Oak and cedar are both well-known woods. But what exactly are oak and cedar, and which is better for furniture, flooring, and cabinets, oak or cedar?
White oak and cedar are both relatively easy to work. White oak is harder and heavier and is considered more attractive. Western red cedar is the most expensive.
Cedar excels in applications that require rot and pest resistance. Red oak is generally an inferior wood to either white oak or cedar.
Let’s consider the differences between the different types of oak and cedar in more detail to understand better which wood you should choose.
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What is Oak Wood?
Many species in the genus Quercus yield oak wood. The genus has an enormous number of species, but woodworkers classify all commercially harvested New World oaks (and the English oak) as either red oak or white oak.
What is Cedar?
The classification “cedar” embraces more than a dozen species from both hardwood and softwood genera. Nevertheless, they tend to share some common properties:
- Cedars are generally aromatic, with a long-lasting scent.
- Cedar is rot and pest resistant and is often used for exterior applications.
- Cedar is relatively lightweight and soft, and therefore easily worked.
- Cedar is usually reddish-brown, with exceptions such as yellow cedar or Northern white cedar.
How are Oak and Cedar Different?
Now that we have considered what oak and cedar are let’s look at what makes them different.
Description of Oak and Cedar
Only the two species of cedar are commonly encountered in North America, namely the Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) and the Eastern red cedar or aromatic cedar (Juniperus virginiana).
Western red cedar has reddish to pinkish-brown heartwood with streaking and banding of darker wood and narrow, pale yellowish-white sapwood. The grain is straight and coarse.
Eastern red cedar has reddish or violet-brown heartwood, with pale yellow sapwood that can appear as streaks in the heartwood. The grain is straight and usually knotty. It has a very fine, even texture.
Oak is straight-grained, with an uneven, coarse texture. Quartersawn surfaces show prominent and characteristic flecking from the rays, particularly in white oak species.
Oak wood is light brown with a subtle reddish cast in most red oak species or a slight olive cast in white oak species. Color does, however, vary and is not a reliable basis for distinguishing between red oak and white oak.
Checking the end-grain of oak to see whether the pores are highly open (red oak) or plugged with tyloses (white oak) is a reliable means of differentiation. In finished wood, you can most reliably distinguish between the two oaks based on the length of the rays.
White oak has long rays, usually more than ¾” long, whereas red oak has short rays, usually between 1/8” and 1/2” long.
Oak wood has a distinctive odor while being worked that has been compared to barbecue sauce. Western red cedar smells like sharpening wooden pencils; Eastern red cedar smells like birdhouses and closet liners.
Western red cedar weighs approximately 23lbs per cu. ft., Eastern red cedar 33lbs per cu. ft., red oak 44lbs per cu. ft., and white oak 47lbs per cu. ft.
Durability of Oak and Cedar
Cedar wood is highly durable. Eastern red cedar is very resistant to insect attack, whereas Western red cedar has mixed resistance to pests.
The heartwood of white oak is durable, while the sapwood is moderately durable. Red oak heartwood is non-durable to perishable and displays poor insect resistance, while the sapwood is permeable.
Mechanical Properties of Oak and Cedar
White oak and cedar have medium crush strength, whereas red oak has high crush strength. Both oak and cedar have low stiffness, making them suitable for steam bending.
Oak is harder than cedar, with a Janka hardness of 1350 (white oak) and 1220 (red oak) to Eastern red cedar’s 900. Western red cedar’s Janka hardness is a mere 350.
Seasoning of Oak and Cedar
Cedar wood kiln dries easily and well, and air dries with little degradation. It shows little tendency to split, check, or warp. Oak dries slowly and shows a tendency to split and check.
Working Properties of Oak and Cedar
Cedar is easy to work with hand and power tools. You can plane it to a very smooth finish, in contrast to oak, which remains rough. Cedar nails, screws, and glues excellently. It stains and polishes easily and holds hard enamels.
You can easily nail and screw white oak, but you should pre-drill it to avoid splitting the wood. It varies in its gluing properties.
Red oak varies in density and has a moderate blunting effect on cutters. It varies in its gluing properties, and you may have to pre-drill it to nail it.
Both types of oak stain and polish easily and to a good finish.
Availability and Sustainability of Oak and Cedar
Both oak and cedar are readily available. Large, clear sections of Eastern red cedar are uncommon, but smaller, 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.
However, you should be aware that some of the other species known as cedars, such as Spanish cedar, are species of concern.
Cost Differences Between Oak and Cedar
Eastern red cedar retails for around $6.29 per board foot, with red oak coming in slightly cheaper at $5.49 per board foot. On the other hand, white oak is considerably more expensive, at $9.99 per board foot. Western red cedar is the most costly of these woods, at $14.00 per board foot.
Which is Better For Furniture, Oak or Cedar?
Because of its bug and rot repellent properties, carpenters have favored cedar for closet lining and dresser or chest building.
Whether red oak or white oak (but mainly white oak), oak is considered to have an attractive grain and is favored for furniture but tends to be more expensive.
Which is Better for Flooring, Oak or Cedar?
Red oak is cheaper than white oak or cedar. White oak is harder to work with and more expensive than red oak, while cedar offers a good compromise between ease of working and price. It also provides advantages in terms of rot and pest resistance.
Which is Better for Cabinetry, Oak or Cedar?
Red oak is usually not considered for countertops, as it is too easily scratched and too porous.
White oak has good wear resistance, and the tyloses in the pores and the high concentration of tannic acid make it water-resistant. However, the wood can impart flavor and odor to food that remains in contact with it.
Cedar is far too aromatic for use with food.
When choosing between oak and cedar for furniture, oak will give you a better appearance. However, cedar offers excellent rot and pest resistance and has applications for closets and drawers.
White oak is the most appropriate for flooring, although well-sealed red oak will serve. For cabinetry, white oak is the material of choice in this particular match-up. White oak is also less expensive.
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