If you’re thinking about building a new wood fence, that means you have some decisions to make! One of the biggest when considering fence options is which type of material and fencing grade you’re going to use to construct the fence.
A lot of homeowners choose Western red cedar for its many benefits: it is lightweight and resistant to decay, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing with its distinctive red coloring. Among the different types of cedar, Western red cedar is among the largest and finest grown anywhere in the world. It is known for its durability and for being a quality fence that can last for decades with proper maintenance.
Once you’ve decided on the type of wood, you’ll also need to determine which grade you want for your fence boards.
Although you may have thought all cedar fencing is created equal, there are nuances to lumber grades that are important to become familiar with before you choose your fence boards. We’ll go over the different grades of cedar and how they are determined to make this decision a little easier for you.
Grades are assigned to lumber in the U.S. in order to establish a consistent way to categorize quality. Wood is graded for its clearness and the amount of defects in the lumber. Because your cedar wood fence boards will come from lumber sawn from harvested trees, they will by nature not be uniform and some pieces may have defects or other differences in appearance.
Let’s go over the grades of Western red cedar lumber so you can be ready when deciding on your cedar fence materials. According to the West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau, there are three basic grades for this type of Western red cedar: No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 (rustic). Additionally, while not the most common grade for fence boards because of its price, there is an even higher grade of Western red cedar known as Clear Grade that we will also describe.
Clear grades of cedar don’t have any rings, knots or other imperfections which gives the fence a uniform appearance. This grade of western red cedar includes only heartwood pieces. Heartwood is the dense, innermost part of the tree and is the hardest wood. Because this is the highest grade of Western red cedar, it is also the most expensive.
Within this grade, clear cedar can be further broken down into additional grades including:
Clear vertical grain: Vertical grain means that any rings in the lumber are parallel to each other when you look at the boards. That means you can see the growth ring pattern across the face of the board, and even count the rings! They are intentionally sawn to achieve this look. Vertical grain boards are also less likely to twist as they age - and contributes to stability, durability and appearance of the lumber. This grade of lumber is made of decay-resistant heartwood.
Clear vertical grain western red cedar also doesn’t have growth characteristics that lower the grade like knots.
A & better clear grain: These can have some growth characteristics like small knots, but only up to two of these. A & better clear grain is lumber that has both vertical and mixed grain pieces - meaning there are both vertical and flat pieces. As explained above, vertical grains have the annual growth rings vertically on the face of the boards.
Flat grain lumber is when the lumber is milled with the annual growth rings parallel to the face. This creates a distinctive grain pattern on each piece. This type of lumber is less expensive than vertical because the boards can be milled out of smaller logs. But on the downside, they also have the potential to warp over time.
C & better clear cedar grain: These boards might have sap stains, pitch streaks and more than two small knots.
D & better clear cedar grain: This grade can have up to two larger knots as well as things like pin holes, streaks and skips. Skips happen during the milling process when a board is too thin in an area to be reached by the planer blades resulting in a rough spot.
Now, let’s go on to the three main categories of Western red cedar most commonly used in fences - No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3.
No. 1 fence boards, like the other grades, are graded based on the best face. That means the reverse side might have characteristics that belong one grade lower than the face. This grade of cedar comes from closer to the heart of the tree than No. 2 and has fewer, smaller knots. Knots that are in these cedar fence boards are known as quality knots and less likely to fall out and become holes in your fence. There will be fewer imperfections and variations in color than lower grades.
Some imperfections that can be found in No. 1 fence boards include:
In No. 1 grade lumber, shakes must be fine, meaning not over 1/32 of an inch wide. Any other types of separations in the wood, such as splits, must be short. Other types of imperfections are limited, like skips and streaks.
In No. 2 Grade cedar, there can be a few knots, imperfections and discolorations that you wouldn’t see in No. 1 Grade cedar boards. Most of the knots will be small but there might also be some large knots as well. Splits are allowed up to a medium size, while shakes still need to be fine.
This is a good grade if your fence is going to be in a less visible area because although still an attractive wood for fencing, it does not have a flawless appearance.
This grade of cedar offers a more rustic appearance. And that might appeal to some homeowners for certain fence projects. It can have numerous knots and imperfections that give it an interesting look but could also reduce the durability of the fence. Despite these, the fence boards won’t be so knotty or contain flaws that interfere with use as a fence.
Hopefully, selecting a grade of Western red cedar for your fence project should be a little more “clear”, pun intended, after reading through this post. Clear grade cedar is the best, but rarely used in fence projects because of the cost that goes along with the quality. Therefore, if you already know that clear grade is not for you, then you don’t need to familiarize yourself with the nuances of grades within clear grade cedar.
After clear grade cedar, No. 1 Grade is the best high quality fence. It will give an attractive appearance to your fence with few imperfections and will also have a high durability that will make your fence last longer. No. 2 Grade is good for fence projects where appearance is not your top priority. It will still stand the test of time but will have more imperfections like knots. No. 3 Grade are rustic fences where the imperfections may actually impact the durability of your fence.
Keeping these things in mind when you are talking with a fence company or lumber retailer about building your new Western red cedar fence will help you achieve the goals that are important to you for your project!