Common Name(s): Bald cypress, swamp cypress, sinker cypress, pecky cypress, and tidewater red cypress
Scientific Name: Taxodium distichum
Distribution: Southeastern United States
Tree Size: 80-120 ft (24-37 m) tall,
3-5 ft (1-1.5 m) trunk diameter
Average Dried Weight: 32.0 lbs/ft3 (515 kg/m3)
Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): 0.42, 0.51
Janka Hardness: 510 lbf (2,270 N)
Modulus of Rupture: 10,600 lbf/in2 (73.1 MPa)
Elastic Modulus: 1,440,000 lbf/in2 (9.93 GPa)
Crushing Strength: 6,360 lbf/in2 (43.9 MPa)
Shrinkage: Radial: 3.8%, Tangential: 6.2%,
Volumetric: 10.5%, T/R Ratio: 1.6
Color/Appearance: Color tends to be a light, yellowish brown. Sapwood is nearly white. Some pieces can have scattered dark pockets and voids where the wood has been attacked by fungi—called pecky cypress. Also, pieces of old growth cypress salvaged from riverbeds (called sinker cypress) tend to have slightly warmer, darker heartwood colors.
Grain/Texture: Straight grain and medium to coarse texture. Raw, unfinished wood surfaces have a greasy feel.
Rot Resistance: Old-growth bald cypress is rated as being durable to very durable in regards to decay resistance, while wood from younger trees is only rated as moderately durable.
Workability: Sharp cutters and light passes are recommended when working with bald cypress to avoid tearout. Also, the wood has been reported by some sources to have a moderate dulling effect on cutting edges. Bald cypress has good gluing, nailing, finishing, and paint-holding properties.
Odor: Bald cypress has a distinct, somewhat sour odor while being worked.
Allergies/Toxicity: Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, bald cypress has been reported as a sensitizer. Usually most common reactions simply include respiratory irritation. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.
Pricing/Availability: Prices ought to be in the mid-range for domestic woods, with clear, knot-free boards for woodworking applications costing more than construction-grade lumber. Also, specialty lumber such as reclaimed sinker cypress or pecky cypress is much more expensive.
Sustainability: This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices, and is reported by the IUCN as being a species of least concern.
Common Uses: Exterior construction, exterior furniture, docks, boatbuilding, interior trim, and veneer.
Comments: Bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana, and is an icon of southern swamplands. So named because the trees are deciduous (unlike most conifers), and have the peculiar trait of dropping all their needle-like leaves each winter.
The trees also develop unique aerial roots that protrude above the ground (or water) and are especially seen on trees growing in swamps. These structures are known as knees, and are sometimes harvested on a small scale and sold for woodcarving purposes (see picture below).
Although not technically a cypress in the strictest sense (see my comments on overly strict naming practices in my article on cedar woods), the wood of Taxodium distichum is simply called cypress (with no other qualifiers) throughout North America. The tree is in the Cupressaceae (cypress) family, which also includes many decay resistant woods (including cedars), and the wood is a popular choice in exterior construction applications where decay resistance is needed.
Images: Drag the slider up/down to toggle between raw and finished wood. The first sample is a more standard new-growth piece of bald cypress, while the second pictured sample is of old-growth bald cypress.
The image of the pecky cypress interior comes from a 1955 sales catalog from the Southern Cypress Manufacturer’s Association.
Resin canals : absent
Tracheid diameter : large to very large
Earlywood to latewood transition : abrupt (can be more gradual in newer-growth pieces)
Grain contrast : moderate
Parenchyma : none
Lookalikes/Substitutes: Bald cypress can sometimes be confused with other softwoods, especially pine growing in overlapping geographic areas. Bald cypress is easily separated from pines anatomically by its lack of resin canals.
Notes: Like many other softwoods, anatomical features of bald cypress can vary greatly depending on the growing conditions and age of the tree. Endgrain photos of both younger new-growth, as well as old-growth bald cypress are included. In general, older-growth wood will have more grain contrast, and a more abrupt transition from earlywood to latewood.