Red cedar is a popular exterior wood on houses for its natural rich, red color. Used for shingles, trim, house siding, decking, and fences, cedar is cheap, widely available, and functionally weathers well.
One downside--in the eyes of many--is that cedar's lovely red turns a monotonous gray--and surprisingly quickly. Once it has turned gray, there is no going back, except by toning the wood.
Maintaining your cedar's color is about choices, timing, and the right type of treatment.
Cedar Weathering: Function vs. Looks
Cedar's own oils mean that, overall, it deteriorates slowly. From a structural standpoint, cedar holds its own. Untreated cedar fences can go many years before they need to be replaced.
Weathering quickly progresses into the wood to about 1-2 mm, then stops. But over time, the weathered portion will splinter or flake away, exposing fresh wood to the elements.
Looks are a different matter. When fully weathered, cedar takes on a light silvery-gray appearance. This isn't a completely unknown look. After all, nothing says "character-filled seaside cottage" like weathered siding.
It also turns gray unevenly. This is not so apparent over small areas; but when you are looking at wide expanses such as siding, you can easily see the splotchy look as cedar weathers.
This effect is even more pronounced between different sides of the house, where the siding may weather at different rates.
4 Cedar Treatments You Can Work With
When treating cedar, the question is how much of the real wood do you want to cover up?
Cover-ups range from the bleach oil mentioned above (we are discounting the option of leaving the cedar completely untreated) all the way up to completely covering up the cedar with paint.
In the middle are solid color stains (which are wood grain-like, but more akin to paint) and semi-transparent stains (which have fewer solids and allow for more of a real wood look. The more solids in your treatment, the longer your cedar will last.
After installing your exterior cedar, you have about a 2 week grace period until the wood starts to discolor. After that, it's all downhill. My best advice is to have your cedar treatment already bought, thought-out, and in your shed ready to go the minute you finish installation.
- Bleaching Oil: For the "Unnaturally Naturally" Weathered (But Protected) Look
If you want the gray, weathered appearance, but also want protection, you will need to take special unnatural efforts to make it look natural.
Cabot Bleaching Oil is a two-step process. First, it tones the wood with a light gray pigment to fix the color. Second, over a short period of time, it will accelerate the bleaching process so that you get the weathered look faster and more uniformly applied.
- Semi-Transparent Stains: For the Look of True Cedar
Semi-transparent stains are your best bet when you want the real look of cedar with protection. The few solid particles in this mix do not significantly obscure cedar's wood grain. However, with the semi-transparents you'll need to take care with application, manual brushing being the best option (spraying may result in blotching).
- Solid Color Stains: For a Faux Cedar Look
Solid color stains have solid particles, but not nearly as many as paint. Thus, solid color stains let some of cedar's grain show through, but none of the color. What you get is a very uniform opaque color. The upside is that solid color stains block most damaging ultraviolet light.
- Primer + Paint: For Any Color You Like
Paint is your best option for treating cedar if your only intent is protection. Paint's solids ward off light, and light is the main contributor to the deterioration of cedar.
Of course, you can have any color you like when you paint cedar--any color, that is, except for cedar color. It is notoriously difficult to mimic wood color with paint. If you want wood color, go for any of the other options listed here.
Tip: Did you know that red cedar dust can cause asthma or exacerbate the condition in people who already suffer from asthma? Volatile compounds within the wood have been identified with this condition. When sawing, sanding, planing, or undertaking other activities with Western Red Cedar, be sure to use a twin cartridge respirator--not a paper mask.