I spent the past week diving headlong into the confusing minutia of so-called “riftsawn” lumber. To what end? Why does it even matter? I hope to answer that question, and perhaps raise a few others, in this summary.
Why It Matters.
Allow me to give you a brief recap of a conversation on a woodworking forum – the catalyst for this entire series, as a matter of fact. There was a discussion underway, started by a new woodworker who was attempting some cabriole legs for the first time. One of the respondents helpfully and correctly suggested using “riftsawn” lumber for the legs. This is good advice, if you accept the modern definition of riftsawn lumber. Leg stock is one of the best uses for it, since the grain, oriented at about 45º to the faces, will appear the same on all sides.
Rob Porcaro has a good blog post on this topic. In his picture, notice how the far left leg has quartersawn figure on the left side and heinously distracting flatsawn figure on the right. The two examples to the right show the matching grain lines produced by using wood with the growth rings angled from the faces.
In the aforementioned forum conversation, the helpful respondent’s helpfulness jumped the rails when he posted the graphic below, with the following advice “Note true rift will have the growth rings appear as almost flat lines across the end of the board. Very stable stuff here…If you find rift as shown in the pic, store as much as you can away.”
Now, as I showed in last article, there was indeed a time (about a century ago) when rift-sawing and quarter-sawing were considered synonymous (please note that in the graphic above, the diagram to the far right is merely a more precise variation of quartersawing), but the respondent was confusing the historical definition with the present-day definition in recommending this type of material for cabriole legs. And in doing so, he also proceeded to confuse a newcomer to the craft who may not have known any better.
So, that’s why it matters. Our words are nothing more than a convenient and efficient method of transmitting ideas from one person to another. If two people have a completely different understanding of the same word, then the idea that word represents cannot be effectively communicated from one to the other. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case with the word “riftsawn” and any variant thereof.
Of course, a bevy of experienced woodworkers chimed in to address the confusion, all of them agreeing upon the modern understanding of rift-sawn lumber – and also confirming that it is, indeed, the superior choice of material for leg stock. But it makes no difference how many experienced woodworkers agree upon the definition. If a simple Google search (and let’s not scoff and underestimate the importance of Google) would lead a newcomer to a contradictory definition, then we have a problem.
Regardless of its prevalence, the modern definition of “riftsawn” lumber is an illogical one.
rift (noun): 1. a crack, split, or break in something.
The old-timers gave riftsawn lumber its name based on its similarity to riven wood – i.e., wood that was split radially from a tree, Peter Follansbee-style, and not sawed. Peter has an excellent post (many, in fact) on the topic of riven wood over at his blog.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine why the term “riftsawn” has come to refer to wood with angled growth rings, while “quartersawn” is the term that we use for perpendicular growth rings. I’ve come up empty on sources from the mid-20th century that might help explain the peculiar transmogrification. (Language is funny like that. After all, “flammable” and “inflammable” are synonymous, while “worthless” and “priceless” are antonyms.)
So What’s the Solution?
Heck if I know. There is only one other word that is widely understood to mean “lumber with growth rings oriented between 30º and 60º to the surface”, and that word is “bastardsawn”. In addition to being inelegant (don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to inelegant words, but I use them judiciously for a specific effect, not as a part of my quotidian vocabulary), this word is similarly encumbered by a historical use that is at odds with present understanding.
Perhaps the only good solution is to coin a completely new, unambiguous term. I’ve actually given this a good deal of thought. What would be the intuitive term for wood sawn with its growth rings at a 30º-60º angle to the surface? Slant-grain? Skew-grain? Oblique-grain? Ok, the last one will never catch on, but I think slant-grain is pretty good. I definitely think it should be necessary to drop the -sawn suffix, since “slant-grain” (see, I’m already using my new term!) wood is produced as a by-product of flatsawing and quartersawing. There is no specific sawing technique of which I am aware that is uniquely devised to produce an abundance of slant-grain material.
Problematically, my readership is maybe 100 page views on a good day, so I doubt that I have the capacity to challenge such an entrenched term- however misunderstood – on a wide scale. But I can still try, right? #lifegoals
Disston’s 1921 publication of the “Disston Lumberman’s Handbook”, as well as the 1911 edition of “The Iron Age Directory” both refer to “rift saws” as a specific entity. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to dig up any images of these saws, or any information regarding their use. It may be a dead-end, but I’d be curious if anyone has additional information on what these saws are.
In fact, if any of my readers have additional sources related to the definitions of words like “riftsawn” or “bastardsawn”, particularly from the early- to mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, I’d be curious to see them. I’m presented my thoughts as I currently understand the topic, but my mind is always open to change in the presence of new information (as it should be).