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Choosing Board Cuts for Your Woodworking Projects

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When you get to the lumberyard (or when you order wood over the phone), you have three choices of board cuts: plain-sawn, rift-sawn, and quarter-sawn. The difference between each type of wood cut is in how the tree's growth rings relate to the face (the wide side) of the board.

The relationship between the growth rings and the face of the board determines its overall stability (the amount of movement that occurs with changes in humidity). For example, plain-sawn boards have growth rings at a low angle to their faces so these boards will have as much as 1/4-inch movement across a 12-inch-wide board as the climate gets drier or wetter. Rift-sawn boards, because the growth rings are at a steeper angle to the face, move less (maybe as much as 1/8-inch for a 12-inch board). Quarter-sawn boards have the least amount of movement with changes in humidity because the growth rings are at an almost 90 degree angle (almost no discernible change in width with changes in humidity). This makes the quarter-sawn board the most stable type of cut available. Regardless of the cut type, the length and thickness of the board changes very little as the humidity changes.

Plain-sawn boards

Plain-sawn boards are the most common boards at your lumberyard (check out the following figure for a look at a plain-sawn board). When you choose or order wood without designating the type of cut, you get plain-sawn boards. Plain-sawn boards have growth rings that run less than 30 degrees against the face of the board.

A plain-sawn board has a circular grain pattern and growth rings less than 30 degrees from the face.
A plain-sawn board has a circular grain pattern and growth rings less than 30 degrees from the face.

Plain-sawn boards are the most economical of the solid wood boards, but because the grain runs at an angle close to the face of the board, they tend to cup or warp more easily so they’re less stable than rift-sawn or quarter-sawn boards.

When using plain-sawn board, carefully consider the way the grain runs in relation to the face of the board and plan your projects accordingly. You may have to cut out sections in order to get the most stable end product.

Rift-sawn boards

Rift-sawn refers to boards where the growth rings meet the face between 30 and 60 degrees (see the following figure). Rift-sawn boards have a straight grain pattern as opposed to the circular pattern of the plain-sawn boards. They are also more stable and more expensive than plain-sawn wood (costing as much as 50 percent more).

Rift-sawn boards have a straight grain and growth rings between 30 and 60 degrees of the face.
Rift-sawn boards have a straight grain and growth rings between 30 and 60 degrees of the face.

Quarter-sawn boards

Quarter-sawn boards are the most stable and most expensive of the three options. Quarter-sawn boards have growth rings not less than 60 degrees from the face (see the following figure). Quarter-sawn boards have a straight grain pattern with a “flake” or “ribbon-like” figure in the wood. This is beautiful wood, but you pay for it — often costing almost twice as much as the same species of plain-sawn board. Quarter-sawn oak is a popular wood to use with Arts and Crafts and Mission-style furniture.

Quarter-sawn boards have growth rings at greater than 60 degrees from the face and straight grain w
Quarter-sawn boards have growth rings at greater than 60 degrees from the face and straight grain with a “flake” pattern.

Which cut you choose depends on your budget, the availability of the species you want, and your design aesthetic. Each of these three choices can produce some great woodworking projects as long as you plan ahead when you cut.


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