Go Figure: Choosing the Best Grain for Your Project
As I talk with woodworkers around the country, one thing I hear time and again concerns building projects that look as good as those on the pages of WOOD® magazine. Woodworkers tell me that even after following every step carefully, cutting and assembling each piece accurately, and applying a finish, something just doesn't look right. Typically, the difference lies with the selection and placement of the wood figure.
What creates grain pattern
The pattern or figure of a board is determined by how a log is sawn [Opening photo]. How you choose and use the resulting grain patterns can dramatically change the appearance of your project. So let's begin with a look at how logs are sawed into boards, and how that affects what you select at the lumberyard.
A mill has three basic options when cutting a log. A log sawn as shown in Drawing 1, below, left is considered flatsawn or plainsawn. Slabbing a log this way creates very little waste, making plainsawn the least expensive cut. It yields boards with growth rings oriented from about 45° to near-parallel to the face of the board. The face features wavy, peaked "cathedral" figure in the middle of the face, and may have straight grain along one or both outside edges. On many wood species, the cathedral figure is quite pronounced.
A log sawn into four quarters and then slabbed produces quartersawn boards with the initial cuts [Drawing 2, above]. This cut costs more than plainsawn lumber because of the additional time and labor required. Growth rings on quartersawn boards fall between 75° and 90° to the face. The face of quartersawn lumber, especially white and red oak, displays "rays and flecks" in unique patterns [Photo A, below]. These rays and flecks are prominent design elements found in Mission, Arts & Crafts, and Craftsman furniture styles.
As the cuts approach the edge of a quartersawn log, the growth rings begin to run from 45° to 75° [Drawing 3, above, right]. This riftsawn lumber has a very consistent straight-grain face without the pronounced rays and flecks of quartersawn [Photo B, above, right]. Riftsawing produces a very stable board that moves little across its width with seasonal changes in humidity. Because of lower yield, this is the most expensive cut.
Two decorative cuts of lumber, crotch and burl, are not typically found at standard lumber suppliers. Although generally not considered structurally strong or stable, their bold appearances add dramatic impact to furniture designs.
A crotch grain pattern comes from the intersection of the tree trunk and a main branch. The change in wood direction yields striking patterns [Photo C, below].
Burl comes from a nodulelike growth created by a fungus or damage on the trunk of a tree. The irregular grain in a burl, often filled with small knots, produces a unique pattern that adds interest to even the most mundane surface [ Photo D, below]. I consider burls to be one of nature's great surprises because it's nearly impossible to predict the figure before sawing. Thick burl slabs can be used just as they are for small tables and nightstand tops. Burl veneers, especially when trimmed with a complementary wood, offer unlimited possibilities for embellishing a special project.
Making the most of the grain
How you use each of these types of grain can make a big difference in the look of any project.For example, in a typical cabinet, doors and drawers fit within or overlap the horizontal rails and vertical stiles of a face frame. Choosing straight-grain stock for the face frame provides an undistracting surround for these elements [Photos E, F, below].
The grain patterns on drawer fronts can unify the look of a cabinet or piece of furniture. Try these methods to create a continous pattern for either a vertical or horizontal bank of drawers.
For side-by-side drawers, cut the drawer fronts from a single, well-chosen board and arrange them on the cabinet in their original orientation, Photobelow. The resulting effects can be dramatic or subtle, depending on your intention.
For stacked drawers, glue up a wide panel, choosing boards with similar color and grain patterns, so the joint lines fade away. Then, cut the drawer fronts from the panel [Drawing 4, below].
If a door provides a statement on a cabinet face, its panel is the exclamation point. Material used for the rails and stiles should provide a straight, nondescript border for the panel. Riftsawn material works well in this application [Photo below].
The cathedral grain in plainsawn boards draws attention, so center this figure on a panel. If there are multiple doors, all the grain placements should be similar, or you risk creating a mishmash of patterns [Photo below]. For a subdued appearance, the straight grain of riftsawn provides uniformity to cabinets with many doors.
Like flatsawn cathedral figure, crotch grain can have a pronounced effect on the look of a cabinet door. Whether you use it as solid wood or veneer, display this pattern with the open edge facing up, as it did in the growing tree.
Cabinet sides and tabletops provide broad surfaces, where grain choice can make a bold statement or whisper quietly. A panel using flatsawn stock can add drama and interest to a tabletop, while a panel of all riftsawn stock provides a relaxed appearance [Photo above]. Combining the two tones down the wild grain of plainsawn while adding some pop that counters the sedate riftsawn pattern [Photo K, below].
These, of course, are only suggestions. Style is in the eye of the woodworker and the lucky recipient. Incorporating these fundamentals will help you create a classic, no matter which style you choose. Instead of hearing, "I see you made that yourself," you'll be treated to, "Wow, what a beautiful piece of furniture!"