Going with the Grain: Plain Sawn, Quarter Sawn, and Rift Sawn Lumber

Wood elements can enliven any interior, adding natural texture and depth with a rustic and raw appeal. When looking for lumber that will best suit a certain space, an important consideration to keep in mind is the way the wood is cut. Milling methods can contribute to cost, durability, and aesthetic, with specific cuts characterizing wood products across all applications, from flooring to furniture. The information below explores three of the most used methods for cutting lumber from logs—plain sawn, quarter sawn, and rift sawn—with each offering different benefits.

Plain Sawn

Plain Sawn

Plain sawn, also referred to as live sawn, is a common and cost-efficient method used to speedily slice lumber into a series of parallel planks through the center. The log is cut once, rotated 90 degrees, and then cut again in a perpendicular direction to the first cut. The plain sawn process produces a striking cathedral grain pattern across the face of the board, and the entire log is utilized to minimize waste and maximize yield. Since the wood is cut tangential to the growth rings of the tree, plain sawn lumber has less dimensional stability and is more susceptible to cupping in the presence of excess moisture. “Plain sawn offers the most timeless grain pattern and the most opportunity to get creative with stains or other surface treatments,” says Jamie Peebles of Northern Wide Plank. “While plain sawn can be a bit less stable, it offers the most variety in widths and creates the least amount of waste in the manufacturing process. We resolve the stability issue by engineering it to produce our wide plank flooring.”

Quarter Sawn

Quarter Sawn

Quarter sawn lumber is produced by cutting a log lengthwise—first into halves and then into quarters. The quartered logs are then sliced into boards, moving outwards from the log’s center, with a sequence of rotations taking place after each cut to ensure that the growth rings intersect at a 60- or 90-degree angle to the face of the board. The process is often sought after for its propensity to feature flecks and medullary rays along the face of the board, which are particularly apparent with white and red oak wood. Its unique aesthetic is achieved as a result of cutting along the growth rings of the log. Though quarter sawn is a more laborious lumber-cutting process that produces greater amounts of waste, its yields are more structurally sound and resistant to cupping, twisting, warping, and moisture penetration.

Rift Sawn

Rift Sawn

Rift sawn is manufactured by milling perpendicular to the log’s growth rings to generate a clean an extremely straight grain with less figuring and flecking. “Rift sawn is gaining in popularity because of its characteristic linear grain pattern,” says Jason Brubaker of Nydree Flooring. With annular rings most often measuring between 30 and 60 degrees to the face of the board, rift sawn lumber is distinguished by narrow planks that aren’t vulnerable to distortion. Rift sawn cuts can be manufactured as a compliment to the quarter sawn lumber process. “Since rift sawn lumber comes later in the quarter sawing process, it tends to run narrow in width and is less available, as the majority of the lumber from the process will run as quarter sawn grain,” adds Jamie Peebles. Though it is considered to be the costliest cut of lumber with copious amounts of waste left behind between each board, rift sawn lumber is revered for being the most dimensionally stable.

Each of the aforementioned milling methods boasts unique benefits that allow their cuts to be singularly suitable for a variety of applications. “Most importantly, all three of these cuts are much more sought after than the commonly found rotary peeled veneers that are obtained from logs when sheets of wood are peeled off the log,” adds Brubaker. Though some distinctions between types of lumber are easily detected, many are less simple to surmise. An understanding of the three milling methods outlined above—plain sawn, quarter sawn, and rift sawn—is essential to making any decision in which lumber is involved.

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