Woodworkers and home builders have long prized cypress wood for its attractive appearance, natural durability, and water-resistant properties. But like all wood types, cypress has both positive and negative qualities. This guide provides a detailed look at the pros and cons of using cypress lumber and cypress wood products.
What is Cypress Wood?
Cypress trees are conifers that grow across the Southeastern United States and into Mexico. The two most common species used in woodworking are bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens). Cypress trees thrive in swamps and wetlands, giving the wood natural resistance to rot, decay, and insects.
Cypress lumber features a straight, fine grain pattern. When freshly milled, it has a pale yellow color that darkens to a warm, honey brown. Cypress is commonly used for outdoor projects like decking, fencing, and garden beds. It’s also popular for kitchen cabinets, furniture, and other indoor uses like flooring and paneling. Compared to pine, cypress has a more refined appearance that resembles pricier hardwoods.
Advantages of Using Cypress Wood
Durability and Stability
Cypress wood is exceptionally durable, ranking above cedar and redwood. Its natural oils are a preservative to resist rot, decay, and insect damage. When properly installed and maintained, cypress lumber can last for decades outdoors. It holds up well to all types of weather, from the hot Southern sun to cold Northern winters.
Cypress is also dimensionally stable, meaning it experiences very little expansion and contraction with changes in temperature and humidity. This stability makes it an excellent choice for detailed woodworking and furniture projects.
Water and Decay Resistance
A big advantage of cypress is its water-resistant properties. The dense grain repels liquid while allowing the wood to breathe. Cypress has an exceptional ability to withstand wet conditions without cupping, checking, or cracking. This makes it a top choice for applications like:
- Outdoor furniture
- Hot tubs
- Shower enclosures
- Exterior siding and trim
Cypress holds up well in ground contact without preservative treatment. The natural oils make it resistant to fungal decay and termite damage. While no wood is 100% rot-proof, cypress has one of the highest natural durability ratings.
Cypress machines and finishes similar to softwoods like pine, but with a more refined grain pattern. It’s easy to work using both hand and power tools. The wood cuts cleanly and takes nails, screws, and glue well. Cypress sands to a smooth surface and isn’t overly hard on cutting edges. These qualities make cypress beginner-friendly and ideal for detailed carpentry like trim work.
A major plus with cypress is its versatility. While excellent for outdoor use, it also performs well indoors. Cypress makes attractive cabinetry, furniture, flooring, and paneling. The subtle grain patterns and colors work for various design styles from traditional to contemporary. And cypress holds up to heavy use in high-traffic areas.
The dense grain of cypress lends good strength properties. Cypress floor joists often match or exceed the performance of pine. Vertical cypress siding provides excellent impact resistance and stands up to hurricane-force winds. Cypress decking offers similar strength to pressure-treated pine but with more stability. Overall, cypress provides plenty of strength for structural and load-bearing applications.
Cypress is one of the most attractive domestic woods available. The fine, straight grain patterns create an upscale look. When freshly milled, cypress is a pale straw color. Over time it deepens into warm honey-brown tones with reddish accents. This color change adds antique character that complements both rustic and contemporary styles. Unique details like knots and burls add interest while sap pockets produce beautiful figure patterns. Compared to pressure-treated pine, cypress provides a clean, refined look for outdoor projects.
Using cypress supports responsible forestry practices. Much of the cypress sold today comes from trees planted 30-50 years ago on timber farms. This makes cypress more environmentally sustainable than imported tropical woods. Reclaimed antique cypress offers another eco-friendly option. And since cypress is naturally durable, projects tend to last longer and don’t end up in landfills as quickly.
Disadvantages of Cypress Wood
The biggest downside to cypress is its cost. Prices average 2-3 times higher than standard pine or cedar lumber. Availability issues and rising demand contribute to high material costs. This expense does buy you exceptional rot resistance and longevity. But for many homeowners and hobbyists, the added cost of cypress can be prohibitive.
While cypress has excellent decay resistance overall, some factors impact its longevity:
- Old vs. new growth: Most cypress today comes from younger, faster-grown trees. It’s less naturally durable than antique old-growth cypress.
- Heartwood vs. sapwood: The reddish-brown heartwood is more rot resistant than the lighter sapwood. Maximizing heartwood improves durability.
- Millage: How the cypress is sawn affects durability. Vertical grain patterns provide better performance.
- Preservative treatment: Sealing the end grain and using supplemental treatment improves decay resistance with young growth cypress.
So while cypress has very good durability, proper installation and maintenance are still important, especially with modern cypress lumber.
Like all woods, cypress will shrink and swell slightly with changes in moisture. While it has excellent dimensional stability overall, some movement can still occur after installation. Leaving room for expansion, sealing all sides, and allowing the wood to acclimate first help prevent problems like cupping and checking. Using vertical grain cypress minimizes seasonal wood movement.
Availability and selection of cypress lumber can be limited based on geographic region. Cypress naturally grows in wetland areas across the Southeastern U.S. Pacific Northwest and Northeast users may have trouble sourcing clear, vertical grain cypress lumber locally. However, the internet now allows consumers to order cypress material for delivery almost anywhere.
Fading and Maintenance
One of the attractive qualities of cypress is how it gracefully ages over time. However, prolonged sun exposure will cause cypress to turn gray. While some desire this weathered, driftwood look, others may prefer to maintain the warm brown tones of fresh cypress. This requires refinishing cypress every 2-3 years with a tinted oil. Frequent oiling also helps protect against surface checking. So maintaining the original color of cypress does require periodic maintenance.
Cypress Wood Compared to Other Wood Species
|Wood Type||Durability||Cost||Water Resistance||Workability||Odor|
|Cedar||Very Good||$$||Very Good||Good||Strong|
*Pine is improved with preservative treatment
**Treated pine sometimes has an odor
- Durability: Cypress is one of the most naturally decay-resistant woods available. It lasts for decades outdoors. Cedar also has very good durability, though not quite as high as cypress. Pressure-treated pine has moderately good durability when properly preservative-treated.
- Cost: Cypress is the most expensive of the three woods. But its exceptional longevity helps offset the higher initial cost. Cedar is moderately priced while pressure-treated pine is the most affordable.
- Water Resistance: Cypress has the highest natural resistance to moisture damage. Cedar also performs very well in wet conditions. Treated pine has moderate water resistance.
- Workability: All three woods are fairly easy to work with using both hand and power tools. Pine is the softest while cypress and cedar have a slightly higher density.
- Odor: Cypress has little noticeable odor. Cedar has a strong, distinctive scent that some find bothersome. Treated pine is typically odorless.
Cypress has many exceptional qualities that make it a premier construction wood. But drawbacks like cost and availability may make it impractical for some applications. Here are my recommendations:
Best Uses for Cypress
- Outdoor furniture – maximizes rot resistance
- Decks – survives weather extremes
- Fencing – very durable and stable
- Boats/docks – waterproof and long-lasting
- Outdoor kitchens – withstands moisture
Good Alternatives to Cypress
- Cedar – excellent for decks, fences, and outdoor furniture
- Treated pine – most affordable for landscape projects
- Redwood – matches cypress for exterior durability
- Teak – superior for outdoor furniture, costs even more
Worth the Investment
The expense of cypress is justifiable for certain applications where you want wood that will last for decades with minimal upkeep. Some examples where paying extra for cypress makes sense:
- Permanent exterior siding or trim
- Front entry and porch boards
- Flooring in high moisture areas
- Shower walls, enclosures, and benches
- Hot tub surrounds
For critical structural applications like supports, cypress is worth the investment over pine due to its dimensional stability and resistance to decay. This includes:
- Exterior load-bearing columns
- Deck framing and railings
- Porch posts
- Fence posts
- Retaining wall timbers
More affordable woods provide sufficient performance for interior-only projects or less demanding outdoor uses. Some examples where alternative woods may work include:
- Interior furniture
- Cabinets and trim
- Flooring above grade
- Ceiling and wall paneling
Pine or cedar decking and fencing will give 10-15 years of service compared to 20-30 years for cypress. While cypress is superior, the cost difference may not justify its use for these applications.
Cypress has a mild, pleasant odor. But for indoor use, here are some tips to minimize aroma:
- Use primarily heartwood which has less odor
- Allow boards to air-dry before enclosure
- Finish all sides with an odor-blocking sealer
- Use proper ventilation during installation
- Finish with a topcoat like polyurethane
Proper finishing will help seal in cypress’ natural oils that produce the odor. An odor-blocking primer may be needed for sensitive areas like bedrooms. Over time, the cypress aroma will continue to mellow.
Alternatives to Cypress
For certain applications, the following woods provide good alternatives in terms of performance, availability, and cost:
Questions to Ponder
How long do you expect your cypress project to last? Does cypress’ longevity justify the higher cost?
For my new front porch decking, I expect it to last at least 20-30 years with minimal upkeep. Cypress’ famous durability and weather resistance justify paying extra to avoid replacing cheaper wood every 10 years.
Do you prefer the aged, gray patina of weathered cypress? Or is maintaining the original warm brown color important?
I prefer aged cypress’s silvery, weathered look for outdoor furniture like garden benches. It has an antique, timeworn appearance that doesn’t require maintaining the original wood color.
Does cypress’ subtle grain pattern and color fit your design vision for indoor uses?
The warm, honey-brown tones of cypress complement the traditional farmhouse style I’ve chosen for my interior cabinets and trimwork. Its subdued grain provides an upscale look compared to basic pine boards.
Is cypress’ dimensional stability crucial for your project, or will movement be acceptable?
Dimensional stability is very important for my new wood countertops. Cypress is less prone to expansion and contraction than other woods, reducing the risk of cracks and finish problems.
Does cypress complement your chosen design style – traditional, rustic, contemporary?
With its mix of modern and rustic visual elements, cypress perfectly matches the industrial design accents in my living room. It brings warmth to the metal and concrete features.
For outdoor projects, how important is mold/mildew resistance to you?
Mold and mildew resistance are big concerns in my tropical climate. Cypress’ natural decay resistance gives me confidence it will perform better than less durable woods outdoors.
Will cypress’ strength meet the structural demands of your application?
Strong hurricane winds demand structural wood that can withstand heavy loads and impacts. Cypress deck and fence boards provide that unmatched strength compared to softer woods.
Does cypress offer enough visual interest through grain patterns and color for your project?
The unique cypress grain patterns and color create visual interest in my wood feature wall. It provides depth and texture that painted drywall just can’t match.
Cypress has earned its reputation as one of the finest construction woods. It will provide decades of service in outdoor applications or moisture-prone areas when properly installed. While expensive, cypress is a worthwhile investment where maximum durability is needed. More affordable wood species may suffice for indoor uses or less demanding situations. Understanding both the advantages and disadvantages allows you to make informed decisions about when to choose cypress.