Since even my spellcheck doesn’t recognize the three types of lumber in this title I think that’s proof enough that this is a subject that needs some clarification. The three ways of cutting lumber called plainsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn are integral to determining how a piece of lumber will look and behave.
Each cut provides a different appearance and performance that can cause issues or provide benefits, not to mention cost differences between the three. Think of it like different cuts of meat. A ribeye, filet, and hamburger all come from the same cow but the tastes, appearances, and costs of all three couldn’t be more different. The same goes for how you cut wood.
In this post, I’ll show you not only how to determine which cut of wood you’re looking at, but also which cut is better for which application and why.
Plainsawn wood (sometimes called flatsawn) is the most common and least expensive cut of wood since it uses the log most efficiently in the milling process and creates the least waste. Plainsawn lumber is commonly recognized by the cathedral like appearance of the grain which is desirably in some applications especially wood flooring.
Plainsawn wood is made by cutting directly across the log. This means that the piece of lumber derived from the top of the log has grain lines almost parallel to the face of the wood and the wider pieces cut from the center of the log have grain lines that are perpendicular toward the edges and become increasingly more parallel as they approach the center of the board until the pith of the tree is at the center of these boards.
Plainsawn lumber is the least stable which means it is prone to cupping, bowing, and warping since wood moves along its grain. Plainsawn wood provides the widest boards available even if they aren’t entirely stable and it provides the most variety in the appearance of the grain.
Plainsawn wood is great for paint grade applications like siding or it can be used for wood flooring where the wood can be cut into narrow strips that don’t have as much opportunity to cup or bow. It is not an good option for furniture, cutting boards, or any other application where wood movement may be a problem.
This next way of sawing wood gets it name from the process used to mill it. The log is cut into quarters and then each of these quarters is plainsawn as above. This results in wood with a grain that ranges from 60 to 90 degrees to the face of the wood creating a much more stable wood.
Quartersawn wood still has variations in its appearance since the grain can appear different from 60 to 90 degrees, but it is much more consistent than the appearance of plainsawn wood. The quartersawn approach also creates more waste and therefore this cut of wood is more expensive than plainsawn wood.
Quartersawn wood is great for furniture since the grain orientation creates much better stability allowing for tight joints no matter the temperature or humidity. The quartersawing process also creates very desirable “flecks” in both red and white oak which many historic furniture makers like Stickley Brother’s parlayed into an immensely popular feature of their quartersawn furniture in the 1920s.
The Cadlilac of cuts is riftsawn wood. It creates the most waste, cost the most money, but creates almost identical pieces of wood with the ultimate in stability. Usually this riftsawn lumber is hard to find since it is not commonly used in many applications, but when you want a completely uniform appearance in the pieces of wood for anything from wood floors to furniture to instruments then riftsawn lumber is the way to go.
Just like quartsawn lumber the log is cut into quarters, but rather than flatsawing it the quarters are cut so that the resulting lumber has a grain that is consistently 90 degrees to the face of the lumber. This results in an extraordinarily consistent appearance and extreme stability that no other cut can compare to.
Riftsawn lumber is often referred to as vertical grain (VG) wood by some lumber dealers so keep that in mind.
Milling Your Own Lumber
You can make your riftsawn or quartersawn lumber much like the lumber mill does by cutting off the plainsawn sections with grain that is not to your liking. It doesn’t matter that the wood was originally plainsawn if you are able to trim down to accomplish the same thing on a table saw.
If you are trying to repair old wood floors or repairing a broken leg on a piece of furniture take a look not only at the species of the wood but also at the grain pattern to determine what cut of lumber you are dealing with. It’s not hard to purchase a wider plainsawn board and cut it to achieve the quartersawn or riftsawn piece you need.
It’s all about the functionality and appearance of wood you’re needing. Now that you know the differences you can ask your lumberyard or woodworking store for the right cut of wood for your project and prepare yourself for the costs for the premium cuts of wood when you really do need them.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.