Step 3: Learn the different wood milling cuts
Learning the different lumber cuts will help you immensely at the lumber yard. In this section I’ll talk about how inspecting a board’s end grain will tell you how a board was sawn from the log, and how stable it will be. In a minute I’ll jump into each of these cuts in a little more detail, but my graphic illustrates how different cuts come from the log:
But mills rarely cut up a board like the graphic above. “Through and through” is the most common method that lumber mills employ when milling lumber. It’s simply like slicing horizontal layers along the length of the log:
You’ve probably seen someone do the same thing with a chainsaw mill at home. Bill Anderson shared some valuable insights with me regarding lumber cut with the “through and through” method: “Depending on where in the log the boards come from, they will be either flat, rift or quartersawn, or show a transition between these cuts across the width of the board.”
Take special notice, in the above graphic, how stable wood can be cut from a wider board. Quite often I buy 12-inch wide pine boards form a hardware store and use a band saw to cut out the quartersawn wood for times when I need stable lumber.
Most lumber yards separate the quartersawn lumber into a special section, because they can charge more. But some lumber sellers don’t always label the cut of their boards, so don’t hesitate to carry a sharp block plane to the lumber yard to uncover the end grain (if the ends are painted):
You’ll often need to remove the mill marks and the colored wood end grain sealer to see the end grain.
You should definitely dig through the boards and use your knowledge from this article to select the best wood you can find. And as mentioned above you can also find good “vertical grain” as part of a larger flat sawn board, and just cut it off both edges when you get to your workshop:
Here is what the different main lumber cut types look like after they’re cut off of a flat sawn board:
Let’s discuss each of these wood cuts in a bit more detail:
A. Flat Sawn / Plain Sawn Wood (Least Stable)
Most consumer-grade boards are flat sawn, and often display a “cathedral” pattern on the board face:
Lumber companies want to maximize their profits by getting as many boards out of a log as possible. You can definitely use flat sawn boards in your projects, but just realize that the wood will move over time, and may cup or twist and separate your wood joints. Although some joints can be arranged to better accommodate the movement (see part 1/15 of my dovetail tutorial…skip to 1:41).
But as mentioned earlier, for some furniture parts, it’s better to start out with wood that isn’t going to move as much (like rift sawn wood, quarter sawn wood, or riven wood). In section 4 below you’ll see some problems that are common to flat sawn boards (like twisting, cupping, bowing, etc.).
If the flat sawn boards have already moved out of square, then you’ll have to spend some considerable time flattening & straightening the board right before you use it. See my tutorial on flattening boards with hand tools here, or my tutorial on flattening boards with power tools here.
So if possible, it’s best to stick with a more stable cut of lumber, like quartersawn wood. Or at least keep your flat sawn boards stacked (until the last possible moment) with “stickers” between them and weights on top to prevent movement, then secure them with good joinery or fasteners (e.g. nails) when building furniture.
B. Rift Sawn Wood (More Stable)
The riftsawn section of a board is similar to quartersawn cuts, but its endgrain is between 30-60 degrees to the face. Riftsawn boards have a characteristically straight face grain pattern.
These boards are also pretty stable and can be utilized if your furniture project calls for extremely straight face grain, like modern or Japanese-style projects.
C. Quartersawn Wood (Most Stable)
Quartersawn wood is very stable, and less susceptible to movement. The 60-90 degree vertical grain qualifies a board as “quartersawn” within the lumber industry. See how the end grain is running nearly up-and-down? That is called “vertical grain”. As mentioned earlier, quarter sawn wood also shows fairly straight face grain and usually very beautiful ray flecks (like on quarter sawn white oak or on the quarter sawn beech wood pictured above).
But since quartersawing requires more effort and wastes more wood, it is naturally more expensive to buy. But you don’t have to run out to your local mill and ask for the quartersawn boards. As mentioned in the last section, quartersawn wood can be cut off the edges of wide flat sawn boards. Yes, even from construction lumber.
When I built a bunch of Moravian Workbenches for my woodworking school, for much of the undercarriages and tool trays I made my own nice quartersawn wood from inexpensive construction lumber that I bought at Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Lumber companies have to use the best pine trees to make their 2×12 construction lumber boards, and the best of the best trees to make 2×12 boards that are 16-feet long.
So I buy 2″x 12″ x 16′ boards (NOT pressure treated boards) and have them cut them in half at the store so I can transport them to my workshop. Once I get to my wood shop I rip the boards on my bandsaw, and then stack them to do the movement they’re going to do while they acclimate in my shop:
Then once the wood has done most of it’s “dancing” I can mill it up and extract the quartersawn wood from each board. You can see how nice the quartersawn wood looks on this Moravian Workbench tool tray:
Here’s a close-up view of what the construction lumber looks like after I extract the stable quartersawn wood:
D. Riven Wood (Most Stable)
The most-most stable boards are “riven” or “rived” (or split) directly from a log using wedges or a froe, exploiting the weakness of the grain (like splitting firewood). Riven boards are almost the same thing as quartersawn wood, because it also has stable vertical grain. But rather than being sawn, the wood is split along the natural radial plane of the log, producing grain lines that are square to the board face and straight down the board. It’s my opinion that splitting along the natural radial lines removes stress from the board and makes the lumber a bit more stable than sawing the log.
These riven boards are not only the most stable, but they can also be some of the most beautiful boards, with maximum translucent ray fleck. This ray fleck is especially pronounced on white oak or red oak:
So why do you not hear about this type of lumber very often? Because wood mills and lumber yards don’t have it. Their boards are cut with large powerful saws. If they had to hand split this lumber, it would be extremely expensive. Riven boards require muscle power and hand tools.
I’ll share a riving video tutorial at a later date. But in the meantime, Peter Follansbee shows how to rive your own red oak from logs, as part of his helpful class video: “17th Century Joined Chest.”
You can buy the DVD or digital streaming video here at the Lie-Nielsen website. But here’s a free YouTube video of some guys in Sweden who show how to fell and rive a large pine tree: