The Name of the Grain: Final Thoughts, For Now.

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.

(If you’re just now joining, it might make sense to read through last week’s discussion before proceeding: Chapter 1Chapter 2, and Chapter 3)

xkcd someone is wrong

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.

Source (used with permission.)

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.”

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn II

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.

Additional Problems

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.

Follansbee Riven Oak
Source (used with permission)

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.

slant-grain douglas-fir
Your new vocabulary word for today: Slant-grain

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

Bonus Thoughts

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).



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.



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 (


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

canadian woodworking II

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


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:


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

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

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.

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