Can You Turn Cedar on a Lathe?

Can You Turn Cedar on a Lathe? (Pros and Cons, Preparation)

Woodturners are familiar with wood selection and the health-and-safety issues related to the craft. So, when it comes to turning cedar on a lathe, is cedar a practical choice of wood, and can you turn cedar on a lathe?

Yes, you can turn cedarwood on a lathe provided the cedar you are working with has enough moisture content and your tools are sharp. The extreme smell, sanding, and dust make it hard for some to work with when turning.

Let’s explore lathe woodworking, cedar as a woodworking material, and the precautions needed to combine the two. 

Scope of Lathe Woodworking Operations

With more than 365 chapters and 16,000 members affiliated with the American Association of Woodturners worldwide, woodturning has become a popular craft hobby (source).

Turning wood on a lathe is one of the oldest machining operations known to man, and the lathe has been called the mother of machine tools. Evidence of early lathes goes back to the Bronze Age, where the ancient Egyptians and possibly the Mycenaeans of Greece used bow and strap lathes dating to around 1300 BCE (source). 

There are many different types of lathes used for working various materials, including the modern CNC (computer numerical control) machines, but woodworking lathes are the oldest.

Today’s lathes are mostly driven by an electric motor that provides the variable speed to turn the wood workpiece. 

The wood is secured in place, usually by a chuck or faceplate, on the rapidly rotating headstock. This allows the use of a range of basic cutting tools — gouges, chisels, and scrapers — that are applied manually to the surface of the wood while pressing down on a tool rest that steadies and guides the hand of the operator.

With practice and skill, various turning operations are possible, including those operations technically known as grooving, facing, drilling, boring, knurling, and threading (source).

Pros and Cons of Turning Cedar on a Lathe

So as you know by the answer listed above, you can turn Cedar on a lathe but is it worth it? Here are some pros and cons different word turners have mentioned in groups and forums we belong to:

PROS:

  • Softer easy to turn wood.
  • Attractive, beautiful wood once finished.
  • Aromatic Cedar can be left unfinished.
  • Better wood for green turning.

CONS:

  • Easily catches and breaks or can explode if not careful.
  • Can be tricky to sand because of its softness can get "wavy".
  • Strong smell which can be overbearing for some.
  • Should wear a respirator when turning.
  • Western Red Cedar dust can be toxic.
  • Has a tendency to crack when drying.

As you can see the Cons turn some people off after trying their hand on turning Cedar on their lathe. However, from what we found many still have had great success.

Qualities of Cedar as A Material

Wood is generally classified into two (or three) categories. Softwoods include the firs, pine, and spruce, which comprise about 80% of all timber for furniture. Hardwoods include beech, cherry, ebony, hickory, maple, oak, teak, rosewood, walnut, and many other wood types. 

There is a third category of so-called engineered woods like hardboard, plywood, and other particle boards and wood-plastic composites, but these are not usually a suitable material used in turning operations.

Both hardwoods and softwoods are suitable for turning on a lathe, and one will also find examples of both species that are not suitable for turning.

Hardwood

The hardwoods take longer to reach maturity, have qualities of durability, density, and fire-resistance. Many of the hardwoods have a natural beauty that makes them popular as a material for furnishings and decorative woodwork. 

As a result, hardwoods are often more sought after and more expensive than the softwoods, but not always. Compare ebony, for example, to mesquite. Ebony is on the rare and costly end of the hardwood scale, while some describe abundant mesquite as more of a weed than a tree.

Softwood Cedar

Cedar (Cedrus) is a family of softwoods common to parts of the Middle East, the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, and the Himalayas. This species includes the well-known Lebanon Cedar that features on that country’s national flag. 

Several species of similarly aromatic wood found in the Pacific Northwest are sometimes referred to as “false cedars.” These cedars — members of the cypress family, and especially the Western Red Cedar — are popular for their versatility, durability, dimensional stability, abundance, and ease of working (source).

Cedar has some distinct drawbacks, however. Apart from the health risks of inhaling cedar dust, cedar is not as strong as some wood options. It’s also comparatively expensive and, therefore, is best used for decorative rather than structural purposes. 

It is also subject to fading, losing its reddish-brown color and turning silver-gray over time, and “checking,” cracks that appear on the surface as a result of seasonal changes in moisture content.

As an alternative to cedar for some applications, yellow pine or fir may be a preferred softwood. But for outside furnishings, decking, fencing, and roof shingles, there are few substitutes for cedar — unless you’re looking at some of the commercially engineered wood substitutes. 

Preparing Wood for Turning

Wood may be turned on a lathe both when it is green (or wet) and when it has been allowed to dry out. The choice of whether to turn green or dry wood depends on the woodworker’s preferences and aims. 

Seasoned Cedarwood

Freshly-felled timber contains a lot of moisture — up to 50% of its dry weight. The removal of this moisture is known as seasoning. Some of this moisture is in the form of water vapor and evaporates easily. Western Red Cedar has a moisture content somewhere around 25% when it’s green.

Other moisture is bound up in the tree’s cellular structure, takes longer to evaporate, and leads to a certain amount of shrinkage.

Seasoning can be accomplished naturally — allowing the logs to lie for a few weeks or months until sufficient moisture has evaporated — or artificially by boiling/steaming, chemical and electrical treatment, or heating in a kiln. 

Artificial seasoning is much quicker — a matter of hours or days rather than weeks — but brings with it practical and cost-related drawbacks.

Some hobbyists have promoted the seasoning of small items of wood in a microwave. But this method involves a fair amount of trial-and-error and is not recommended due to fire-safety concerns.

Green Cedarwood

Well-seasoned timber contains about 15% of its original moisture and develops properties of strength, durability, and elasticity. This is why it is important to anticipate the effects of seasoning when working with greenwood. 

Although it is easier to turn, greenwood will inevitably shrink and possibly distort from its original shape.

Green timber has the advantage, though, of producing less dust when turning and sanding, which we will see has decided health and safety benefits.

Something to look out for when turning greenwood is the tendency of some wood to crack or warp when it starts to dry out. 

Hobbyists seem to have varying experiences of turning green cedar, with most saying that it turns easily and is not subject to cracking when it dries — depending on the thickness of the final turning.

A sensible piece of advice, though, is to do a rough turning of the piece when green, cutting it to its general shape, then put the piece aside for a few days to allow it to age a little before doing the final turning. 

This allows the hard work to be done when the wood is still easily workable. Exposing more surface area will also encourage the wood to dry more quickly and reduce the amount of cracking and warping that may happen during seasoning. 

Learning these tricks is all part of the art of woodturning that comes with experience.

It’s good to remember, however, that there are different species of cedar, and their point of origin (where they grow) may determine rather different sets of performance when it comes to turning green and seasoned cedar specimens.

Image by SusanNehemiah via Pixabay

Is Cedar Dust Dangerous?

Wood dust is an occupational hazard in all woodturning operations, and all inhaled wood dust is hazardous to long-term health. This goes for softwood and hardwood dust, as well as dust from the engineered woods (source).

Yes, Cedar dust is dangerous with particular risk factors, especially Western Red Cedar dust which has been singled out as a cause of asthma. Long-term exposure to all wood dust has been linked to eye, nose, and throat irritation, allergic dermatitis, the impairment of pulmonary function, and the development of certain cancers. 

However, the effects of dust inhalation differ quite significantly from person to person, and in the degree of exposure to the dust. Some people are more susceptible to its effects than others. Of course, there are precautions one can and should take to reduce the risks of inhalation.

For starters, working with green wood generates less dust than seasoned wood, and is, therefore, less risky. Some people are allergic to the oils and resins in certain wood species and should avoid working with them altogether. 

Allergic reactions to species previously appearing harmless may also develop over time. Whenever working with wood, therefore, one should always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Wood dust is probably the woodturner’s biggest concern. Dust should be reduced through an effective dust extraction system, the wearing of breathing masks with air filters, fans, and good ventilation, and sound workplace cleanliness practices.

Provided that sensible and adequate PPE precautions and workshop practices are followed, coupled with good knowledge and understanding of the woods one is working with and their properties, the health risks of working with wood can be minimized.

Photo by chefkeem via Pixabay

Final Thoughts

Although not one of the most commonly selected woods for turning on a lathe, cedar can be used as source material, provided you observe certain health and safety protocols.

All woodworking operations — drilling, routing, planing, sawing, and sanding — generate wood dust that is potentially hazardous to health, and which affects people in different ways depending on their sensitivity to the dust.

To sum it up, if f you are under a time crunch and want to produce several pieces you may want to look at turning something else on your lathe. If you are out to just try something different and have access to some Cedar, give it a go as you could end up with one of your best pieces yet.

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