There have been plenty of movies featuring a dual personality character, and maybe you have seen some of them: “Sybil,” “The Three Faces of Eve,” or even “Psycho.” To our best knowledge, though, there has never been a movie about a dual personality wood. While this may seem silly, there is a wood that could be featured in one.
- Cypress possesses the characteristics of both a softwood and a hardwood.
- However, it is a softwood, although strong and durable.
- Cypressene is the key ingredient in its desirability and suitability for outdoor applications, although it certainly works for interior uses as well.
Cypress is valued for a number of reasons by woodworkers, carpenters, and home DIY enthusiasts for a number of reasons. The trees are slow-growing, and because it takes time to accumulate a meaningful amount of cypress lumber, it can be somewhat expensive. The wood from them is strong, light, very durable, and resistant to rot and decay.
The wood has a light yellowish-brown color, although its sapwood tends to be whitish. It has a variety of uses, which is why we included woodworkers, carpenters, and home DIY enthusiasts among its fans.
Where does the dual personality come in, you ask?
There are many different types of cypress trees, and you have likely seen some of them without knowing they were cypress. For instance, if you’ve seen any movie shot in Italy where gardens or scenery included tall, skinny trees, you’ve seen an Italian cypress. More locally in the United States, cypress trees grow mainly along the southern coast as they thrive in moist soil.
It is the fifth oldest tree species in the world. The wood species can live 600 years and come are known to have lived for 1200 years. That represents a lot of rings to count.
Some of the types of cypress trees also include:
- Bald cypress
- Chinese Weeping cypress
- Leyland cypress
- Lemon cypress
- Swamp cypress, pond cypress, tidewater cypress, gulf cypress, and southern cypress
- Lawson cypress
- Yellow cypress
- White cypress
- Pecky cypress
There are more, each with its own characteristics and uses. For instance, lemon cypress is probably the most often type used as a landscaping feature, appreciated for the soft texture of its leaves and the lovely golden hue that persists year-round. It grows straight, produces spherical cones, and has a scaly bark.
Nearly 20 years ago, an ancient cypress forest was discovered in the waters of the Gulf off the coast of Alabama. Scuba divers came upon it by accident, able to see it because of the disturbances caused by Hurricane Ivan that tossed up the sea bottom to reveal the trees and stumps.
Carbon dating of the trees and the sediment put the age of the forest at between 39,000 and 40,000 years initially but was eventually extended back to between 50,000 – 60,00 years.
Cypressene is a naturally occurring preservative oil, a resin produced by cypress trees. This is significant for two reasons, one of which we will save for just a few paragraphs later.
Cypressene acts to protect the trees and wood from rot and decay, as well as from insect attack. It takes decades for it to accumulate in the trees, but once produced offers great resistance to harm of any kind to the wood.
We’ve already mentioned the color of cypress wood, a light, yellowish-brown color with sapwood that is closer to white. Cypress wood is strong, stable, and durable while at the same time being light. Its high resistance to rot and decay, as well as insect attack, makes it desirable for a number of uses, especially outside.
Outdoor furniture, patios, fences, and decks are among popular choices for cypress wood. Yes, water is the enemy of wood, but cypress grows best in moist soil, including swamps, protected as it is by the cypressene it produces. Exterior applications for cypress wood go beyond those mentioned, including house and building trim and even siding.
These outdoor applications are popular and common because of the wood’s ability to resist harm from the elements and insects.
You can add a preservative, an outdoor treatment like a Thompson’s Wood Sealer to extend the life of the wood when used for outdoor purposes, but the cypressene will add its own protection without it. However, a clear wood sealer will preserve cypress’s beautiful color.
Other common uses for cypress wood include caskets, boats, doors, fence posts, barrels (cooperage), and even railroad ties. Strength, durability, and resistance to rot, decay, and insect attacks, go a long way toward finding many uses for which other woods are not suitable. It’s natural water and decay-resistant trait fits those uses perfectly.
Old growth cypress fits this use category well because the tree lived long enough before harvest to produce and accumulate the cyressene that makes it so. Even without treatment of any kind, old growth cypress, having lived enough to accumulate a cypressene preservative, can last for decades.
Cypress wood has a distinct smell to it, although not all types of cypress will carry that aroma. Sometimes it can be strong, and if working with cypress wood indoors, cracking a window will be helpful. It’s not unpleasant, merely strong.
Cypress: Which Is It, Hard or Soft (Wood)
We’ve left enough hints for you to know the answer, but to be clear, cypress is a softwood. It produces cones, a conifer, a characteristic of softwoods like pine and spruce. Yet, cypress is also deciduous and sheds its leaves in the fall, just like hardwoods.
Cypress also produces an oil resin, the cypressene we have mentioned, just as hardwoods do (the resins, not cypressene, which is unique to cypress trees).
This is the dual personality we mentioned at the beginning of the article: a conifer, usually the telltale characteristic of softwoods; yet, deciduous and resin-producing, characteristic of hardwoods.
Janka Scale Rating
Cypress comes in at 510 on the Janka Scale. As you know, the Janka Scale, developed by Gabriel Janka, measures the density and hardness of wood by the amount of pressure needed to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood being tested.
By way of comparison, the cypress rating of 510 is harder than some pines like sugar pine (380 on the Janka scale) and white pine (also 380). However, yellow pine is harder, with a Janka rating of 870.
It is certainly lower on the Janka scale than any hardwood, notwithstanding some of the characteristics it shares with hardwoods in general. For instance, red oak has a Janka rating of 1290, and white oak’s Janka rating is 1360.
We had never heard about pecky cypress before, and so we spent some time reading up on it, if for no other reason than its unusual name. We were floored (see the pun there? wood flooring, another use for cypress wood) with what we learned.
It’s a beautiful wood, its natural color is gorgeous, and wait until you watch the short video we found about it. You’ll see an interior application and listen to a woodworker discussing it.
We must admit we’ve never worked with cypress before, but we learned that, like other softwoods, it is easy to work with, cutting and nailing, as long as your blade is sharp and you’re careful around the ends of lumber so as not to split. From what we have learned researching for this piece, though, and the pictures and videos we watched, we are impressed.
Unfortunately, the cypress that is harvested today doesn’t meet the standards of past cypress. When it was first harvested in the United States, the trees were old, in the hundreds of years, long enough for cypressene to have accumulated and worked its magic on the wood.
Economics and demand for cypress have cut the age at harvesting well short of hundreds of years, and the quality of the wood, as well-preserved by the resin, is not what it once was in the United States market.
Old growth cypress will be more expensive for that reason. The trees must live a long time to develop that preservative and acquire protection against harm, and that means less high-quality cypress wood on the market. The board foot cost of old-growth cypress may put it out of an economic sense for the home woodworker, although for something special, it might work.
If you watched the video, you are aware of its appearance and beauty of this dual-personality cypress wood. The ceiling at the beginning of it was stunning, and we’d sure like to have some pecky cypress in our house. Maybe someday we will get our hands on some cypress wood for a future project, and if we do, we’ll revisit this article with the story.