately high weight.
What is Cedar?
Woodworkers classify more than a dozen species from both hardwood and softwood genera as “cedar.” Nonetheless, cedars have these properties in common:
- Cedars have aromatic wood with a lingering scent.
- Cedar is rot and pest resistant, and woodworkers tend to use it for exterior applications.
- Cedar is relatively lightweight and soft, and therefore easy to work with.
- Cedar is usually reddish-brown, with exceptions such as Northern white cedar or yellow cedar.
How are Birch and Cedar Different?
Now that we have considered what birch and cedar are, let’s look at what makes them different.
Description of Birch and Cedar
You will only commonly encounter two cedar species in North America: Eastern red cedar or aromatic cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Western red cedar (Thuja plicata).
The heartwood of Eastern red cedar is reddish or violet-brown, with pale yellow sapwood that sometimes appears as striping or streaking in the heartwood. The texture of this wood is very fine and even, with a straight, usually knotty grain.
Western red cedar has reddish to pinkish-brown heartwood, with banding and striping of darker wood and narrow, light yellowish-white sapwood. The grain is coarse and straight and generally free of knots.
Birch heartwood is usually light reddish-brown, and the sapwood is nearly white. The annual growth rings show almost no color distinction, giving the wood a dull, uniform appearance.
The grain is straight or slightly wavy. Occasionally figured wood is available with a wide, shallow curl.
The texture is fine and even, and the endgrain diffuse-porous.
Some people compare the appearance of birch to that of maple.
Birch has no characteristic odor. Eastern red cedar smells like closet liners and birdhouses; Western red cedar smells like sharpening wooden pencils.
Western red cedar weighs approximately 23lbs per cu. ft., Eastern red cedar 33lbs per cu. ft., and birches between 37 and 46lbs per cu. ft.
Durability of Birch and Cedar
Cedar is highly durable against rot. Eastern red cedar is very resistant to pest attack, whereas Western red cedar has mixed resistance to pests.
Birch is highly perishable and will rot quickly. It is also susceptible to attack from pests.
Mechanical Properties of Birch and Cedar
Cedar has medium crush strength, whereas birch has high crush strength. Both kinds of wood have low stiffness and high bend strength and work well with steam bending.
Western red cedar’s Janka hardness is a mere 350, while Eastern red cedar is 900. Some birch species, such as paper birch, are comparable at 910, whereas yellow birch has a Janka hardness of 1260 and sweet birch’s hardness is 1470.
Seasoning of Birch and Cedar
Birch dries slowly, with little degradation. It shows significant movement in service.
Cedar kiln dries quickly and easily, and air dries with little degradation.
Working Properties of Birch and Cedar
You can work birch fairly easily with power tools, although it has something of a dulling effect on cutters. It is pretty challenging to work by hand. It nails, screws, and glues well and takes stain and polish very well. It is excellent for white enameling.
You can work cedar efficiently with hand or power tools and plane it to a very smooth finish. Cedar nails, screws, and glues excellently. It stains and polishes easily and holds hard enamels.
Availability and Sustainability of Birch and Cedar
Both birch and cedar are readily available. It is uncommon to find large boards of Eastern red cedar clear of knots, but narrower boards with knots are readily available.
Neither the CITES Appendices nor the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species list these various species as threatened.
Cost Differences Between Birch and Cedar
Birch and Eastern red cedar retail at about $6.29 per board foot, and Western red cedar at $14.00 per board foot.
Which is Better for Furniture, Birch or Cedar?
Because of its pest and rot repellent properties, woodworkers have historically chosen cedar for lining closets and building chests and dressers.
Woodworkers use birch for all aspects of furniture making, as it has a pleasing appearance and works well.
Which is Better for Flooring, Birch or Cedar?
Most species of birch used in the United States are hard enough to be suitable for flooring, and woodworkers have historically used them for this purpose in the North-East. Cedar is advantageous in rot and pest resistance but is relatively soft and will not hold up well to constant traffic.
Which is Better for Cabinetry, Birch or Cedar?
Birch is a suitable option for cabinetry, but you must adequately protect it against moisture. Cedar is far too aromatic for use with food.
Some cabinetmakers consider cabinets made with birch to have a dated look, as the distinctive figure of birch was in fashion in the 1960s and 1970s.
When choosing between birch and cedar for furniture, cedar offers excellent rot and pest resistance and has applications for closets and drawers, but birch has the edge in appearance.
Birch is the most appropriate for flooring. For cabinetry, birch is the better of these two kinds of wood but can have a dated appearance.
The Wood Database: Cedar Confusion!
Hunker: The Pros and Cons of Birch Wood
Learning Center: What is Birch Hardwood Flooring?
How Stuff Works: Guide to Furniture Woods
The Wood Database: Sweet Birch
The Wood Database: River Birch
The Wood Database: Paper Birch
The Wood Database: Yellow Birch