Is Eastern Red Cedar Suitable for a Sauna?

Potential toxicity and non-durability of the sapwood are issues that could affect the decision. March 12, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
Eastern red cedar is favorably priced in my region (Kentucky) verses western red cedar. Would eastern red cedar be suitable for a wet sauna (steam sauna)? I will be using the hot rocks type heater/steamer. Has someone had the experience and how did it perform?

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From Contributor W:
I built mine 20 years ago from eastern white cedar or as we refer to it here as Michigan white cedar. It has been outside with no finish whatsoever all this time and I still use it as often as possible. The sauna put an end to me going to the doctors two or three times a year for upper repository infections. My doctor told me that due to my results he had started recommending and writing prescriptions for saunas to all his woodworker patients. I also use the hot rock method. I heat the rocks outside in a pot until cherry red and then place them in the sauna.

From contributor M:
Just don't use any of the sapwood, and you'll be fine. ERC usually has a lot of knots, so you'll have a harder time finding structural members.

From Contributor B:
I thought eastern red cedar was also called aromatic cedar. Itís used in blanket (wool clothing) chests. If you build a blanket chest right (air tight) with gaskets, moths will die because of a chemical emitted from the cedar. I have built quite a few cedar closets over the years. Some people have respiratory reactions to the eastern red cedar. Before you spend the money and time on the eastern red cedar, try searching out the wood on the internet to see what the health hazards are. Like those sheets (MSDS) material suppliers have to give with all the materials sold nowadays. I'd hate to hear you got sick because of long term exposure to whatever it is in eastern red cedar that can kill moths.

From Contributor O:
Along the toxicity line, I believe OSHA has a total exposure limit for eastern/aromatic cedar and western red cedar of half what the limit is for other woods, dust-wise. Apparently statistics show twice the nasal carcinomas as found in people working with regular woods. It seems the same thing that repels the bugs also has a deleterious effect on those that work it. Again Iím speaking of the dust, not the finished products.

From contributor L:
My thoughts: eastern red cedar is actually juniper and not related to the true cedars. I do know that the sapwood rots quickly. Around here it's hard to find the stuff without considerable sap wood.

From Contributor J:
I think eastern red cedar that is juniper should be a good option. It is durable and light so itís easy to work with. Its aroma will keep the moths away. Since your usage will keep the place moist there is a requirement of such wood to keep away the moths.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The heat will cause the aroma to disappear quickly. Note that there have been many studies that show the aroma does not repel moths. Nevertheless, there are people allergic to the aroma, so ERC is probably not the best choice. WRC is widely used for saunas, as well as aspen (at least on the inside). Aspen is splinter-less and that is helpful, plus no odor. Also, decay fungi are not active over 110 F and are killed at 130 F, so you do not have to worry about rot or decay too much. That is why aspen can be used. As mentioned, ERC is a juniper. WRC is in a different genus, so the two are distant cousins at best.