Plain-sawn, quarter-sawn, and rift-sawn lumber. What are they, and does knowing each one makes a difference in choosing lumber and planks?
When working with wood, understanding the different types of lumber can be extremely helpful. All these—plain, quarter, and rift sawn—refer to how a log is cut. How a piece of wood is sawn can determine its strength, appearance, and cost.
In this article, we’ll explore the characteristics and advantages of each type of lumber so that you can make an informed decision when selecting wood for your next project.
Plain Sawn Lumber
Plain sawn lumber is often called “flat-sawn,” a common sawing method that accounts for almost all lumber used today. This process involves making the first cut tangent and subsequent cuts parallel, producing wide planks.
Cutting lumber this way creates a distinctive grain pattern known as the “cathedral effect.” This long, wavy, almost triangular pattern makes plain-sawn lumber easily distinguishable.
Advantages of Plain Sawn Lumber
Not only does this sawing method produce wider boards, but it is also faster. Cutting wood through the center is the faster way to produce planks. Plus, it allows for the entire log to be utilized, which means minimal log waste is involved.
Increasing the yield of lumber and milling speed results in a decrease in the cost of lumber. Essentially, this makes plain-sawn lumber more affordable.
Disadvantages of Plain Sawn Lumber
Plain-sawn lumber may have structural limitations due to its tangential grain, which is less dimensionally stable and more prone to cupping than other cuts.
Quarter Sawn Lumber
Quarter sawn lumber is cut into quarters and sawed perpendicularly at a 90-degree angle or perpendicularly to the annual growth rings. This results in a straight-grain appearance on the board’s surface and often reveals the medullary rays, a pattern (flecks, ribbon stripes) so beautiful and dramatic, especially in oak and mahogany.
Advantages of Quarter Sawn Lumber
Quarter-sawn lumber is known for its dimensional stability due to the position of the growth rings in the cut. This means lumber cut this way has a smoother surface, ages evenly over time, and resists moisture more than plain-sawn lumber. These characteristics make quarter-sawn lumber popular for high-end custom crafts, traditional furniture, cabinetry, and flooring.
Disadvantages of Quarter Sawn Lumber
Quarter-sawn lumber produces narrower boards, producing more log waste than plain-sawn lumber. Moreover, the special cutting method relative to the growth rings requires more physical labor and time. This means that while beautiful and more stable, quarter-sawn lumber comes at a higher cost per board foot.
Rift Sawn Lumber
A method akin to quarter sawing is rift sawing. Before cutting, the quartered log part is gently “bent off” perpendicular (on an angle between 45° to 75) to prevent exposing the medullary ray and reduce surface flecks. The outcome of rift sawing is a board with a straight-grain appearance and few discernible flecks on the face.
Advantages of Rift Sawn Lumber
Rift sawing produces the strongest possible boards, which are more stable and less prone to twisting and cupping. Like quarter-sawn lumber, it ages evenly and retains less moisture. This method is recognized for creating a uniform and continuous grain pattern. Rift-sawn lumber is favored by high-end furniture makers who value consistent patterns in their design.
Disadvantages Rift Sawn Lumber
Rift-sawn lumber has greater dimensional quality when compared to plain-sawn and quarter-sawn lumber. Yet, it generates the most waste. Moreover, due to the production costs, rift-sawn lumber comes at a higher cost per board foot than quarter-sawn or plain-sawn lumber.