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Juniperus virginianis: Common Red Cedar

Many turners new to wood turning go to lumber shops or on-line supply firms and purchase dimensioned wood for their turning projects. Most lumber companies just sell what I call saw timber, wood that has been sawn into long thin planks for carpentry. Those that do carry blanks suitable for turning tend to be expensive. Their imported exotic woods may not be responsibly harvested.

I would urge turners to look in their own neighborhood. For those who live in the eastern half of the U.S, there is a tree which is often overlooked by turners. It is common red cedar. Its proper botanical name is Juniperus virginianis. This is the strongly aromatic wood used to make cedar chests. The aromatic compounds in the wood repel moths. Farmers use this tree for fenceposts as the resins in the wood cause it to strongly resist decay when the ends of the posts are buried in the wet ground.

For fence posts the trees used are generally three to five inches in diameter. These are readily available as cedar tends to be a pioneer species and springs up readily in abandoned pastures. While capable of making a huge tree when open grown, it does not fare well with competition from climax forest species like oak, beech and hickory. So the only ones you find in deep forest are stunted or dead ones.

Where I live in Vermont people are very kind. I had some of my turned wood items displayed in a health food store in St. Albans. A man came in the shop and inquired about the maker of the items. Then he called me and said he had recently cleared some of his land and had no use for the cedar he cut and was I interested. To this question it is my habit to always say yes. Before I could drive 45 minutes to St. Albans to see the wood he brought a load of it to my house and left it. Later I visited his home and got more wood. He did not want anything for the wood. He just didn’t want it to go to waste. I find this happening frequently. People appreciate what nature has created and while they have no use for it, they want to put it in the hands of someone who does. I feel like this is an indication of rising consciousness in the world and it really encourages me about the future.

The trees he had ranged fro 2 inches too slightly over 12 inches in diameter. Due to the cedar’s growth habit of frequent knots and irregular trunk growth with deep furrows with bark inclusions it does not led itself well to turning bowls from a log section split in half along the pith. The strengths of this wood are what a turner might call the defects. There are abundant knots. The other strength is the deeply red colored heart wood with an irregular outline in cross section. In addition, the knots are as deeply red colored as the heart wood.

This lucky combination allows for great contrasts on the surface as the sap wood is very white. So what I like to do is end grain turnings. If I have a thick piece I will cross cut a section of the log about two to three inches thick, put it between centers on the lathe and use a bedan chisel to turn a tenon and then a skew to turn the tenon into a dovetail and mount in my dovetail jaw chuck. Now I can turn a shallow dish or small platter. When you look down on this finished piece you see the irregular deep red heart wood surrounded by very white sap wood and the outer diameter may have some interesting indentations with bark inclusions. Whether you make the pith the exact center or have it slightly off center to make better use of the wood you have does not matter. When the wood is turned fresh (green) and it is finished turned to a uniform somewhat thin dimension it dries without checking. Even if thin cracks develop they are not very objectionable as there are so many colors and contrasts in the wood that they are not noticed or objectionable. Below is a picture of a small dish made this way and next to it is a small cup made with just the red heart wood. It’s lighter color is due to it not having the finish (I use tung oil) on it yet. The second picture shows the fun you can have with varying the design slightly. The results may be strikingly different.

For those logs with diameter of four to six inches I like to mount them between centers with the direction of the grain parallel to the lathe bed to get them round. With the bark off I can see the knots more clearly and can consider how to use them to best advantage in the design shape I choose. It is lots of fun because you don’t know what it will look like until you do this step. It also means that you need to have a library of shapes in you head ready to apply appropriately to what appears in the log. Design is a key element in wood turning and it is good to study design. Richard Raffin has an excellent book on the subject. I also suggest going to art museums and looking at ancient pottery shapes. I use a book on southwest Native American pottery regularly for inspiration. When you are at the lathe there won’t be time to look around for design shapes. They need to be filled in your head.

Again, in my experience, end grain turning of green (wet) cedar does not result in much checking as long as the wall diameter of the vessel you turn is relatively uniform. Put the drive center and the tail stock center right in the pith or slightly off center to make better use of the wood, depending on how the log grew. In some logs the pith is a long way from the center of mass of the cross section of the log. It doesn’t seem to matter much.

Here are some shapes which emerged from my lathe. As you turn off the sap wood you begin to reveal the deep red heart wood. Since the heart wood is not laid down in even concentric circles of growth rings, as you remove sap wood the heart wood appears here and there, not evenly. This makes for some interesting design possibilities. See what you can find in this versatile wood that is generally shunned by wood turners.

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