Here’s Why Cedar Wood Turns Grey (And How To Prevent It)

Lebanese cedar tree on a hillside

Cedar is a versatile wood that can be used in many different applications. It is often used in closets and chests to repel insects and protect clothing. Additionally, it is often used in all-purpose furniture. The problem for some is the color that cedar will age to—a dull, worn grey.

As cedar wood ages it begins to turn grey and matures to a silvery-grey sheen. Sun, rain, and age work to dry up the natural oils and degrade the cells of the cedar wood, which in turn is what eventually turns it grey. Pressure washing cedar can help restore its natural color.

If you like the color grey, or you enjoy the look of aged, weathered wood, then there’s nothing you need to do except let weather and time age your wood. If this is your preference, there are some steps to keep your cedar looking fresh, new, and warm.

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Why Cedar Wood Is Used Outside

Cedar lumber has natural oils that produce a pleasing scent to us, but insects hate it, making the wood a natural, and very effective insect repellent. Because of this, you don’t have to worry about termites, wood beetles, or other insects eating your deck, siding, or fencing.

In fact, when the oils are extracted from cedar wood, they make great insecticides and insect repellants. According to the USDA, scientists who tested cedar oil against insects such as mosquitoes, flies, fire ants, and ticks. In their experiments, the cedar oil either repelled them all, exterminated the pests, or both.

These same smell-good oils are what make cedar wood naturally resistant to rot, fungal infections, and decay. While a fence made from spruce or pine may last you up to seven to ten years, a cedar fence, even without staining and protection, can last twice as long. 

When outdoor cedar applications are maintained and well cared for, they can last up to 40 years. This is why cedar is a popular choice for fencing, decks, siding, and even roofing material.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology backs up this finding. They say cedar products have an assumed lifespan of 40 years. In order to maintain the appearance and increase the life of cedar products, two coats of stain should be applied every 10 years.

Even cedar outdoor furniture tends to stay cooler than other wood furniture, even in the blazing summer sun.

This is because cedar has tiny pockets of air scattered throughout the woodgrain. These minuscule air pockets help to insulate the wood and keep it from getting as hot as other wood species.

Many people wonder if cedar is a good wood for campfires. Usually people don’t recommend cedar, but if you are interested in what makes a good firewood, check out our article on the 10 slowest burning firewoods!

Why Does Cedar Turn Grey?

Cedar wood logs with chalk markings

When choosing the lumber you want for your outdoor project, whether it’s a new fence, a deck, shingles, or something else, you might choose cedar because of the appealing color of the wood.

Cedar can be red, orange, brown, or a mixture. Either way, these warm colors are beautiful. When the wood eventually fades to a dull grey, it can be heartbreaking.

When wood is fresh cut, and stored indoors it tends to retain its natural color. But over time the oils that give cedar wood their warm colors and pleasing scent dry out, and the cells reach their end. As this happens, the wood morphs into that weathered-looking grey.

The sun’s rays not only dry out the oils and damage the living cells in wood, but they also have a bleaching property to them.

As the oils dry out and the cells shrivel up, water can get inside where it opens up tiny cracks that let more sun and weather in. This is how wood ends up rotting over time.

While cedar resists this greying more than other types of wood, without protection, it will still happen. Given time, most wood types do fade to grey when exposed to the outside elements.

How Fast Will Cedar Wood Begin To Grey?

While some parents with teens seem to grey overnight, cedar wood takes a little time to grey, but still, time is of the essence if you are looking to keep that youthful glow to your fence or deck.

Luckily, some cedars are regarded as the slowest growing trees, so once they reach maturity, they should have a long time before they turn grey due to old age.

Depending on the freshness of the wood, exposure to the elements, and the thickness of the wood, cedar may start to turn grey in as little as two weeks, or it could take up to a year before it begins to lose color. The sooner you can protect the natural wood color, the better.

After you get your outdoor cedar project finished there are a few steps to take to keep the color from fading away. The first step is to let the wood dry completely. This may take a few days or up to five weeks, depending on the weather.

Your cedar lumber might still have a little moisture trapped inside even after it has been installed, so it’s best to let the wood dry completely before applying any stain or protectant.

Skipping this step could severely shorten the life of the wood, or at the very least, result in an unsatisfactory finish.

If the cedar wood starts to grey slightly before it gets completely dry, it’s okay, we can fix that. You can scrub the wood with a plastic or other stiff bristle brush (not wire) and a mixture of oxi-cleaner and water to remove that tiny film of grey.

Ways To Prevent Premature Greying In Cedar

Fresh cedar wood planks and logs

The best way to keep the warm oranges and reds of your cedar is to stain it, add a protective finish, or both. There are many stains out there that can change the color of your wood, keep it looking natural, or even speed up the weathering process if that’s what you like.

For simplicity, we will assume you want to keep the cedar lumber looking natural, after all, that’s one of the main draws to outdoor cedar wood applications. Staining your cedar is the best way to keep the naturally warm colors.

You can use transparent stains, or stains that have pigments added in. For stains with colors added in, there are semi-transparent and opaque stains.

In this application, we recommend using a transparent stain so the natural cedar color comes through, or a semi-transparent stain that is most similar to cedar.

Choose an oil-based outdoor stain like this Cabot Wood Toned Deck & Siding Stain, CedarGood quality oil-based stains penetrate deep into the wood to offer better fade resistance, and UV protection, while also offering water resistance.

Even when staining your cedar, sun-fade still happens, only at a reduced pace.

Because of this, you will have to reapply stain to your fence, decking, or what have you, every two to five years, depending on the level of fading. This helps to ensure the wood lasts longer and keeps that warm, loving glow for many years to come.

Do You Need A Wood Sealant For Your Cedar? 

When you use a good, oil-based stain, it also seals the wood, so you don’t need to add the extra step of sealing it. While the stain is often more expensive, it has better UV protection, especially when it has higher pigment content such as solid color options.

Wood sealants are typically clear and have to be reapplied every year. Most don’t offer the UV protection of stains, so adding a yearly sealer is often seen as an unnecessary step.

Another potential problem with some sealants is they can cause a build-up, which will end up cracking or peeling.

Polyurethane and wax-based sealers are often the culprits here. They form a film over the wood to protect it from sun and water, but eventually, the elements break that film down.

Keeping the natural cedar look can be a time-consuming task, but it may be better than looking out and feeling like you’re staring at a black and white photo from the past, because of the tired-looking, grey cedar.

How To Restore Cedar Wood To It’s Natural Color Once It’s Grey

It’s okay if the cedar is already grey, new life can be breathed into it, even if the wood has been left unprotected for a few years.

Cedar will start to fade out quickly, but after the initial onset of grey, it slows down. With a few steps and a copious amount of elbow grease, your deck can look as young as a Hollywood starlet getting a botox treatment.

The first step is to pressure wash the cedar. This will wash away the old, tired, silver fox look to expose the warm, vibrant color underneath. Pressure washing also gets rid of any mildew, algae, and dirt that you don’t want to be sealed back into the wood.

If you are pressure washing it yourself, you want to use pressure between 1500 and 2000 psi. Be sure to keep the spray eight to twelve inches away from the wood. If you get too close you can “cut” or scar the wood.

You want to remove the top layer of cells to reveal the golden sheen underneath. After the pressure washing is finished, go ahead and apply a wood brightener before it dries.

Wood brighteners help to lower the pH of the wood—especially if strippers have been applied—and open up the wood grain to be more accepting of a stain.

Wood brighteners also do just that, they enliven the color of the wood. Restore-A-Deck Wood Brightener is a powdered concentrate that makes up to ten gallons. This eco-friendly concentrate comes in a small package and does a beautiful job of restoring your cedar’s natural essence.

Once those steps are completed, let the wood dry out for about 48 hours. If the wood is wet when you apply your stain, it won’t penetrate well and could cause the wood to deteriorate prematurely.

To finish this project, apply your stain. This Wagner Spraytech Stain Sprayer is an excellent time saver. It will evenly apply the stain on every surface in a fraction of the time compared to rolling or brushing.

Two coats of stain are recommended, especially for outdoor projects that get hit with sun, rain, heat, and cold. You often don’t even have to wait until the first coat has dried before adding the second coat because the first application of stain penetrates deep.

Are There Other Options To Keep Cedar wood From Turning Grey?

Master apply wood preservative with brush at workplace. Construction tool and equipment are on desktop. Furniture manufacturing and apartment renovation concept.

If all this sounds like too much work, or it’s simply too time-consuming then you can opt for the opaque stain alternative to keep your cedar from turning grey.

Let’s face it, the sun and outdoor elements do a number on wood.

No outdoor wood project is going to look new forever, and they all need routine maintenance to prevent rot and deterioration. But if you are looking for the least amount of work for your cedar project, opaque stains might be the best alternative.

Opaque stains offer the best UV protection, but they also cover all wood grain, leaving the most unnatural look of all. They come in all manner of colors, but they last the longest compared to clear and semi-transparent stains.

When you go with an opaque stain you typically won’t have to reapply it for three to five years. Depending on how much sun it gets, how hot the summer months are, and other factors, clear and semi-transparent stains may have to be applied either every year or every other year.

That’s All!

Cedar is a great outdoor wood for decks, fencing, siding, and other projects. It lasts a long time and offers beautiful colors. While some may enjoy the natural weathered look of grey cedar, others would rather keep the gorgeous glow of new cedar, but those colors have to be maintained.

There are a few options available to keep the youthful appearance of new cedar, but an oil-based stain is the best option. It may take some time to keep it looking good and will have to be applied every so often, but beauty must be nurtured and tended. 

References

Hoper, S. T., et al. “Evaluation of wood pretreatments on oak and cedar.” Radiocarbon 40.1 (1997): 45-50. 

De Groot, Rodney C., Bessie Woodward, and Paul E. Hennon. “Natural decay resistance of heartwood from dead, standing yellow-cedar trees: laboratory evaluations.” Forest products journal. Vol. 50, no. 1 (Jan. 2000).: p. 53-59: ill. (2000).

Lim, Young Woon, et al. “Fungal diversity from western redcedar fences and their resistance to β-thujaplicin.” Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek 87.2 (2005): 109-117.

Fidah, Abdelwahed, et al. “Comparative natural durability of four Mediterranean softwoods against wood decay fungi.” Journal of the Indian Academy of Wood Science 13.2 (2016): 132-137.

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