How to Choose Wood Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}

//How to Choose Wood Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}

3. LEARN THE DIFFERENT WOOD MILLING CUTS

Looking at the 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 this 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 extract from a wider board.

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:

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 you can find. You can also find good “vertical grain” as part of a larger flat sawn board, and just cut it off both edges (leaving the center for fire wood):

Here is what the different main lumber cut types look like after the’re cut off of a flat sawn board:

Let’s discuss each of them in a tiny bit more detail:

A. FLAT SAWN / PLAIN SAWN (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) it’s better to start out with wood that isn’t going to move as much. In section 4 below you’ll see some problems that are common to flat sawn boards (like twist, 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. So it’s best to stick with a more stable cut of lumber, like quartersawn lumber. 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. QUARTERSAWN LUMBER (VERY 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”. Quartersawing also produces fairly straight face grain and usually very beautiful ray flecks (for example, see the flecks on the beech wood above).

But since quartersawing requires more effort and wastes more wood, it is naturally more expensive. 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 wide flatsawn boards. Yes, even from construction lumber!

To produce 12″ wide construction lumber (2×12 pine boards), lumber companies have to use the center of the tree. So naturally quartersawn & riftsawn lumber will be on the edges, and just needs to be cut off. This is how Roy Underhill gets nice quartersawn yellow pine at low prices from big box stores like Lowes & Home Depot. He taught me this when I was helping him rip a wide piece of construction lumber for his school teacher’s desk tv program (watch the episode).

Notice how the above 2×12 construction-grade flat sawn board actually has some very stable quartersawn wood on both sides of the wide board? Here’s what it looks like after I cut it off with a rip saw and use handplanes to square it up:

C. RIFTSAWN LUMBER (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.

D. RIVEN LUMBER (MOST STABLE)

The most stable boards are “riven” or “rived” directly from a log by you, exploiting the weakness of the grain (like splitting firewood). Riven boards are a subset of quartersawn because they are also split along the radial plane of the log, producing grain lines that are square to the board face and straight down the board.

These boards are not only the most stable, but they can also be some of the most beautiful with maximum “fleck”:

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. Riven boards require muscle power and hand tools like a large crosscut saw (or chain saw), wedges, mallets, a froe, an adze, a hewing hatchet & handplanes.

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 DVD video: “17th Century Joined Chest.”

(click here for the DVD).

Here is a very helpful animation (from a professional miller) that clarifies the quartersawn & riftsawn process:

This Lumber guide continues on the next page….

2017-10-19T20:45:05+00:00

About the Author:

Joshua loves mixing his passion for traditional hand tool woodworking with his ability to teach in a simple manner. He lives on a small farm in Earlysville, Virginia with his wife and four children, and builds furniture in his workshop / woodworking school.

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BillyDvd
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BillyDvd

Thank you for taking the time to put this out there for us newbies and forgetfulls :)
Great article and it is booked marked so I can come back to it!

paulmarcotte
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paulmarcotte

Great post Joshua! Thanks for the links and and I’m looking forward to the follow ups.

Shannon Rogers (@RenaissanceWW)
Guest

Great job Joshua, lots of information in one place. It is startling to me how little many woodworkers understand about the materials we use so thanks for the great effort to add some clarity to a pretty cryptic industry.

Matt hill
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Joshua,
Another good job clear and to the point. Keep up the outstanding work!

Matt Hill Cobbs Creek Va

Garrett
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Garrett

Great read!
If you are ever in the market for some furniture grade Beetle Kill Pine in or near Colorado, try (website address blocked)

Boris
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Boris

Suppose you you were in possession of, as I am, four Cherry logs ranging in size from 18″ to 24″ diameter by 12′ to 16′ in length and you need to instruct the sawmill how they are to be cut. Also suppose that you are a novice woodworker who intends to use the resulting lumber in undetermined woodworking projects. How would you instruct the mill to cut up the logs?

larachan
Member
larachan

Very helpful information. Thank you for taking the time to explain this all. I’d like to know more about how to calculate how much wood one needs for a project and how to translate the knowledge at a lumber yard.

johnsreply
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johnsreply

really awesome explaination! Thanks –
I would like to enter in the clamp giveaway –

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Dov
Member
Dov

Wow, good to know :) Now I know that I made some mistakes along the way…should have read this before.

Burt Silver
Guest

Thanks for the tips on choosing lumber! I have some projects I want to get started on at my home, and I need to choose the right wood for the job. Thanks for mentioning to choose vertical end grain. I guess that will make the wood look more uniform and be more stable!

Annika Larson
Guest

I am looking to buy some wood to build a swinging bench for our backyard. For this project, I want to make sure I find the right wood that will be durable, especially with all the different outdoor elements it will be facing. I didn’t realize that wood expands in width with humidity, but we will certainly have to look for stable lumber. Thanks for sharing!

DIYFan
Guest

This is such a great article! Choosing the right hardwood or softwood can make a huge impact on your project.

Harper Campbell
Guest

It’s good to know that when it comes to choosing wood to buy that there are somethings that we need to take into consideration. I like how you mentioned that one thing we need to consider is whether we need it to be hard or soft for the project we are needing it for. This is something that we will have to look at and do more research on to make sure that we make the right decision.

Jim M
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Jim M

Thanks Joshua I really learned a lot it is not often you can get free but great information like this. Thanks.

Samil Kahraman
Guest

Thank you for great content. May i translate to my native language and share in to my website with your links ?

Deb Pearl
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My husband recently got into woodworking, and he has been wondering how he can choose the best lumber to work with. Thank you for all the tips on how to choose. I think that is a great idea to make sure you choose the most stable wood possible.

George
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George

Thanks for the video. In it you mentioned you would share more info about moisture meters and something else (I forget what it was) in the accompanying blog. I wasn’t able to find that. Would you please provide a link or tell me what I’m not doing that i should be doing to find it? Thx.

Dan Ford
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Dan Ford

Great information. Thank you for the effort.

Liviu
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Liviu

Very informative, thank you for sharing this!

Vivian
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Vivian

Excellent helpful description. I am in UK so I do not think we talk in 4ths. ( Yes I know most of have to deal in metric now- argh!! However I think timber at a mill/merchants is sold by cubic foot – which would mean bit extra maths so take a calculator for speed. I am jst looking into making hardwood clocks – been too busy through life until now!

KIMBERLEY CARREON
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KIMBERLEY CARREON

Really informative for this newby here! Thanks!!

Jason Hammond
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Jason Hammond

The Amish here in Ohio use a nifty wooden rule for calculating bd. ft. It has a brass football shaped hook on the end and they’re about 2′ long. Three columns of numbers run down the length of stick. These columns are the length of stock say, 12,14,16 foot. Within these columns, bd. ft. has already been calculated and marked. For a 16′ bd. the hook is placed over one edge and a reading of bd. ft. is taken from opposite edge from the 16′ column. “Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide #1” pg. 146, shows a good example. They call… Read more »

Doug Hitchcock
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Doug Hitchcock

I used one of those for over 15 years and broke many too

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