The Name of The Grain: Bastard Sawyers.

What good is a name, if it has no meaning? Is it any better if a given name has two contradictory meanings? Perhaps worse, I would argue.

Woodworking is plagued by a confusion of terms in many respects. A ‘rabbet’ to an American would be known as a ‘rebate’ to a Brit. When a woodworker refers to the ‘width’ of a mortise, it is uncertain whether the dimension in question is the long dimension (along the grain) or the short dimension (across the grain) – though we can be reasonably certain that referenced dimension is not the depth).  The turning feature known as a ‘spool’ can refer to either a bead or a cove. And the list goes on.

As a full-time forester, occasional sawyer and woodmonger, and a hobbyist woodworker, one of my greatest sources of frustration concerns the verbal description of growth-ring placement. In “Understanding Wood”, R. Bruce Hoadley list twelve different ways to reference growth-ring placement in a board:

  • Bastard Grain
  • Edge Grain
  • Flat Grain
  • Mixed Grain
  • Plain Grain
  • Quarter Grain
  • Radial Grain
  • Rift Grain
  • Side Grain
  • Slash Grain
  • Tangential Grain
  • Vertical Grain

It seems that with twelve different terms at our disposal, we could at least agree on three discrete terms to identify the principal ways in which the growth rings of a tree may be oriented in a board…but given thousands of years of woodworking history and hundreds of years of modern English, we have not proven capable of accomplishing that task. In fact, I’m quite certain we’re regressed considerably on this issue in the last hundred years. Woodworkers of the late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be far more consistent in their use of these terms than we are today (and frustratingly for someone like myself who would prefer to clear the air, their use of many terms is at odds with our usage today).

So with that in mind, I introduce a series of blog posts that will be categorized and tagged under “The Name of The Grain” – my modest attempt to clarify what these multifairous terms mean. We’ll explore their history as well as their present use (and misuse). If you like wood, English, and history, it should be great fun. If you don’t…well, Netflix just released the latest season of House of Cards?

Quarter-Sawed Timber, Carpentry and Building, April 1885
From Carpentry and Building (April 1885)

I should note, by the way, that the ca. 1920 Arts-and-Crafts style house in Southwest Mississippi that I lived in for 3-1/2 years had original quartersawn yellow pine floors throughout. So it would appear that the “Southern millmen” finally heeded the advice of Carpentry and Building (or at least some of them did).

Quartersawn Longleaf Pine Floor


4 thoughts on “The Name of The Grain: Bastard Sawyers.

  1. Wow amazing!! Ill bring this up with My master woodteacher on monday..

    The grains, I’m going to need to take some time to check, as its early and I am commuting now.
    But on the mortises, I might have a key..

    My school stems from the 18th century, and we have a rule about dimensions. LENGHT is allways along the grain.
    Width is the next biggest size, leaving thickness for the third.

    It does make me wonder about the grain issue.. Of course there is a lot to be said for using the grain in different ways, wether quarterly or whatnot.

    Like I said, I’ll check up with him to see. Love from Amsterdam! 🙂


    1. Thanks for your comment, Ryan. I’m curious to know if the Dutch words for growth-ring orientation are more precise than the English words. As I’ll demonstrate this week, the English words are a bungled mess, with many of the words changing meaning completely over the last century.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s