Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | October 12, 2010

Rocky Mountain Juniper, Utah Juniper, and Western Juniper (sometimes referred to as Desert Cedars)

For some years now, one of my favorite carving woods has been what I have always called “Desert Cedar.”  As I have learned more, Desert Cedar is actually at least three very similar varieties of Juniper.  They are Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus Scopulorum), Utah Juniper (Juniperus Osteosperma) and Western Juniper (Juniperus Occidentalis) and maybe a couple of others.   Rocky Mountain Juniper appears in all western states, including BC and Alberta, except California.  Utah Juniper is a smaller variety and is found from Wyoming, down through Utah and into Nevada and Arizona.  Western Juniper finds its home in Oregon and California, where it forms extensive woodlands.  All of these Junipers will grow in areas too dry for Ponderosa Pine and are predominately found on rocky sites in the sunny interior lands.  The oldest known Western Juniper is believed to be 3000 years old growing in Senora Pass in the Sierra Mountains and is 14 feet thick and 87 feet tall.  And, the oldest know Rocky Mountain Juniper, also believed to be 3000 years old is growing near Logan, Utah and is 6 ½ feet thick and 36 feet tall.  Now, tell me that trees are not sacred.

Rocky Mountain Juniper

Western Juniper

It is no wonder that these Junipers are confused with cedars as their bark is very similar as are a few other characteristics.  The bark is thin, reddish or gray and shreds off in strips.  And, apparently the Rocky Mountain Juniper was at one time referred to as Rocky Mountain Red Cedar.  Cedar City, Utah was named for it.  However,  Junipers are actually from the Cypress family (Cupressaceae).  I am quite certain that if you laid a log from each Juniper in front of me, I would not be able to tell you which is which.  I find that they look alike; the color is the same, the aroma is the same, and they are each a drop dead gorgeous wood.  There are, of course actual differences such as the leave size and configuration.

Western Juniper Logs - Courtesy of In The Sticks

Here is what I love about carving these Junipers.  The wood’s hardness lies somewhere between Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine providing a solid, smooth and relatively easy carve.  Junipers have a lot of character with their knots and obvious grain patterns.  They are mildly aromatic and the smell of freshly carved chips will quickly fill your carving space and your senses.  Juniper’s sap wood is cream colored and the heart wood is a beautiful salmon color.  As an aside, the heartwood is highly bug and decay resistant.

Both Junipers are largely undiscovered for carving purposes.  I am aware of only one professional carver other than myself that carves Juniper (which he refers to as “cedar”).  There is also at least one craftsmen that creates natural sculptures from Western Juniper.  Then of course there are several furniture makers that use Juniper.

Falcon in Rocky Mountain Juniper by Michael Keller

There are some drawbacks.  One is that is that it is a knotty wood.  While I enjoy a good knot now and then, too many are a problem.   For my subject matter, it is fairly easy to find a length of wood between 12″ and 18″ relatively knot free.  It is impossible to find a span of over 2′ without knots.  A second problem is its availability.  Wood stores and lumber yards just don’t carry it.  If you live in the west, you may be able to cut it yourself but there is dang little land that is not owned by someone that may object to trespassing.  Be sure and ask permission.  Then, of course, you need to cure it.  I have seen stands of Juniper in Nevada and Utah where cutting is permitted with a permit and where one can find good quality dead wood… ready to carve.  In the case of the latter though, the sap wood may have bugs in it so be sure to fumigate it in a safe manner.

Southwest Indian Woman in Western Juniper by Michael Keller

I have found a good commercial source for Western Juniper in Fossil, Oregon.  A very knowledgeable gentlemen named Kendall Derby who also happens to be one of the nicest guys on the planet owns In The Sticks Sawmill.  At this point, In The Sticks does not offer small carving blocks but that may come with demand.  Kendall does offer cants and slabs in random lengths up to about 8′ long.  Fossil is located in North Central Oregon.   I suggest visiting Kendall’s site.

If you are a carver that likes to carve beautiful wood and enjoys the smell of aromatic woods, put your gouge to one of these wonderful Junipers.  You will quickly be converted to my very small and elite club of Juniper carvers.

Post script dated 3/28/2011:  I have learned that Western Juniper, so I presume each of these Junipers, can have strong toxicity values related to skin irritation and respiratory issues.  Please use proper safety equipment when working with this wood.

Keep sharp and “be carveful!”

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