Matching Wood Grain
I've met a lot of woodworkers who have a good handle on the mechanical part of their craft. They build projects that are square and sturdy, with parts that fit precisely.
Yet, many woodworkers overlook the more subtle art of matching grain direction and color. As a result, their well-machined and finely fastened projects fall short in the appearance department.
While building the CD cabinet (above, left) and the accent table that appeared in the November 2000 issue of WOOD, the importance of grain matching really hit home. For both projects I carefully selected, cut, and joined workpieces for best appearance.
In this article I'll share some tips for grain- and color-matching. You can use these same tricks when building many of your own projects.
—Chuck Hedlund, Master Craftsman
When selecting stock for a small project, say a keepsake box or picture frame, try to use wood from the same board. Although grain and color can vary even in a single board, with careful selection you should be able to cut parts that match closely.
For larger projects, I like to use boards cut from the same log. And that's possible if you have your own tree custom sawn. Because most of us have to buy wood from a lumberyard or home center, here's how I go about finding matching boards at these outlets. It takes a little time, but pays off in good-looking projects.
First, I cull the boards that are free of warp and have as few defects as possible. Then, I stand them up side-by-side, and take a step back. Next, I reshuffle their order for best color match.
Finally, I select the boards with similar color that have grain that I can envision being matched as I build the project.
Grain refers to the pattern of lines on the surface of a board produced by the orientation of the wood's annual growth rings. I look for boards with grain lines spaced equally apart and oriented in the same direction.
For most project parts, especially those I cut from oak, ash, or hickory, I like to use straight-grained boards. That's because wavy grain can give a project, particularly a tall one like the CD cabinet, an unbalanced feeling. Wavy grain can create an optical illusion where a perfectly constructed piece of furniture appears out of square or plumb.
To get straight-grained pieces for projects, I choose the widest boards available. Why? Most boards are flatsawn at the mill today, meaning they typically have cathedral-grain figure toward their center, and straight-grain figure toward their edges as shown below. It's been my experience that wide flatsawn boards yield a higher percentage of straight-grained stock than narrow boards.
You may be wondering what I do with the leftover cathedral-grained stock. I'm as frugal as the next guy, so cathedral-grained stock goes into parts that aren't visible, such as internal components.
Certain woods, such as cherry, walnut, and maple, don't have a lot of straight grain. Much of their beauty comes from wavy-figured grain patterns. That's why mills saw these species to yield as many wavy-grained boards as possible.
When working with these woods, I use chalk to mark the location of project parts on the boards. I orient the chalk marks for the best grain match as shown in Step 3. Doing this, the pieces often come out of the stock at an angle to the board edges. I cut out these marked pieces with a handheld circular saw or jigsaw, then joint one edge. The remaining material goes for parts that aren't conspicuous in the finished project.
There are a number of differences between the architectural-grade projects that we feature in WOOD® magazine and the factory-grade furniture you find in stores. For example, on the CD cabinet you'll see that the grain seems to flow without visual interruption from one drawer to another. On the same furniture piece made in a factory, the grain of one drawer likely won't match the one adjoining it, and a single drawer may have both cathedral- and straight-grain.
To make a series of matching drawer fronts, I glue and clamp matching pieces into an oversized panel as shown in Step 1 of the drawing below. Its length (measured with the grain) should be 1" longer than the length of the drawers to allow for trimming. The width of the panel (across its grain) should equal the combined widths of the drawers, plus 1⁄8 " for each saw kerf, plus 1" for trimming. I crosscut this large panel into drawer fronts as shown in Step 2, below.
This procedure not only makes for great-looking drawer fronts, but you can economize by using narrow pieces (that might otherwise end up as scrap) to make the panel. For example, most of the drawer fronts on the CD cabinet are made of two or three pieces of wood, some as narrow as 1".