Chopping Cedar

January 24, 2012 § 4 Comments

Logic would dictate that a softer wood would cut more easily than a harder wood. While this may be true, a softer wood will not necessarily cut cleaner. Western Red Cedar is a good example. I’m building a rain barrel stand out of Western Red Cedar, an inexpensive, readily available wood that will hold up in the rainy winter months. I sawed half laps on the stretchers, but needed to do a little cleanup work on a few of the shoulders where I didn’t quite make a perfectly square cut. After re-establishing a square line, I decided to just quickly chop out the small bit needed to true up the edge. In the picture above, see if you can tell which portion of the shoulder was cut with the saw, and which part was done with the chisel. This is what can happen with a very soft wood. The weaker, but more elastic wood fibers of a softer wood compress and tear out rather than sever cleanly. Even though it looks terrible, it really doesn’t affect the joint at all. And remembering the motto, “No one sees the inside of a joint”, it doesn’t overly concern me. But there may be another situation where it does matter, and there would be a few ways to prevent this.

  • Sharpen you chisel to a razor edge. My chisel was sharp, certainly sharp enough to do 95% of the routine tasks I require of a chisel. But to cleanly cut the end grain of a very soft wood in a chopping motion, your chisel needs to be very, very sharp. I don’t challenge myself to get the absolute perfect edge when I sharpen each and every time, so I skipped this option.
  • Decrease your bevel angle. My working bench chisels are all ground to about 30 degrees. Anything less than that and I get some edge failure when chopping. I have some thinner chisels dedicated to paring that are ground to a lower angle, between 20 and 25 degrees. But I suspect it would be a race to see if you could finish before the edge gave out. Chopping very lightly would probably keep the edge, but it might be slower going.
  • Skew the chisel as you chop. By chopping straight down, as if you were chopping out a dovetail joint, you are asking a lot of the blade edge. If you skew the chisel slightly and chop at an angle, it has a better chance of not tearing the fibers. I tried this on a few, and though it takes a little more time, it worked better.
  • Put down the mallet and simply pare instead. The amount of wood I needed to remove was very slight, in most cases being around a 1/16” or less. Carefully paring to the line will keep a clean look, and can go quite fast. More attention is needed to keep the shoulder straight and perpendicular, however. 
  • Use a very fine saw to get as tight as you can to the line, and from there pare as necessary.

I think I’m ready for some oak.

How to dull a chisel.


§ 4 Responses to Chopping Cedar

  • Rob says:

    Some useful advice here – thanks. We’ve experienced the same thing, practising on soft wood, when results have been disappointing. The fibres are so bendy they get squashed as much as cut unless tools are razor sharp. Working with oak or ash is more encouraging.

    Your last post on cut nails interested me, too. Looking at a couple of 4 inch nails (20d in old money?) recently extracted from a boarded-up chimney in our (1859) house, they are shaped like boat nails rather than masonry nails. The shed adjoining our garden used to belong to a boatbuilder, so maybe they are.

    Best wishes,

    • Eric Bushèe says:


      Yeah, softer woods cut faster but sometimes not as clean. With harder woods, the cuts can be cleaner, but it’s slower going. Pick your poison.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the nails in your chimney were boat nails. Folks would have likely used what they had. In the case of a boat builder, it would be boat nails.


  • rob campbell says:

    Very good post. Also apropos of practicing on the easily available douglas fir and hemlock in these parts. I am actually approaching passable skills with hemlock… it is pretty, it finishes nicely (if you like the stripey long grain) but getting the end-grain polished and flat with no chip-out is a real chore. I am really curious what early PacNW furniture was like… any pointers? Did they just bring oak beams out with them to make stools? Tons of logging gear and lore out here but I cannot find much about early furniture making in these parts.

    • Eric Bushèe says:


      I’ve had better luck with Douglas-fir. It seems to be just hard enough to not give me fits. I can definitely tell the difference in working old growth, tight ring fir vs. the fast growth construction grade lumber you find at the home center.

      As far as early northwest furniture is concerned, I’m not sure. The fact that there aren’t a lot of readily availabe resources is telling, though. The first settlers of Oregon and Washington followed Lewis and Clark in the mid-1800s. By that time furniture making was well established in the eastern U.S. My guess is that early pioneers to these parts may have brought with them a few of their smaller prized pieces in their covered wagons. By the time large enough towns and cities were established in the Pacific Northwest, industrialization had taken hold, precluding the establishment of a hand made furniture making tradition.

      Still, furniture had to be made here – it wasn’t all imported from the northeast. My completely uneducated guess is that softwoods such as Douglas-fir, spruce, and cedar predominated as the woods of choice, if only because of their prevalence. White oak and alder would have been popular as well. But I know of no styles of furniture that were specific to this area. It’s an interesting question, I’ll look into it more.


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