What's the Difference: Cedar shingles
Tell me, sir, will that be red, white or perhaps an Alaskan yellow?
If building a house were as reliable as a textbook, you could nail up shingles of either red or white cedar and be assured your roof or exterior walls would enjoy life everlasting. On paper, the heartwood of both these cedars is extraordinarily durable and resistant to rot, even when left untreated. But what a wood scientist can prove in the lab seems a whole lot less certain in the field.
The shingle market these days is dominated by western red cedar (botanically speaking, that’s thuja plicata). Yet shingles from two other species also are widely available, at least regionally: northern white cedar (thuja occidentalis) and the less common Atlantic white cedar (chamaecyparis thyoides). And although red and white cedars have been the traditional standbys, you may even be able to find shingles of Alaskan yellow cedar (chamaecyparis nootkatensis) as well (photo below). As always, market choices are dictated by the availability of raw materials.
In the early days of coastal New England, builders chopped what was close at hand—stands of the swamp-dwelling Atlantic white. It grows in a narrow coastal zone extending from southern Maine to northern Florida and along the Gulf coast. Later, builders turned to northern white cedar, also called arborvitae. It has been prized by everyone from Indian canoe builders to French explorers who made a tea from its needles and bark to ward off scurvy. As lumbermen laid claim to the great forests of the Pacific Northwest, shingles made from the majestic western red cedar more or less took over the market.
The most obvious difference between the cedars is how they weather. White cedar starts out as a pale, straw brown and turns a silvery gray in time; the darker western wood has a much more reddish cast when new and can…