I knew that whenever the time came for me to build my deck, it would be either redwood or cedar. I wanted something that would be the centerpiece of my backyard for years to come. But I needed to know about cedar vs. redwood for decking (and fencing) – which is better?
Cedar is widely available, while many won’t be able to source redwood lumber locally. The colors vary, with redwood being darker and less amenable to stain. Redwood is more durable, but the cost is around 20% more expensive, on average, than cedar. Redwood may be a slightly better wood, but the cost and access make cedar the winner.
Much of the debate around cedar vs. redwood centers on personal preference. Since the look of each is so distinct, it makes more sense to purchase a product that goes with your vision for your deck rather than which is simply “better”.
With that said, each type of lumber has advantages and disadvantages. We’ll go through each factor to elaborate on why redwood or cedar is better, so as to better inform you on which type of decking can work best for you.
- Cedar Lumber: Quick Overview
- Redwood: Quick Overview
- Cedar vs Redwood: Key Differences
- Cedar vs Redwood for Decking
- Is Cedar or Redwood Better for a Fence?
- Final Verdict: Cedar vs. Redwood
Cedar Lumber: Quick Overview
Cedar is the most popular decking and fencing alternative for those who want something a little fancier or more natural-looking than pressure-treated wood.
Many factors make cedar desirable, from its natural rot resistance to its look and ease of handling. Remember that when comparing to redwood, cedar will nearly always be available in your area – redwood very likely will not. Below we’ll outline the pros and cons of cedar decking and fencing.
Advantages of Cedar
- Widely available: deck/fence boards and dimensional lumber
- Naturally rot, decay, and insect resistant
- Easy to cut and install
Disadvantages of Cedar
- Weaker than redwood
- Scratches/scuffs easily
- Fades to a silver-gray
- Periodic maintenance is required
Redwood: Quick Overview
Redwood trees are found on the Pacific Coast in the Northwest. An extremely large tree, one redwood tree, can yield many times the lumber of a cedar tree. These days, old-growth redwood trees are not commercially harvested, but even smaller redwoods dwarf commercial cedar trees.
Because of their size, it is easier to find redwood lumber that is “clear” – free of knots. It is more difficult – and expensive – to source clear cedar. Redwood has many of the benefits of cedar but is a stronger, slightly more dense wood. It is also harder to find as you get further away from where it grows.
Advantages of Redwood
- Extremely resistant to rot, decay and insects
- Natural red coloring
Disadvantages of Redwood
- Harder to source than cedar
- Also requires maintenance
- Fasteners can stain wood
Cedar vs Redwood: Key Differences
If you take a glance above at the pros and cons, you’ll notice that these woods are similar. Both have high rot resistance and are durable. But as we take a closer look, you’ll notice that the two are quite different, particularly when it comes to look and availability.
The color is the predominant difference that will stand out to the average lumber buyer. As its name suggests, redwood has a reddish-brown color that will make it look very different from cedar. However, the redwood sapwood – the wood on the outer edges – is yellowish and will appear more like cedar and cheaper.
Cedar ranges from a pale red or pink to yellow to appearing nearly white. You’ll find some cedar with slight hints of purple too. There are multiple cedar species you may be able to choose from, such as Eastern White, Eastern Red, and Western Red Cedar.
The Western version is the most widely available and has a reddish hue but nowhere near the extent of redwood.
Over time both will weather to a silvery gray color if not maintained. Some prefer this change and consider it a nice “natural” look. Others will disagree, choosing to protect the original “look” of their investment and maintaining it on an annual or semi-annual basis.
One of the main differences in appearance will be the number of knots found in the wood. Since the redwood is larger, you’ll have greater choice when it comes to choosing your decking or fence boards. Thus, it is easier to acquire pieces that are clear – or relatively clear – of knots compared with cedar.
Of course, purchasing clearer redwood will cost you, but thanks to the variety of redwood grades, you can purchase clear planks for visible portions of your deck and fence, while the less visible portions can get pieces that are construction grade.
Redwood has both heartwood and sapwood pieces, with the heartwood being reddish brown and the sapwood yellowish. These trees consist, on average, of about 30% sapwood, making the heartwood more common.
Many deck owners with redwood decking can get burned by the fasteners they use. Metal does not react well with the copious amounts of tannins found in redwood lumber, creating unsightly black stains. Stainless steel fasteners are required to mitigate what is called this “tannin bleed”, which is an added cost if you want a redwood deck or fence.
Cedar decking is differentiated by its extremely straight grain. While clear cedar is available at a cost, many opt for knotty cedar for decking or fencing simply because it is cheaper while retaining the same beneficial qualities of cedar wood.
Cedar grain is tight and uniform, with the grains spaced evenly and close together. Cedar grows quickly and evenly, resulting in a very even grain pattern, particularly in Western Red Cedar.
Redwood grain is spaced further apart but is also fairly even. Depending on the grade you choose, it can have knots or can be purchased clear.
Redwood grain is typically wider than cedar because it grows faster. Since grains are the “rings” found in trees, each grain line is a year of a tree’s growth. As redwood trees grow extremely fast – and tall – it stands to reason that each growth ring would be spaced further apart. As saplings, they can grow up to 7 feet in one year.
Most redwood grain is considered “open”, which means there are less than 8 growth lines per inch. Heartwood is typically more “open”, whereas certain sapwood pieces will have more grain lines, being the outer edge of the tree where the tree has aged and growth reduces with time.
Decay and Rot Resistance
Both cedar and redwood are naturally resistant to rot and decay, but only in the heartwood. The sapwood of both trees is not resistant to rot and decay, although this makes up a smaller percentage of the wood found in a tree than the heartwood.
In the heartwood, various extractives form to produce a rot resistance not found in the sapwood, which serves primarily to transport water up and down a tree and therefore cannot store minerals and other extractives that exist in the heartwood.
One of the main components of redwood and cedar that make them resistant to rot and decay is the presence of polyphenols in the heartwood. These include tannins that act as a wood preservative.
Cedar trees average around 10 and up to 20% extractives in their heartwood, which makes up most of the tree. Redwood trees average more extractives – around 20% – and higher. Of course, there are many different types of extractives found in a tree that make them rot and decay resistant, but in general, these properties make the trees very durable as lumber.
The extractives found in cedars, particularly a fungicide called thujic acid, are highly toxic towards insects and make cedar trees an inhospitable place to burrow and live. This is why cedar chests and closets exist – to keep moths away from wool clothes.
Redwood trees have tannic acid, an extractive that gives the tree its natural coloring and makes it difficult for insects to burrow through as much of the tannic acid is in the actual bark of the redwood tree.
Durability & Lifespan
Both cedar and redwood are highly durable. On a practical level, however, redwood is denser and, thus, stronger. According to the Janka hardness scale, redwood clocks in at 420 lbs per square foot while Western Red Cedar is 350 lbs per square foot. White cedar is 320 lbs pounds per square foot.
If installed properly in a fence or a deck, the density and hardness don’t necessarily matter – both will hold up over time about the same. However, you notice the difference when working with the wood – redwood feels a bit more solid than the cedar.
Both require maintenance, which we’ll cover below. If you don’t maintain either type of wood, their lifespan is reduced. Both will last up to 15 years give or take untreated – but after that, expect to see serious rot or decay if you continue to neglect treatment.
Finally, both will scratch and nick easily. Even though redwood is harder than cedar, they are both still extremely “soft” woods. For instance, you could dig the edge of your boot heel into a cedar deck with moderate pressure and make a mark. Same with redwood.
Properly cared for, each provides exceptional value. A stained redwood or cedar deck, in any style, stands out for looks. It also gives you, the owner, peace of mind that you’ve used quality materials that will last, are natural, and will increase the value of your home.
The value, overall, depends largely on you, the builder, and the owner of the deck or fence. For example, if you live in the Northeast, then a redwood deck may be more highly valued due to its scarcity in the area.
Properly caring for your wood and choosing grades of lumber that are clear or with fewer blemishes will be an asset to your home, whether you intend to sell or simply want to impress visitors. You won’t achieve any value from cedar or redwood lumber if you simply intend to let it sit and weather without any work.
Redwood lumber distributors will readily tell you that their lumber is available anywhere in the US, but that is simply not true.
Many areas of the country require you to source redwood from a local lumber dealer, who will then have to order it, forcing you to wait for an undetermined amount of time to get lumber you haven’t had the chance to inspect before purchasing it.
Big box stores like Lowes or Home Depot do not stock redwood in many of their stores, particularly as you get further away from the Pacific Northwest. Cedar, however, is stocked in most big box stores throughout the country. Eastern White Cedar is available on the east coast, but Western Red Cedar is the most copious cedar species available throughout the country.
Both trees are soft, making them easy to lift and cut. Cedar is softer, especially Eastern White Cedar, making it prone to tear out when cutting on a saw.
Use of fasteners compatible with the wood is critical. With all the tannic acids in redwood lumber, the only fasteners that will work without leaving black stains are stainless steel screws.
Cedar can also get black stains from fasteners, so stainless fasteners for cedar lumber are a good idea. Since cedar is typically lighter than redwood, black stains can be more visible. Risking galvanized or aluminum screws are not worth having to replace deck boards in the future – use stainless.
As mentioned above, the value of redwood and cedar only applies if the lumber is properly maintained.
For cedar, an oil-based, semi-transparent stain will still give the cedar its natural look while penetrating the wood to prevent moisture damage. Semi-transparent is best because it blocks UV light, while transparent won’t. Water-based stains and sealers don’t penetrate the wood, so it’s best to stick with linseed oil-based stains.
Redwood lumber maintenance should be similar to cedar: semi-transparent oil-based stain. How frequently should you re-apply? It depends on the location of your deck or fence and your climate. But expect a minimum of 2 years and a max of 5 years for recoating, with the average being 3 years for re-staining.
Annual cleaning with soap and water, and not a pressure washer, is a must to remove mildew and any grime that can hasten the decay of the cedar or redwood.
At the time of writing, one redwood stud – 2x4x8 – is priced at around $28. This price was taken from a big-box retailer in thePacific Northwest. A premium Western Red Cedar stud of the same length is $19.
For larger pieces, the disparity between the two species grows, but expect to pay at least ⅓ more for redwood than you would for cedar.
Cedar vs Redwood for Decking
After reviewing the differences between cedar and redwood, it is still difficult to choose which is better for decking. The price of redwood lumber makes building a larger deck almost prohibitive – you could end up spending hundreds or even thousands more simply to use redwood instead of cedar.
But if the price is no object, then redwood wins. The natural color of redwood means that over time the redwood will keep its color better than cedar, particularly if you opt for a higher grade. It is also harder and will withstand traffic better than cedar.
If maintained properly, redwood decks and fences are of higher value, too. A redwood deck is a great selling feature for a listed home and has an exotic quality that cedar doesn’t quite bring.
But for most of us, price is the primary consideration. Cedar wins, particularly because the two types of wood are so similar in nearly all categories except appearance. A semi-transparent stain can mitigate the difference in appearance and give cedar a stunning appearance for years, accentuating the grain and color.
That leaves hardness as the only pro that redwood has over cedar – but if you’ve had your deck properly installed, then this point is moot – go with cedar.
Is Cedar or Redwood Better for a Fence?
One issue that you’ll encounter with fences and not so much with decks is that the lumber of your fence will come into contact with the ground. This makes the cedar versus redwood fence debate a bit different than dealing with decking.
Since your posts will either sit in or in contact with the ground, then hardness becomes a very important – the most important – factor when choosing a type of wood. Redwood, with its superior hardness, will last longer in the ground compared to cedar.
Redwood is stronger, but that also means it is heavier. Therefore, a heavy fence needs more support and is more prone to sagging or collapse than cedar. Properly constructed, a fence can stand for years and years regardless of weight. However, with the stress put on posts in terms of ground contact, understand that a lighter wood will fare better.
Finally, while cedar is lighter, redwood is sturdier. And even though you might think a lighter cedar will last longer, consider that you’ll be using cedar posts in the ground, which will not last as long as redwood.
A fence is meant as a barrier, and a solid fence is critical for a home; thus, the use of redwood for fencing is the optimal choice if you have a large budget. Otherwise, go with cedar and make sure to maintain it regularly.
Final Verdict: Cedar vs. Redwood
The verdict is in, and cedar is the clear winner. It’s cheaper, just as durable – particularly cedar decking – and it is more versatile when stained.
If you are installing cedar decking or fencing yourself, then you’ll love how easy it is to cut and lift. You’ll also like that you can purchase just about any dimension from your local big-box store regardless of where you are in North America.
And finally, the price. You just can’t beat the price of cedar versus redwood. Cedar lumber is drastically greater than redwood, meaning that the price point between the two species will always be present – and the reason most will continue to opt for cedar over redwood.