Pressure-Treated Wood: Should you use Cedar Instead?

Is it okay to use pressure treated wood porch spindles for my railing?  Should I use Cedar spindles instead?  And what is the cost difference?

There are really only two reasons you would use pressure treated wood for your millwork: low cost and resistance to rot.  And these are good reasons.  But what about cedar, and how does it compare to pressure treated for products such as porch railing and balusters?  Is there a higher quality wood railing, with natural grown-in rot resistance, at a reasonable price?  For the past 70 years, pressure-treated wood has been the standard for protecting outdoor lumber from rot and infestation.  Pressure treated wood definitely has a solid place in the building industry.  Should you use it for your architectural millwork such as porch railing, spindles, and posts?  We think there are better options.

Consider the fact that the treatment of pressure treated wood does not penetrate the entire piece of wood.   This means that while the surface is rot resistant, the center is not.  As soon as the protective barrier is penetrated by a screw, nail, or other hardware, the center of the wood is susceptible to rot.  Look at the following picture of a pressure-treated 6×6 for example.  Note the outside and end of the piece is treated, but the middle of the wood is not.

Problems with pressure treated wood
The end of the piece is treated, but just a few inches in and the wood is unprotected.

Aside from environmental concerns, treated wood can just be downright difficult to use in building projects. First, treated lumber usually comes very wet from the supplier and shrinks across its width as it dries, so outdoor building projects can be derailed by misaligned lumber pieces. Depending on the kind of wood you like, treatment tends to discolor your lumber, turning it a greener shade than its natural hue.   This is acceptable in some situations such as hidden portions of a deck.  But for your finished millwork such as porch railing, you need a better wood.  Also, treated woods corrodes your steel and aluminum fasteners faster than untreated wood does, meaning that you’ll need to take extra precaution – and extra expense – in using stainless steel fasteners.  And finally, wood species that is used for treating typically does not mill as smooth as is needed for finished millwork such as porch railing.  It is often some species of pine.  This is why, if you’ve seen pressure treated spindles in box stores, you’ll typically note a very rough surface which is not conducive to Victorian porch architecture.

Now let’s look at Cedar wood used for porch and deck spindles and railing.  Cedar has a natural grown-in rot resistance throughout the piece.  It has a reputation for rot resistance built on a solid track record throughout the decades.  And our clear (no knots) grade of cedar machines to a finer finish than Pine or Douglas Fir.  This means a more attractive porch railing.  And regarding cost: Because we use large quantities of high quality Western Cedar, we are able to keep the cost down to a reasonable price.  While it certainly isn’t cheap, it is competitive with pressure treated wood with regards to price.

Pressure treated wood is likely appropriate for many structural applications.  But this kind of chemical-coated wood has a number of problems that might make it more trouble than it’s worth. Issues with treated wood, to name a few, include its environmental unfriendliness, its tendency to cause shrinkage and discoloration in the lumber, and its quick corrosion of standard fasteners. If you have an outdoor woodworking project in mind, Western Spindle’s stock of natural, untreated cedar can protect your porch from wear and tear without the issues that come with pressure-treated woods.

Since its invention in the 1930s, pressure-treated wood has brought on a number of environmental problems. First, wood is most often treated with a variety of inorganic chemical compounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because of this, chemically-treated wood should be handled with extreme caution: animal habitats, water supplies, and planting soil can easily become contaminated. Further, treated wood is hard to discard – only an approved waste management agency should carry out its disposal because burning this type of wood releases toxins.

Still, with all of the problems that treated wood presents, decay and infestation are real problems in constructing wooden outdoor projects. The EPA recommends using cedar as a replacement for treated lumber because, even without a sealant or a stain (although recommended), it is naturally resistant to insects and rot. Our smooth and quality Western Cedar certainly fits the bill. Both Western Red and Incense varieties are not only resistant to both of these outdoors problems, but they’re also affordable.

 

2 thoughts on “Pressure-Treated Wood: Should you use Cedar Instead?”

  1. I am making a patio fence using 2×4, 2×6, and the Balusters 2×2. The length is 79″-3/8″. I am using 2×2 square balusters what is the distance and how many balusters. I am familiar that these should be at least 4″ apart per code?

    1. If you are using our “2×2″ square balusters, then the net width is 1 3/8″ wide. So if you want a 4″ space between them, then you’d space them every 5 3/8″ on center. 79 3/8″ divided by 5 3/8″ = 14 balusters centered between the posts.

      Normally these square balusters are simply spaced every 5″ on center, which means the space between them will be 3 5/8”. In that case: 79 3/8″ divided by 5″ = 15 balusters centered between the posts. Does that answer your question?

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