In my Spanish Cedar Regulation article the case was made that the Spanish Cedar market has permanently changed and lower availability is the new normal. Spanish Cedar is still trickling out of South America but it is also now being grown on plantations in Africa. While still technically the same genus and couple of species, Cedrela odorata, fissilis, huberi, the quality and properties are not quite the same. This time I’ll provide some tips to help you buy Spanish Cedar today to ensure you get what you actually need, and I’ll discuss some better alternative species that you should consider instead.
How Are You Using Spanish Cedar?
This should be the first question you ask yourself. Is it meant for exterior construction? Painted? Stained? What width and length is necessary? All of these are factors that will guide you to where you should get your Spanish Cedar. Plantation Spanish Cedar comes from Africa and is widely available. However the quality is very inconsistent and it is rarely available in anything but narrow and short pieces. This is a potential trap to fall into when calling around looking for Spanish Cedar. Ask your potential supplier where the material comes from. If it is from Africa then it is plantation. Then ask where in Africa. Chances are they may not know, but this is easily found out if they ask their buyer. For the most part African Spanish Cedar either comes from Ghana or The Ivory Coast. The Ghanian Cedar is a much better quality with much fewer pin knots and usually a wider cut closer to 6″. Ivorian Cedar is very narrow, inconsistent grain with widely spaced growth rings and therefore lower density and lighter color. It is riven with Pin knots making it very hard to plane without tear out as well as compromising the exterior resistance to the elements as water can get in and stand in and around knots. If your final project is to be painted then Ivorian Cedar may work just fine. Just remember that it will be difficult to get wider pieces and the fast growing nature of these trees may make them less stable and prone to reaction wood. Finally, Spanish Cedar is more difficult to dry than other species because of the highly resinous nature. When poorly dried, the Cedar will weep. This sap will interfere with glue and finish and make a big mess. When buying plantation Cedar caution should be taken to ensure it is dried properly or it will be practically unusable.
The issue arises when someone who has worked with good quality South American Spanish Cedar before, calls and orders it without stipulating origin. The wood arrives and is immediately rejected because it won’t work for the siding project where appearance was paramount, or as a moulded product. The dealer isn’t in the wrong because they sold Spanish Cedar as requested. Certainly a case should be made that the dealer is responsible for knowing the origin and making the customer aware of the quality differences, but it is also true that some dealers may not know the differences and to them all Spanish Cedar is the same. Unfortunately, price is not the identifier as so many dealers are selling all of this material as “Spanish Cedar”. This is similar to the African Mahogany market where so many different species are lumped under one trade name yet the quality and working properties are widely different.
Alternatives to Spanish Cedar
In the end if appearance is key and/or consistent widths of 6″ and over are needed then you need to buy actual Spanish Cedar from South America. Plan to pay a premium for it and to have to plan well in advance if you need larger amounts or special dimensions. The reality is that your best course of action may be to find a different species that will work instead. As an exterior product, Spanish Cedar is great but so are Sapele and Utile. These species are cheaper but also heavier and denser. They are fantastic in appearance and weather resistance, and available in wide and long without problem. For the window and door makers out there, thickness is never a problem with Sapele or Utile either. If you still must have a lighter product then consider Fiji Mahogany. This is Genuine Mahogany that was planted by the British in Fiji decades ago and is gaining strength in the market as a great exterior alternative. The color and appearance are not of the same quality as South American Mahogany and this also is often viewed as a paint grade product. However, you can get it a bit cheaper than Spanish Cedar and in great widths and lengths. Many of our customers has made this decision and they haven’t looked back once.
I hate to discourage people from using Spanish Cedar because it is a great exterior use species, but I will be honest when I say I am confused as to why it is so popular right now. The alternative species I listed above are readily available, cheaper, superior weather resistance, and much wider and longer. Perhaps when our options were limited to North American Cedar variants, Spanish Cedar became popular because it is more resistant and harder, but Spanish Cedar has always just been a by product of harvesting other species like Mahogany. Now that by product has become too difficult to sell legally and it is just not being cut anymore.
Next time a project comes up and you think Spanish Cedar, consider some of the other species on the market and ask your dealer what they recommend. Many of our customers have made the switch away from Spanish Cedar and now they can get what they need without quality concerns and long delivery windows.