Cedar vs Pressure-Treated Wood — Uses, Pros & Cons, Cost

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Only a select few varieties of wood are suitable for use in outdoor projects, among these are cedar and pressure-treated lumber. If you choose the wrong type, it can make your project vulnerable to deterioration.

Now, when it comes to choosing between pressure-treated wood and cedar, I’ve broken down the essentials for you. Here’s what you need to know from an expert’s lens.

Pressure-Treated Wood Overview

Pressure-treated wood has been treated chemically to prevent deterioration, insect damage, and rot.

It is placed inside a pressure chamber subjected to high pressure, and chemicals are driven deep into the wood, making it resistant to the outdoors. 

Pressure-treated decks are a fantastic option for outdoor use because of their durability and longevity. 

The treated-lumber business has had a negative reputation for a long time due to the use of hazardous preservatives like CCA or chromated copper arsenic. 

pressure treated lumbers

Although it is still used commercially, the industry voluntarily stopped using CCA in homes in 2003.

Copper is still used in treated-wood preservatives because it is non-toxic, stops mold and mildew development, and keeps insects away.

As a result of the apparent nature of the incisions made to allow the preservative chemicals to penetrate the wood, some manufacturers choose to avoid them.

In its place, innovative high-pressure procedures are used to penetrate the wood deeply with the preservatives. 

What Do You Mean by Pressure Treatment?

Lumber is “pressure-treated” when subjected to a stream of preservatives and water at pressures of up to 150 pounds per square inch. 

lumber pressure treated

A stack of lumber is placed inside a treatment chamber and filled with a heated preservative combination when the air is steadily removed. The pressure inside is then increased to drive the preservative inside the wood. 

Last but not least, you may find little indentations running parallel to the sides and face of your pressure-treated decks. 

Wood that will be treated with a preservative is “incised,” or scored, using a machine so that the treatment may penetrate better. But, as we’ll see in the following section, not every wood species react similarly to preservatives.

When to Use Pressure-Treated Wood

From my years of experience working on outdoor projects, I’ve always relied on pressure-treated lumber for structural purposes—think joists and beams for those shaded decks.

However, a word of caution from someone who’s been there: avoid using pressure-treated lumber where people frequently touch. Believe me, you don’t want it on the surfaces of picnic tables or as fence posts where folks might lean or sit.

deck built with pressure treated wood

You should avoid raised beds made from wood that has been treated chemically because of the risk of soil contamination.

See Also: Can You Burn Wood That’s Pressure-Treated

Pressure-Treated Wood Types

Above Ground

The number of preservatives used to treat each square inch of lumber is minimal in these kinds. They are not as durable as other pressure-treated woods when withstanding the outdoors.

However, when utilizing an above-ground pressure-treated fence outdoors, it is necessary to elevate it by a minimum of 6 inches above the ground.

Ground Contact

I’ve observed that treated wood, packed with a higher dose of protective chemicals, is a clear winner for outdoor construction. So, if you’re torn between pressure-treated wood and cedar, trust me on this: PT lumber is your best bet, especially for ground contact.

stairs made with pressure treated wood

They are more resistant to the elements that cause decomposition, such as rain, insects, plants, soil, etc. These woods are ideal for use in outdoor projects where they will be in direct contact with the ground.

Their versatility makes them useful for tropical climates and areas with poor ventilation. Posts, foundations, planters, and retaining walls are just a few uses for ground contact lumber.

Marine Lumber

Typically, this pressure-treated wood is only used for docks, seawalls, and other marine structures. They can tolerate extensive exposure to water and are even impervious to the corrosive effects of saltwater.

Look for pressure-treated lumber labeled “marine grade” if you want to use it near water.

Types of Trees Used for Pressure-Treated Wood

Untreated lumber standards also apply to pressure-treated wood; therefore, similar tree species can be used for both.

indoor seating bench

The Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) utilized for framing accounts for a large portion of the lumber used in the region. 

As the same mills treat both forms of pressure-treated lumber, the same species are likely used throughout the region.

Fir, spruce, and pine are more common species, especially in the Northern United States and Canada. The lumber bears the marking “SPF.” SYP, like the Southern Yellow Pine, is ranked higher than SPF for strength.

Furthermore, European spruce, larch, hemlock, and Douglas fir are among the other species that can be found in this region.

cutting lumber with table saw

Since they do not absorb the SYP, preservative, or some SPF species, softwoods like larch, hemlock, and fir are better suited to pressure treatment.

Advantages

Highly Resistant to Rot and Decay

Rot-resistant. They can’t be decayed or rotted by any means. Moreover, the woods contain chemical compounds that keep them safe from rot, decay, and insect invasion.

Less Costly than Other Outdoor-Grade Lumbers

When compared to other types of outdoor wood, it is more affordable. As an illustration, pressure-treated lumber is more expensive than untreated wood but cheaper than Cedar lumber or other exterior-grade woods. The longevity of the wood also makes it an economical choice.

Insect-Resistant

This wood won’t attract pests like termites. Pressure-treated lumber is impervious to insect damage because of the chemicals used in its treatment. 

pressure treated lumber

Nevertheless, these chemicals have the opposite effect, acting as repellents for pests like ants and termites that could cause significant damage.

Also Read: Do You Need Pressure-Treated Wood Sealers for Cut Ends?

Treated Wood Cons

High Maintenance

Speaking from extensive experience, wood does demand its fair share of care and attention. If you opt for pressure-treated lumber, be prepared to put in a bit more elbow grease to maximize its lifespan. I’ve spent countless hours staining and maintaining decks, and I can attest that these are not one-time tasks—they’re ongoing and require both time and effort.

Contains Hazardous Chemicals

There are poisonous compounds in the wood. Pressure-treated wood, for instance, contains harmful substances if inhaled or ingested, such as copper and ammonia. It’s common practice to wear protective gloves, goggles, and a mask whenever handling or cutting one.

Read Next: Rubber Wood-Made Furniture Disadvantages 

How Long Does it Take for Treated Wood to Last in the Ground?

Climate, installation, and pressure-treated timber rating affect how long your wood will endure.

milling lumber

In ideal conditions, the lifespan of pressure-treated wood in the ground is close to 25 years. The lifespan of wood encased in concrete could be extended by more than 40 years.

Can You Paint Pressure Treated Wood?

While it is true that pressure-treated wood can be painted, the results may be less desirable than they are. Because the wood is still damp from the chemical treatment process, peeling often occurs after the paint dries.

Only attempt to paint pressure-treated wood once at least a few months have passed since it was installed. 

But, because of their ability to repel moisture, the chemicals can inhibit the ability to paint successfully. If you want the most outstanding results, try applying wood stain. But what will happen if you stain pressure-treated wood right away? Check out this post next!

Cedar Wood Overview

“Cedar decking” refers to any board cut from a cedar tree specifically to build a deck. When looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous pressure-treated lumber. 

Cedar wood grain pattern

Although cedar requires annual cleaning, sealing, and staining, it is still naturally weather-resistant.

Pine, fir, and spruce are the three types of wood that can be pressure-treated. Especially after being chemically treated, these are lightweight and long-lasting in outdoor settings. 

As a bonus, a cedar tree doesn’t need chemical preservatives because it is rot-resistant.

In addition to the more common pressure-treated timber, most home improvement stores also have dimensional lumber and cedar decking that lie flat and level.

According to our research, Western Red Cedar is the most widespread type of cedar lumber sold in home improvement stores. 

sawing Cedar wood

Its 200-foot-plus height is matched only by its widespread distribution over Western North America. It is the most common type of cedar for decks because of its large size and quantity.

White and Yellow Cedar, two more species found in sawmills and specialty lumber stores, are typically more expensive than Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar due to their smaller size and lower availability.

When to Use Cedar Wood

It’s best to use treated lumber if a board touches the ground and supports a lot of weight. Cedar is strong and resistant to decay, although cedar wood rots more quickly than treated lumber if it is in touch with the soil.

Cedar Wood Pros

Rot and Decay-Resistant

The chemical qualities of the wood make it resistant to rot and decay-causing microbes.

Take Eastern White Cedar and Western Red Cedar, for example. I’ve worked with both, and their natural ability to deter insects is commendable. That means you can use them outdoors, no special prep needed. Trust me, it makes a difference.

bird feeder made from Cedar wood

Most of the time, wood is treated to make it seem better or last longer. Yet, it may survive outside without special care or treatment.

Warp-Resistant

Cedar has a natural resistance to cracking and warping that can occur when the moisture content of the air fluctuates. 

Because of its low density, it can adapt to changing temperatures and atmospheric pressure without cracking. [1]

Moreover, the chemical composition of the wood per cubic foot provides inherent resistance to the elements. It is a non-decay-resistant wood and will not absorb moisture and become swollen and warped in rain or humid environments.

An untreated cedar fence, however, can deteriorate in the elements over time. When exposed to direct sunlight, it loses its natural look and the ability to retain moisture and its protective chemical qualities.

milling red Cedar

It is susceptible to minor cracks and discoloration without proper natural protection and thorough cleaning.

Low Maintenance

Cedar has a long tradition of requiring remarkably little upkeep. It’s no wonder it works so well in so many settings, both indoors and out.

There’s no need to constantly refinish it or worry about it rotting away because of the weather because it has a natural resistance to rot and decay.

Hence, cedar furniture, decks, or other products can endure with minimal care.

Cedar Wood Cons

Expensive

Cedar isn’t the most pricey material available, but the cost is much greater than most other woods.

Cedar wood bench

On the other hand, you can purchase pressure-treated wood for a fraction of the price of Cedar. The price may be a deciding factor when deciding between a pressure-treated deck or cedar.

Prone to Discoloration

Cedar tree’s natural look is stunning. Since it already has a distinctive pinkish-red hue, it rarely needs to be painted or stained. Yet, as time passes, it gradually loses its luster.

As cedar darkens with age, you may need to use cedar sealers every two or three years to keep your belongings looking their best, almost looking like new wood.

Do You Need to Seal Cedar Wood?

Having worked with cedar numerous times, I can vouch for its resilience—you really don’t need to seal it. That said, if you’re keen on enhancing its lifespan or giving it a different look, staining that cedar deck is a path I’ve walked down more than once. It’s truly up to your personal preference.

sealing wood after staining

Some folks may forego sealing their cedar because of its inherent resistance to moisture and insects. An organic appearance is achieved using unsealed cedar, which ages to a weathered gray.

Is Cedar Prone to Cracking?

Cedar, like other trees, expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Pre-drilling holes in cedar is recommended since it is prone to splitting at the ends, and the screws could force the fibers apart if not done beforehand.

When compared to a cedar deck, pressure-treated decking is more likely to crack. It can distort, twist, and split when its chemical constituents evaporate during the drying process.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Cedar and Pressure-Treated Wood

Color and Appearance

Many aromatic and visually appealing wood species belong to the genus cedar. The hue can range from a light yellow to a soft pink to a deep rusty red. Untreated cedar decking will fade to a dull gray over time.

See Also: Can You Paint Cedar White?

Red Cedar lumber

Nevertheless, a pressure-treated deck typically has a copper hue. Its tint is the result of the preservative chemicals applied to the wood.

Inexpensive treated wood weathers to a uniform gray color.

The chemical content of both types of wood alters with time, causing color changes. Cedar’s color can fade rapidly under sunshine. 

Smell

One thing that never ceases to captivate me is the unmistakable aroma of cedar. It’s no surprise to me that it’s a favorite for furniture, home projects, and even as firewood. Those phenols responsible for cedar’s signature scent? They’re not just for show—they’re the very reason the wood stands strong against deterioration and decomposition. Trust me, cedar has more to offer than just its scent.

treated lumbers

Pressure-treated decking, on the other hand, has no discernible odor. The lumber may indeed have a slight odor due to the chemicals included to cure it. Yet this is just transitory, and the effect usually disappears shortly after it is installed.

Durability, Strength, and Hardness

Cedar’s is innately softer than others in its group.

Pressure-treated lumber can be made from many different types of wood, although it is often made from species that are more resilient than Cedar.

Hence, when comparing the durability of cedar vs pressure-treated wood, PT lumber is more superior in almost every conceivable way (tensile).

Cedar’s softness can be a drawback when durability is a priority, but it has several advantages elsewhere. Cedar, for example, has the advantage of being simpler to work with. 

Eastern Red Cedar cutting board

Cedar is far easier to move around than pressure-treated lumber since it weighs less.

Furthermore, sapwood, that’s less susceptible to deterioration, is almost always present in dimensional cedar lumber. Because of this, cedar decks can decay quickly if they are used as ground-level decks.

Scratching, Warping, and Splitting

Cedar is less prone to cracking and splitting than Pressure Treated wood because it does not absorb water the same way that it does oil and wax. In the presence of moisture, it transforms the weight of the water and alters its form.

Although cedar lumber is less prone to cracking, it’s still important to be vigilant when shopping for cedar decking.

Cedar tree leaves

You can tell a lot about the quality of a piece of wood by looking at its end grain. You should look for cedar lumber that is predominantly or entirely heartwood because it has less cosmetic defects.

Rot and Decay Resistance

Cedar’s innate resistance to decay and rot is one of its most significant characteristics. Hence, it can withstand the elements without any treatment and is impervious to fungi and other bacteria that cause degradation.

The chemical composition of the wood makes it naturally resistant to deterioration. A necessary adaption that allows it to bend with temperature changes and withstand fracture is its low density.

Thanks to additives that prevent water from penetrating the pores and its inherent flexibility, it can withstand the elements for an extended period without succumbing to deterioration. 

CCA-Treated Lumber wood

Hence, if properly maintained, cedar can withstand high moisture levels for a long time without deteriorating because it is naturally resistant to rotting.

Cost

Cedarwood is expensive due to its high-end characteristics. Though Cedar is more affordable than pressure-treated wood, it is still more pricey than many tropical hardwoods.

Pressure-treated wood costs around $15-$25 per square foot, while cedar decking material costs $4-$9 per linear foot.

A high-quality cedar board, particularly one free of cosmetic faults, will cost more than the same quantity of pressure-treated lumber.

Read Next: Most Expensive Wood Types

Maintenance and Lifespan

How well you care for either Cedar or pressure-treated wood will determine how long it will last. It will be affected by several factors, including the environment and how you plan to use it.

Cedar wood blocks

The quantity of chemicals utilized to cure lumber also determines how long it will last.

The lifespan of decks and floors made from similarly pressure-treated wood is drastically reduced to 10 years when utilized in these applications. 

To increase the longevity of your pressure-treated deck, you should apply water-repellent sealers once a year. Cedar flooring and decking material, if cleaned periodically, can last for at least 20 years.

Cedar outdoor furniture, then, lasts roughly twice as long as pressure-treated decks do because it is naturally resistant to decay.

See AlsoTop-Rated Clear Cedar Finishes for Outdoors

Availability

Unlike in the Southeast, cedar deck boards are plentiful in North America.

Western Cedar tree

Like untreated wood, pressure-treated wood is readily available in every region of North America and elsewhere. This means that you can use either and that their availability is about equal.

Installation

From the countless flooring jobs I’ve taken on, let me tell you, cedars are among the most straightforward to work with. For outdoor decks, your usual deck fasteners will do the trick, as will those standard cedar screws.

You need to wear safety goggles, a face mask, and gloves made specifically for working with pressure-treated wood. When cutting these chemically treated wood pieces, a face mask is necessary.

You must treat wood or the cut ends of pressure-treated pine to prevent further decay after being cut. To securely fasten pressure-treated wood, you’ll also need vinyl-coated screws. Because of the chemicals on these boards, regular screws quickly deteriorate.

Environmental-Friendliness

Like any other tree in its natural form, Cedar has no harmful environmental effects.

Cedar trees

Instead, pressure-treated pine has compounds that may be harmful to the ecosystem. As a result, you should use something other than wood for fires.

To dispose of treated wood properly, you should take them to a designated landfill.

Next Readings

Conclusion

If you know what to look for, deciding between cedar vs pressure-treated wood becomes much simpler. Remember that the lifespan of your deck is entirely in your hands, regardless of the type of wood you choose. 

Keeping up with routine maintenance is essential if you want your deck to last for many years to come.  

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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