The Name of the Grain: What is Riftsawn Lumber?

In the last post, I discussed my frustration with the general confusion about terms related to growth-ring orientation in lumber. I know, I know. It’s a small nit to pick. But bear with me, if you will, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves clarification.

By my training, there are three primary ways in which the growth rings can be oriented in a piece of lumber:

  • Flatsawn: Growth rings are roughly parallel to the face.
  • Riftsawn: Growth rings are oriented at an angle (usually described as 35º-65º) to the face.
  • Quartersawn: Growth rings are oriented roughly perpendicular to the face.

Growth Ring Orientation - conventional

There is a tremendous body of modern literature that supports this terminology. The people who sell wood use it. Here’s a slick diagram from the Hardwood Distributor’s Association (hardwooddistributors.org):

hardwooddistributors
Source

 

People who write about wood are on the same page, as demonstrated by this nifty drawing from Canadian Woodworking (canadianwoodworking.com) :

canadian woodworking II
Source

 

Even people who build cool things like musical instruments use this nonclementure. Here’s a page from Yasuhiko Iwanade’s book The Beauty of the Burst (1999):

BeautyofTheBurst

 

Alrighty then. I’ve made an airtight case, right? No confusion here, so let’s go ahead and put this short-lived series to bed.

No so fast…

Try Googling “riftsawn” for images, and see if you notice anything amiss. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (Ok, I’ll make it easy for you: click here)

…………………………………………………………………..

Did you spot the problem? Literally 10 of the first 16 images in my search showed a diagram for “riftsawn” that is completely at odds with the conventional definition of riftsawn lumber. To wit, the images depicted look like this:

protoolreviews
Source

No complaints about the diagrams for plainsawn (another term for flatsawn) and quartersawn lumber. (It would pay to note, however, that the “plainsawn” method would result in rift- and quartersawn material closer to the center of the log, while the “quartersawn” method would produce a fair amount of riftsawn material at the edges of each quarter.)

However, look over to the picture labeled “riftsawn”. Those growth rings are not oriented at a 35º-65º angle to the face but rather perfectly perpendicular. That is perfect, textbook quartersawn grain. And the sawing pattern? Holy crap, that is wasteful. No one in their right mind would saw a log like that, essentially throwing away half the log! So what misinformed neophyte is spreading this peculiar brand of bullshit? Why, it’s the aforementioned Hardwood Distributor’s Association! And on the very same page as the image with a correct diagram! What the ever-loving hell?

Pore through the Google images for “riftsawn” and you’ll notice that this sort of cognitive dissonance is pervasive. Why not visit this page, entitled “What is Rift Sawn Lumber?“, which proceeds to depicts a board with the growth rings at a 45º alongside an image of the radial sawing pattern:

 

Or consider this image, which combines oak boards of appropriate appearance (flatsawn = cathedral grain, quartersawn = straight grain with ray fleck, and riftsawn = straight grain without ray fleck) with the erroneous sawing pattern.

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn I
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To spell it out for you: If you have perfectly radial oak, yet have no ray fleck (as this image depicts)…Well, either you don’t have oak, or it ain’t perfectly radial. Something is amiss, people! But I didn’t have to look hard to find another image with the exact same error:

 

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn III
Source

Okay, I hope I’ve laid out a compelling case for the confusion that exists regarding the definition of “riftsawn” lumber. So what’s going on? How did this erroneous image that supposedly depicts “rift-sawing” become so pervasive?

First, let’s just clarify by stating the sawing pattern in question should be correctly called “radial” sawing, not rift-sawing. The face of each resultant board is parallel to the log’s radius; this term is precise and unencumbered by confusion, so it is the proper term.

Let me further emphatically state that that a radial sawing pattern, aside from some small boutique jobs, is an utterly preposterous method of converting logs into lumber. Conventional quartersawing wastes far less lumber and and will produce a fair amount of perfectly radial wood by default. Further, the wood that is slightly imperfect will be nearly its equal. The only compelling reason to process a log in this way is if you are working with a wedge and a froe, not a sawmill.

Next, I believe that an investigation of these terms’ origins is in order. Obviously there is a substantial body of people to whom the term riftsawn refers to perfectly radial wood, and another large body of people to whom it refers to wood with growth rings positioned at an angle somewhere between radial and tangential. So, what did the term originally mean?

Well, this post has already consumed too much of your my day, so the history-learnin’ portion will have to wait for the next edition of “The Name of the Grain”. I do hope you’ll join me as we try to get to the bottom of it.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Name of the Grain: What is Riftsawn Lumber?

  1. This enduring confusion is funny. Rift cut in fact means as close to radial as possible for each board and therefore a grain as close to 90° as possible to the board’s surface. You may take the wood from the cross section of compromised cuts like quarter or plain and use the rest for something else. Rift cut produces 60% material loss and is uneconomical as long as compromised lumbers can be used respectively sold for less demanding applications.

    Despite of using the terms wrong since decades, guitar makers know what it’s all about. In fact, the necks of 32 of my 34 guitars are of rift-sawn quality, those with tangential growth rings as well as those with upright ones. The cathedral figures respectively the medullary rays say that. My guess is that they just take the centre cuts from otherwise quarter-sawn respectively plain sawn logs for making guitar necks.

    The Architectural Woodworkers Institute will have to correct its definition. Wikipedia obviously also changed their article for worse. There are lots of bigger problems in the world – I hope they get at least this one sorted out.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, capmaster. It has been difficult for me to accept that the proper definition of “riftsawn” is perfectly radial wood, given that I spent 15 years “knowing” that it was something else, but after reviewing the historical evidence, it’s the only logical conclusion. I’m afraid the matter may be far too confused for my humble blog to make a dent in the misconception, but at least I tried 🙂

      Like

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