Why solid cedar is superior to MDO
Why solid cedar is superior to MDO

I was shocked (initially) to see this claim on a competitor’s web site and it motivated me to finally set out the advantages of using solid Western Red Cedar for exterior outdoor display signs compared to the cheaper and lower quality material – MDO – or medium density overlay. So shocked I bought one of their signs.

There are several problems with the competitor’s claims.

Claim 1:  They say MDO or medium density overlay “is the sign industry’s material of choice”.

Reality:  MDO is often used because it is cheaper, abundant and quicker to fabricate. But that doesn’t make it the “best choice” for exterior signs, especially for historic house signs. Personally, I think it’s substandard crap and I don’t use it and never will –not even the “marine grade” MDO.  In short time, the compressed wood pulp layers of MDO material absorb enough moisture and expand, allowing more moisture into the sign, like college students at a free lunch all-you-can-eat buffet. No matter how quality the primers and top coatings are, the moisture attacks from the inside.  Ever leave a scrap piece of common presswood used in home construction outside? It’s like that: Crapwood.

I use solid Western Red Cedar, clear and free of knots. I hand select the cedar planks at my local cedar mill and hand craft my cedar historic signs in my sign shop. It takes more work but the result is superior to MDO. And it lasts longer! Isn’t that important? The photo below was taken when I returned from the cedar mill.

solid cedar plank for exterior signs

Claim 2: They “use 1/2″ or 3/4″ MDO…. or pine boards”.

Reality:  One-inch and a quarter, or 5/4″ aka “five-quarters” is the starting thickness of the cedar plank I use. After planing and sanding to prepare the cedar surface, the true thickness is about one inch thickness. That’s twice as thick (or more) as the competitor’s 1/2″ MDO board.

Why does thickness matter?   The cedar thickness provides a higher profile for edging with a router bit like a classic ogee profile.  Examine closely the sign images in our Hand Painted Sign Gallery or Hand Painted Font Guide and take note of how the routed edges can have several steps up to the top surface. Thicker cedar means a better “frame” around the sign surface.  MDO edges cannot be easily routed so those competitor’s who use it do not offer a routed edge. You’ll get Crapwood with a 90-degree edge, bullnosed at best. Photo below shows cedar french corner sign boards with a classic ogee edge made by me in my sign shop.

classic ogee routed edge cedar sign boards
Handcrafted from solid cedar, classic ogee routed edge.

As for pine boards that compeitors use, pine is a knotty wood, and over time the resins of the pine knots will bleed through the primers and paint top coats.

Claim 3: They use “…high quality oil-based primer and top coat enamel…”

Reality: We all use the high quality oil-based primers and top coat enamels. That’s not the issue. The issue is does the sign surface soak up the primers and enamels?  Cedar does, MDO does not. Paint layers simply dry on top of the MDO surface. For this reason, the paint layer will peel off over time — because it does not soak into the wood like it does for cedar.

I hand sand all surfaces front an

Hand Painted Cedar Historic House Signs Made The Old Fashioned Way.
Hand Painted Cedar Historic House Signs Made The Old Fashioned Way.

d back, sides, to prepare the cedar sign board to absorb the oil-based primer. As I discuss on the Sign Making page, I take many steps to ensure the best conditions for a long lasting cedar historic house sign or plaque. The photo below is the same cedar planks transformed into primed and painted cedar signboards ready to hand letter with brushes.

Cedar contains natural mildew-resistant tanins and  has many other advantages over other wood substrates like MDO. See the Advantages of Cedar Signs page to learn more.

Let me leave you with this final point.  The highest elevation in the state of Massachusetts is 3,491 feet, located on Mount Greylock, in the Berkshire’s near Lanesborough, MA, where I have crafted  historic house plaque program to commemorate Lanesborough’s 250th Anniversary in 2015. On Mount Greylock is a marker made of copper, a durable and long-lasting metal appropriate for geodetic survey markers.  The view is stunning at Mount Greylock.


Historic house signs crafted from solid cedar offer the longest lasting wood option available. The thickness of 1-inch to 1-1/4″ allows for a routed edge that is aesthetically pleasing and complements the hand lettered painted surface.  We look forward to creating yours.

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