Jennifer Stimpson of This Old House magazine details how the natural aroma of cedar keeps moths away and clothes smelling fresh, and how lining your closet with cedar is relatively easy when you use tongue-and-groove boards
While the smell of mothballs may conjure fond memories of your grandfather’s overcoat, it’s not really the most attractive scent to wear out in public. Fortunately, there’s a more fragrant way to keep moths and insects from making a snack of your best cashmere. The nature aroma of cedar has kept garments hole-free and smelling fresh for centuries. And not only does it repel pests like moths and roaches, it also resists mildew that can ruin fabrics.
To use cedar to its fullest, you should line a whole closet with it. The installation is simple when it’s done with tongue-and-groove boards, and the result is both practical and handsome. As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows on the following pages, all you need is a dray to nail up the wood. Then you’ll be able to leave the scent of mothballs in your memory, where it belongs.
Step 1) Cedar Closet Overview
While there are many types of cedar, Eastern red cedar, aka aromatic red cedar, is the only type that gives off the familiar scent that deters moths and insects. Eastern red cedar is sold in both large pressboard panels and tongue-and-groove boards. Panels make for an easy, cut-to-fit installation, but they have a rough texture that can snag clothing. Tongue-and-groove boards, shown in this installation, require more cuts but give a closet a smooth, custom-finished look.
You don’t have to line the entire closet for the cedar to be effective, but the more cedar the better. Lining the three interior walls is typical, but you might also consider continuing the coverage on the back of the door and on the ceiling. If your closet has baseboard molding, you can leave it in place as long as the baseboard is thicker than the cedar. But you can also take the lining down to the floor by first carefully removing the baseboard with a pry bar. Then you can use cove molding against the floor to hide the cut edges. That same cove can go at the top of the wall to hide the small gap above the last course. The raw cut ends of the boards will intersect in the corners of the closet, but as long as you start your installation on the back wall and cut the sidewall boards to fit snugly, the seam will appear neat from the front. However, if you have any trouble getting a tight fit to make an even intersection of back and side, you can always hide it with corner bead.
There are several ways to get the cedar on the walls. You can nail it to the studs, or adhere it with construction adhesive. This Old House general contractor Tom Silva uses a two-pronged approach, holding planks in place with adhesive before nailing them. “I like to nail on a 45-degree angle through the tongue to hide the nails,” he says. Nailing can be done with a pneumatic pin nailer or a good old-fashioned hammer and 5d nails, though without a pneumatic nailer you may need to drill pilot holes to avoid splitting the thin wood. Or, if you don’t mind seeing the nailheads, you can face-nail for an easier installation. Then, once the cedar is in place, it will last for years and will only require a quick, light sanding to instantly rejuvenate it and bring back its aromatic effects.
Step 2) Locate The Studs
Use a stud finder to locate and mark the studs along the walls of the closet. Or, starting in a corner of the closet, where there’s usually a stud, measure the walls in 16-inch increments to approximate the rest of the studs’ positioning. Using a drill/driver fitted with a small bit, make a small hole at each mark to check that there’s actually a stud at that point.
Once you know where all the studs are and have marked them, use a level turned vertically to draw plumb lines at each mark. Mark each stud position from floor to ceiling to show you where to place nails when you install the cedar.
Step 3) Scribe The First Board
Begin at the back wall. If the baseboard or floor at the bottom of the wall is sloped, you will need to scribe the first cedar board to that slope so that all the subsequent courses stay level. Hold cedar board, tongue side up, at the bottom of the wall. Position a level on top of the tongue and level the cedar.
Open a compass or scribe to match the largest gap between the cedar board and the baseboard or floor, then lock it in position. Run the point of the scribe along the baseboard, letting the pencil draw on the cedar board.
This will transfer the slope to the wood. Clamp the board securely to a work surface. Using a jigsaw, rip the board along the scribe line. Dry-fit the board to check the cut.
Step 4) Nail On The First Course
Apply a zigzag bead of construction adhesive to the back of the board. Press it in place from center to edges to spread the adhesive evenly.
Using a pneumatic brad nailer, nail through the tongue at each stud location, angling the fasteners about 45 degrees down to keep them from getting in the way of the next board’s groove when you lock it over the tongue. Start at one end of the board and move evenly across the tongue, checking for level as you go.
If you can’t nail to a stud, shoot two nails next to each other at opposite angles to suck the board up tight to the wall while the adhesive dries.
Step 5) Finish The Field
Once the first course is in place, measure the length of the wall before installing each row and, using a miter box and handsaw, cut the boards to fit. Many boards have a rabbet on either end so they can interlock with the next board in the row. If possible, use the off-cut of one board to start the next row, so the two boards interlock. Dry-fit each row before installation.
Apply a zigzag bead of adhesive to the back of the board. Tip the groove of the board over the tongue of the last row to fit them together. While the adhesive is still wet, check the board for level and make adjustments as necessary. Nail the board in place.
Continue installing boards in this manner until the back wall is covered. Then install the cedar on the sidewalls, allowing the back edge of the boards to cover the cut ends at the corners. Be sure that sidewall rows line up with the rows on the back wall, or the mismatched seams will appear crooked at the corners.
Step 6) Install The Top Board
If you reach the top row and the remaining gap is bigger than 1⁄4 inch (which can be covered by molding) but smaller than the width of a board, rip the boards down to fit. Find the height of the space at each end and subtract 1⁄8 inch so the trimmed board will tilt into place easily. Transfer the measurements to the board and, using a jigsaw, rip it along the tongue side.
Tip the board into place over the tongue of the previous row. Nail through the board’s face close to the top of the wall
Step 7) Finish The Edges With Moulding
Using a miter box and handsaw, straight-cut the ends of a piece of cove molding so it fits across the top of the back wall. If you need two pieces to span the wall, join them with a scarf joint, angling the ends 45 degrees to overlap each other. Using a brad nailer, tack the molding through its center into the top of the wall framing.
Cut a piece of cove with a 45-degree miter at the end that will go in the corner. Position the miter so the long point is on the back of the molding. Using a coping saw, cut the front edge of the miter along the molding profile revealed by the miter, angling the saw about 5 degrees to make a slight back cut. If the blade binds, back out the saw and cut in from the edge to make a relief cut, then start again. When the whole profile is cut, check the coped piece against the molding on the back wall to be sure it butts tightly. Then cut the piece to length and nail it in place. Repeat this process on the other wall.
If necessary, install cove molding along the bottom of the wall in the same manner.
That’s all it takes to install your very own long lasting, protective Red Cedar Closet! Cedar is a versatile and durable wood that can be used in a variety of ways. CedarSafe Aromatic Eastern Red Cedar is the only species of Cedar that offers the look and durability of Cedar with all natural oils that safely repel unwanted pests protecting your clothing, pantry, attics and wherever else the protective and pleasant smell of Aromatic Red Cedar is welcome. Find the nearest retailer near you and start your own DIY project!