The Name of the Grain: Historical Definitions

As promised, today we’ll be taking a look at some historical literature regarding the definitions of growth-ring orientation in lumber. If you’re just now joining, you might want to take a look back at the first two installments in this series (Chapter 1Chapter 2) to make sure you’re caught up.

To summarize, right now we’re investigating the confusion that exists between two different definitions of “riftsawn” lumber: Is it lumber with the growth rings oriented at an angle to the faces (Fig. 1), or is it perfectly radial lumber (Fig. 2)?

drawing 008

To answer that question, I dug up the oldest reference I could find on all things lumber-related: The Lumberman’s Handbook (1886) by W.B. Judson. (It’s available as an eBook for free from Google Play, so feel free to check it out for yourself.) On pages 144-145, you’ll find an article entitled “Quarter and Bastard Sawing”:

Quarter and Bastard Sawing

And right there, in the very first sentence, we have our answer: “Quartersawing and rift-sawing are the same.” From there, the article goes on to very accurately describe our modern understanding of quartersawing: A log is sawed into quarters, and each quarter is then sawed through such that the saw cuts “cross the concentric rings at sufficiently near right angles”. Throughout the article, the two terms are used completely synonymously.

So it would appear, from a historical perspective at least, that both modern definitions of rift-sawing are incorrect. No where does the article suggest that rift-sawn lumber is defined by growth ring oriented at an angle to the face. Neither, however, does the article suggest that logs should be sawed perfectly radially to be considered “rift-sawed” – though it does state that “Wherever the cut of the saw crosses at right angles, or nearly so, that much of the board is rift-sawed.” This is precisely the modern understanding of quartersawn wood.

After some digging, I’ve found that the synonymy of quarter- and riftsawn lumber  is still in limited use in modern literature. R. Bruce Hoadley states in Understanding Wood (2000) that “These terms [quartersawn and quarter-grain] are flexible and may be applied to pieces in which the growth rings form angles of anywhere from 45 degrees to 90 degrees with the surface.” Hoadley goes on to say that “The terms comb grain and rift grain indicate surfaces intermediate between 45 degrees to 90 degrees, especially when describing oak.”

Another interesting fact that we can glean from the article is that the antiquated term for flatsawn/plainsawn lumber is actually “bastard-sawed”. This revelation should be equally confusing to modern readers: though the term is no longer in popular use, in modern parlance, bastard-sawn would refer to grain that is angled to the surface. As R. Bruce Hoadley states, “Bastard grain typically refers to growth rings oriented between 30 degrees and 60 degrees to the surface”. In Classic American Furniture (2014), Chris Schwarz agrees. With regard to reproducing a Stickley Plant Stand, he writes, “I used rift-sawn (sometimes called bastard-sawn) white oak for my legs. Technically, a board has been rift-sawn when its annular rings intersect the face of the board at an angle that’s somewhere between 30º and 60º.”

Can we just take a moment to soak in the bizarre irony that two terms which were 130 years ago considered indisputable antonyms are now synonymous with one another? I presently find myself equally annoyed and amused.

Lest you think that the terms as defined in The Lumberman’s Handbook were merely anomalies, let me assure you that these definitions persisted at least into the early 1900s. As evidence, I present to you the following excerpt from the 1905 edition of The Building Trades Pocketbook:

Building Trades Pocketbook 1905


“The term quarter sawed signifies that the log is cut into quarters before being reduced to boards, while the term bastard sawed denotes that all the saw cuts are parallel to the squared side of the log. In genuine quartersawing (also called rift sawing) the cuts should be as nearly as possible at right angles with the circles of growth, or parallel with the medullary rays…while in bastard sawing, the cuts are nearly parallel with the circles of growth…”

Interestingly, if we zoom in on Fig. 4, you’ll see the only historical depiction that I’ve been able to turn up that depicts perfect radial sawing. Note the saw cuts depicted in the upper left quadrant:

Building Trades Pocketbook 1905 - Quartersawing

Regarding this method, the text states, “The best results are secured by the method shown between and c, as the saw cuts are nearly on the radial lines, and the full face of the silver grain will be exhibited.” (Note: “silver grain” is an archaic term for ray fleck). As I noted yesterday, I am doubtful about the extent to which perfect radial sawing has ever been employed. No doubt that it yields the best material in theory, but the combination of labor-intensity and waste make it difficult to justify under all but the most unusual circumstances. I believe the applicable aphorism would be, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

I hope that you now understand my frustration with these terms. Historically, quartersawn is synonymous with riftsawn. Presently, riftsawn is synonymous with bastardsawn. Historically, bastardsawn is synonymous with flatsawn. Therefore, quartersawn = flatsawn? It’s a damned mess out there. Next time, I’ll do my best to clean it up.



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