Is Cedar Good for Carving? (Pros & Cons)

It’s easy to understand why so many newbie woodcarvers naturally gravitate to cedar.

Cedar is great for wood carving. For starters, it’s a softwood. That means it will be very easy to work with carving tools. Secondly, the grain is traditionally straight and clear of knots. Third, it’s (relatively) easy to put a finish on cedar – a finish that will last and last!

Interested in learning more about what makes this wood so special for carvers?

Let’s get into it!

Why Cedar is Good for Carving

Cedar is beloved by woodworkers and woodcarvers the world over for a bunch of different reasons.

We run through some of the most common reasons below.

Soft and Easy to Work With

For starters, cedar is a softwood, making it extremely easy (compared to hardwoods) to work with your carving tools. It’s easy to finish, too!

Woods like oak, walnut, and mahogany have beautiful grain patterns and can produce special projects. But working with them – particularly as a newbie – is always a real challenge.

One mistake with those materials and you can be out a mountain of money (and a lot of time).

They also require a really steady hand and a bit of extra elbow grease to carve consistently.

Cedar, on the other hand, cuts like soft butter in comparison.

You’ll be able to carve, shape, and mold your project without brute forcing everything the way you might with a hardwood.

Lightweight But Resilient

Don’t let the lightweight nature of cedar fool you into thinking it’s some “pushover” material, either.

Beloved for its unique strength-to-weight ratio (and a bunch of other reasons), cedar is a lot more resilient and durable than people give this material credit for.

The softness of cedar makes it a little easier to “bruise” than other woods (more on that in just a moment). But for the most part, this lightweight wood is easy to carve and won’t fall apart on you, either.

Finishes Easy

Finishing cedar is super straightforward, thanks to its natural beauty.

You don’t have to go crazy to coax a gorgeous finish out of cedar. Many people rub a little bit of oil into cedar now and again to maintain its rich, ruby color.

Sanding and smoothing cedar is effortless, too.

Natural Resistance to Moisture

Lastly, cedar has natural properties that resist moisture, rot, and general decay – especially when exposed to outdoor elements and lots of water.

This makes cedar a fantastic choice for woodcarvers who will display their work outdoors or want to work on projects permanently installed outside.

Related: Carving with Pine

Disadvantages of Carving Cedar

All that said, you need to be aware of some disadvantages to carving cedar.

Not All Cedar is Equal

For one thing, not all cedar is created equal – and not all cedar is as friendly to carvers as other types.

Eastern red cedar, yellow cedar, and Eastern white cedar are where you will want to invest your money. Most other types of this wood will fight you a lot more, making your carving project much more challenging to pull off successfully.

Don’t just stroll down to the local hardware store and grab any old lump of cedar.

You won’t love the results.

Prone to Dents and Dings

Because cedar is so soft, it tends to bruise, dent, and ding when it’s dropped or bumped.

You can steam some of these blemishes out of most projects you’re working on, but some will be almost impossible to recover. The softness of cedar and ease of workability still make it an attractive choice to carve.

Doesn’t Maintain Tight Detail Work

Another disadvantage to using cedar on your carving project is that detail work becomes more challenging to pull off successfully.

Thin, narrow, or extreme carved details will be prone to breaking, splitting, or even tearing out completely.

Once again, this circles back to the softness of cedar as a carving material.

All you have to do to avoid these kinds of problems is be careful when you’re doing detail work, recognize the limitations of the material you are working with in the moment, and try to find ways to accentuate details a little “larger than life” rather than trying to be really intricate.

You’ll appreciate this the first time you do detailed work on a cedar piece, and – always at the last moment – it tears out or falls off completely.

It happens to all of us. Try not to sweat it!

Related: Using Cherry Wood for Carving

Closing Thoughts

If you are trying to figure out whether or not it’s a good idea to carve a couple of projects in cedar, we recommend you take the plunge to get a feel for how this material responds to your carving tools.

As mentioned earlier, you want to be a little careful with detailed and more intricate carvings when working in cedar. But aside from that, this is a beautiful material that can help you learn and develop your carving skills.

Should you go down this road, try to get your hands on Eastern red cedar (Eastern, not Western), yellow cedar, and Eastern white cedar. 

The yellow cedar will probably be the softest of the bunch (and easiest to work with for newbies), while the Eastern white cedar is the hardest of the pack and should be safe for more involved designs.

At the end of the day, you can rest easy knowing that cedar is a quality carving wood.

It’s a great option, especially if you’re looking to carve projects that spend time outdoors!

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