Choosing Great Wood Grain
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.