Sawn or Quartered?
by: Rob Smith
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between
plain sawn lumber and quarter sawn? Have you wondered why the prices
at your local lumber yard are higher for quarter sawn? Have you
ever wondered which one you should use for the project you want
to build? Well here is some explanation and information that will
hopefully clear things up and maybe help you decide on materials
for your next project.
First off, what is the difference between plain sawn
and quartered lumber? The difference is the way they are sawed
from the log. This difference caused by sawing technique will affect
the lumber's appearance, properties, and final use.
Plain sawn lumber is the most common form of lumber
for one main reason, production efficiency! The fact is that it
is much faster to plain saw lumber and it creates less waste. With
money being the driving force behind everything in this world,
the name of the game is to get the most out of your raw materials
in the fastest possible time.
When the log is rolled onto the carriage it is positioned
and secured for cutting to begin. A slab is cut off first, then
the boards are cut one after another until just before the pith
(aka heart) is reached. The log is then rolled so that the opposite
face is positioned for the next series of cuts. Sometimes the logs
are sawed completely into boards, but most of the time there will
be a piece of "blocking" left from the center, this is
called "boxing the heart." After the log is sawed down
to the specific blocking thickness, it is then rolled 90 degrees
and more boards are sawed. (For a numbered cut sequence see figure
The board will show a terrific grain pattern when
plain sawn. The annual rings of growth will be anywhere from almost
parallel with the face of the board to about 60-70 degrees perpendicular
to the face. (see bottom of figure 1)
This is the simplest, fastest, and most efficient
way to saw a log into boards. I have cut 18" diameter logs
this way in 45 seconds, for the time the log hits the carriage
to the time I unload the blocking. If I am sawing 6" cants
for our bull-edger, I can zip the log down to size in 15-30 seconds.
Quarter Sawn Lumber
Quarter sawn lumber is perhaps most famous from Oak.
The ray flecks that are revealed when quarter sawn, are a prize
for many furniture craftsmen (and craftswomen). Besides Oak there
are a handful of other species that display a unique appearance
when quarter sawn. These unique features are usually only displayed
on a quarter sawn board.
But in a production environment, beauty is cast aside
for more yield from a log and more production in less time. This
is the main reason why you pay more money for quarter sawn lumber.
If it takes longer to saw a log and produce less board footage
while creating more waste the company will have to charge more
money to make up what they lost production. The secondary reason
for higher prices are because craftsmen like us will pay more for
this lumber, so that we can take advantage of it's character and
"There is more than one way to skin a cat." as
the saying goes. Well, there is more than one way to quarter saw
a log also. I will just quickly explain one technique, because
all the details of sawing logs to lumber can fill a book or two.
This is the most common way of quarter sawing that
I have seen. The first step of this method is to quarter the log
(see figure 2). Then each individual quartered section is placed
on the carriage in a position so that the annual rings of growth
are as close to 90 degrees perpendicular to the face of the boards
The grain on the face of a quarter sawn board will
be tight, straight, parallel lines running the length of the board.
And if the rings are very close to 90 degrees from the face, then
the famous ray flecks of Quartered Oak, we be proudly display along
the face of the board.
One other technique involves re-adjusting the quartered
section after each board is sawn. This way they are taking a board
then a small wedge shaped slab, then another board and so on. This
way the rings are always 90 degrees to the face. But there is a
tremendous amount of waste created.
Which Should I use?
Well this really depends on your taste and on your
project and maybe even your budget.
If you are buying your lumber kiln dried, then you
will have less to worry about. But if you are buying green or air
dried, then your main concern should be on stability. The quarter
sawn boards will generally have less movement (shrinkage) when
drying. The way the cells are aligned will cause the quarter sawn
board to shrink a little bit in width and very little in thickness.
Quarter sawn boards are also much less prone to warping.
Plain sawn boards have grain in multiple directions,
this will cause un-even drying and in turn cause the board to warp
(cup, twist, and bow). The shrinkage rate is also much more pronounced
in plain sawn boards. Due to the grain's orientation in the board,
the board will shrink considerably in thickness as well as width.
If you are buying kin dried lumber then you should
be some what safe; the boards have done the majority of their movement
and all you have to worry about is what they will due when they
absorb moisture from their environment and swell. Again, the quartered
lumber will mainly swell in width, and the plain sawn lumber will
swell in width and thickness and possibly even warp.
Besides the stability, (and sometimes ray fleck that
is displayed), another great feature of quarter sawn lumber is
if you have to glue up boards for a larger sized panel the grain
is easily matched to look seamless.
But with proper precautions taken during assembly
(using joinery that will allow slight seasonal movement of the
wood), you can use either quarter sawn or plain sawn lumber in
your project and have a beautiful piece of furniture that will
last for generations.