Choos­ing Great Wood Grain

WOOD - - FRONT PAGE - by Jim Heavey

As I talk with wood­work­ers around the coun­try, one thing I hear time and again con­cerns build­ing projects that look as good as those on the pages of WOOD® mag­a­zine. Wood­work­ers tell me that even af­ter fol­low­ing ev­ery step care­fully, cut­ting and as­sem­bling each piece ac­cu­rately, and ap­ply­ing a fin­ish, some­thing just doesn’t look right. Typ­i­cally, the dif­fer­ence lies with the se­lec­tion and place­ment of the wood fig­ure.

What cre­ates grain pat­tern

The pat­tern or fig­ure of a board is de­ter­mined by how a log is sawn [Open­ing photo]. How you choose and use the re­sult­ing grain pat­terns can dra­mat­i­cally change the ap­pear­ance of your project. So let’s be­gin with a look at how logs are sawed into boards, and how that af­fects what you se­lect at the lum­ber­yard.

A mill has three ba­sic op­tions when cut­ting a log. A log sawn as shown in Draw­ing 1 is con­sid­ered flat­sawn or plain­sawn. Slab­bing a log this way cre­ates very lit­tle waste, mak­ing plain­sawn the least ex­pen­sive cut. It yields boards with growth rings ori­ented from about 45° to near-par­al­lel to the face of the board. The face fea­tures wavy, peaked “cathe­dral” fig­ure in the mid­dle of the face, and may have straight grain along one or both out­side edges. On many wood species, the cathe­dral fig­ure is quite pro­nounced.

A log sawn into four quar­ters and then slabbed pro­duces quar­ter­sawn boards with the ini­tial cuts [Draw­ing 2]. This cut costs more than plain­sawn lum­ber be­cause of the ad­di­tional time and la­bor re­quired. Growth rings on quar­ter­sawn boards fall be­tween 75° and 90° to the face. The face of quar­ter­sawn lum­ber, es­pe­cially white and red oak, dis­plays “rays and flecks” in unique pat­terns [Photo A]. Th­ese rays and flecks are prom­i­nent de­sign el­e­ments found in Mis­sion, Arts & Crafts, and Crafts­man fur­ni­ture styles.

As the cuts ap­proach the edge of a quar­ter­sawn log, the growth rings be­gin to run from 45° to 75° [Draw­ing 3]. This rift­sawn lum­ber has a very con­sis­tent straight­grain face with­out the pro­nounced rays and flecks of quar­ter­sawn [Photo B]. Rift saw­ing pro­duces a very sta­ble board that moves lit­tle across its width with sea­sonal changes in hu­mid­ity. Be­cause of lower yield, this is the most ex­pen­sive cut.

Two dec­o­ra­tive cuts of lum­ber, crotch and

burl, are not typ­i­cally found at stan­dard lum­ber sup­pli­ers. Al­though gen­er­ally not con­sid­ered struc­turally strong or sta­ble, their bold ap­pear­ances add dra­matic im­pact to fur­ni­ture de­signs.

A crotch grain pat­tern comes from the in­ter­sec­tion of the tree trunk and a main branch. The change in wood di­rec­tion yields strik­ing pat­terns [Photo C].

Burl comes from a nod­ule­like growth cre­ated by a fun­gus or dam­age on the trunk of a tree. The ir­reg­u­lar grain in a burl, of­ten filled with small knots, pro­duces a unique pat­tern that adds in­ter­est to even the most mun­dane sur­face [Photo D]. I con­sider burls to be one of na­ture’s great sur­prises be­cause it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict the fig­ure be­fore saw­ing. Thick burl slabs can be used just as they are for small ta­bles and night­stand tops. Burl ve­neers, es­pe­cially when trimmed with a com­ple­men­tary wood, of­fer un­lim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties for em­bel­lish­ing a spe­cial project.

One log can yield all three types of grain: the wavy, peaked “cathe­dral” pat­tern of plain­sawn; tight, straight-grain rift­sawn; and the trade­mark flecks and rays of quar­ter­sawn.

C Spalt­ing Flame pat­tern This crotch cut dis­plays a flame pat­tern where the trunk and branch con­verge. No­tice how mois­ture ac­cu­mu­lat­ing at the junc­tion caused spalt­ing. In some cases, th­ese di­rec­tional grain changes cause the wood to be un­sta­ble and prone to cracks. Tip! Know­ing the end-grain ring ori­en­ta­tion can help you find a board of the de­sired type quickly when look­ing at a stack of lum­ber in a bin.Spalt­ing: A dis­col­oration in wood caused by fungi. Spalted ar­eas may not be as strong or as sta­ble as the sur­round­ing wood.

The col­oration and unique grain forms on this burl slice are one of a kind and will change with each new cut, as new lay­ers are ex­posed.D

A Rays The quar­ter­sawn rays and flecks show promi­nently here. Th­ese grain el­e­ments ab­sorb stain and fin­ish dif­fer­ently than the bal­ance of the grain, adding vis­ual in­ter­est.

B Rift­sawn boards have con­sis­tent, non­de­script straight grain. Stock glued up for a wide panel has a uni­form look as op­posed to the wilder grain of plain­sawn boards.

RIFT­SAWN

QUAR­TER­SAWN

PLAIN­SAWN

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