Throughout the episodes in the Wood Technology series, we're speaking with Dave Borgatti, a long-time faculty member at Wood Technology Center, about the center's history, program offering, and various topics in woodworking education. Dave got his start in woodworking as a boat builder in Portland, Oregon, for Schooner Creek Boat Works, and ended up at WTC as an instructor in 1992. Since then, Dave has helped countless students—from boat builders to carpenters and cabinetmakers—learn the woodworking craft.
In this conversation with Dave, we learn the difference between plain-sawn, quartersawn, and rift-sawn lumber and the board quality each method produces. Watch the video above or read a recap of our conversation below.
Understanding different milling methods
You're probably familiar with vertical grain and flat grain lumber—but if you visit a sawmill, you'll hear sawyers use a different set of vocabulary for talking about lumber products.
It's important to understand not just lumberyard terminology, but also the terms for the milling processes that produce what you'll find at a lumberyard. Knowing how a piece of lumber is milled can help you understand its key characteristics—like how stable it is, what it looks like, and how much it costs.
Below, we've broken down different milling methods and the type of lumber they produce.
This is the most common milling method producing the most widely available lumber product. In plain-sawn milling, cuts are made straight across the log, tangential to its annular rings. In most cases, boards are cut parallel from each other on four different "sides" of the log, as seen in the diagram below. In other cases, cuts are made parallel to each other across the full diameter of the log (this method is more commonly referred to as “live-sawn”).
Plain-sawn boards have annular growth rings that are no more than 30º to the face of the board. The resulting grain pattern on the face of a plain-sawn board resembles cathedral shapes and patterns. While plain-sawn lumber is easier to acquire, it's not the most stable product. Due to the tangential grain, these boards tend to cup more easily.
Key attributes of plain-sawn lumber
- One of the most common milling methods
- Produces the most affordable lumber product
- End grain is 30º or less to the face of the board
- Least dimensionally stable cut
- Board face has a cathedral or “flame” pattern
Quartersawn milling is named as such because the log is first cut into quarters lengthwise. Quartersawn lumber is defined as wood where the annular growth rings intersect the face of the board at a 60º to 90º angle. This cut produces an amazingly straight, striped grain with distinctive “ray and fleck” patterns mixed throughout in red and white oaks. Unfortunately, the quartersawing process creates wasted wood, so only certain sawmills produce quartersawn boards, making them more expensive and not as widely available.
Key attributes of quartersawn lumber
- Not as widely available
- More expensive lumber product
- Annular rings are 60º to 90º to the face of the board
- More dimensionally stable than plain-sawn (almost no cupping)
- Dramatic flecking in red and white oak
- Typically used for cabinetry and fine furniture
Rift-sawn milling is the least common method you'll encounter because it creates the largest amount of wasted timber. In rift-sawn lumber, the log's growth rings range from 30º to 60º to the face of the board, with 45º being optimal. Rift-sawn lumber is typically narrow with a very straight grain pattern on the face of the board. Rift-sawn wood can be produced as a byproduct of the quartersawing process (see the graphic below on the left); alternatively, a log can be cut radially to produce solely rift-sawn lumber (see the graphic below on the right). Rift-sawn lumber can be a very confusing landscape due to different naming architecture used by the sawyers and the re-sellers.
Key attributes of rift-sawn lumber
- Least common milling method
- Produces most expensive lumber with the highest waste
- Annular rings are 30º to 60º to the face of the board (45º being ideal)
- Most dimensionally stable
- Linear grain pattern on the face of the board with no flecking
- Typically used for cabinetry and fine furniture
The bottom line: Look at the end grain
The vocabulary we use in the milling and lumber industry can be confusing to understand—luckily, the end grain of a board will tell you a lot about its stability and appearance. When in doubt, look at the end of the board.
A note on flecking
Flecking is a word used to describe the rippling pattern that can show up on the face of a piece of lumber. This pattern shows up only on certain hardwood species that have medullary rays (strips of cells extending radially within a tree). Red and white oak are most known for flecking, but there are some niche species that are used specifically for their flecking, like Australian lacewood.
Flecking is purely a matter of taste; some people avoid it, and some seek it out. While builders are most concerned with the integrity of a piece of lumber, furniture and cabinet makers are equally as concerned about the face of a board, which is where flecking comes into play.
Just as Dave explains, we always recommend looking at the end grain to determine whether a piece of lumber is right for your job. Hopefully, you can use the information in this guide to find success on your next woodworking project.
To learn more about the Wood Technology Center, check out our introduction to the Wood Technology series. For more information on hardwood lumber, we recommend our discussion with Dave on the history of lumber sizing and naming.