Woodworkers often learn a considerable amount about the technical skills of woodworking without considering, or being taught to use, the fundamental material – wood – in a sensitive manner. Just as someone lays out clothes on the bed looking for an attractive combination, we too should consider what woods are complementary and how to best use the colour, texture, and grain patterns of the wood to complement the form of our work. This article focuses on the harmonious use of grain. We will explore how to best use the grain from each plank, to visually support the form of each component in a piece of furniture. To the untrained eye, a piece of furniture constructed without consideration of grain direction causes a level of discomfort. The piece looks odd, awkward and unnatural. Proper grain orientation makes a dramatic difference in the visual appeal of a piece, creating calmness that we refer to as harmony.
We use three types of grain in woodworking. Flatsawn wood is created by cutting planks from the tangent of the annual rings of the tree. In board form, we note by viewing the end of the plank that the rings intersect the face of the board at an angle between zero and 35°. Riftsawn wood is found where the annual rings meet the face of the board at 35° to 65°. In quartersawn wood, the angle the rings make to the face of the board runs between 65° and 90°.
Each type of board has its place in fine woodworking. Flatsawn wood is a good choice for door panels, table tops, and cabinet sides or gables. Riftsawn wood is excellent for leg stock, stretchers and aprons. Quartersawn wood lends itself well to aprons, door frames and drawer sides. A short note here about wood movement: remember that quartersawn wood has roughly half the seasonal wood movement of flatsawn wood – this information comes in handy when selecting the correct grain orientation for moving parts such as drawer sides.
Great Looking Legs
There is really only one choice for great looking legs in furniture making and that is classic riftsawn wood wherein the rings intersect the board face at 45°. If we choose either flatsawn wood or quartersawn wood we will end up with a striped pattern on one face of the leg and a broad pattern on the adjacent face of the leg, which creates a very awkward visual presentation. In order to obtain a similar grain pattern on all four sides of table legs for example, choose riftsawn wood and orient the annual rings (looking from the tops of the legs) so that the rings point toward the center of your table. Even once you have tapered the inner sides of the legs, the grain on all four sides of each leg will appear similar.
If you are using legs that are square in section with simple inside tapers, you can get away with not orientating the annual rings toward the center of the table. If you choose a cabriole leg, however, it is essential that the grain orientation be observed. Correct grain orientation will yield a grain pattern that will follow the curves of the leg on all four sides. Get this wrong by turning one leg a quarter turn and you will have a cabriole leg with what we call ‘knee caps,’ caused by the annual rings creating concentric circles around the knee of the leg.
Frame and Panel Doors
Remember that, in a door, the face is the panel and the frame should be like a picture frame: complementary, subdued, and the frame should appear square. When I first learned this concept back at College of the Redwoods, I built a frame with strong skewed graphics that made the frame appear as though it were leaning over. Select either quartersawn or riftsawn wood for the stiles and rails of door frames. Try to keep the grain flowing with the frame, not flowing off the frame to either side.
Select flatsawn wood for visual interest in the panel of the door. If we used quartersawn wood for the panel, it would be a boring repeating pattern. Flatsawn wood lends itself well to making panels with a broad ‘cathedral’ pattern in the middle of the panel, with the annual rings tightening up towards either side of the panel. Again, try to get the cathedrals in the panel orientated vertically to avoid the impression of a lean.
When selecting wood for drawer sides, we need to consider both the visual effects of grain and the seasonal wood movement. In order to obtain the least amount of expansion/contraction of the drawer side, select quartersawn material. A note here about the practical use of quartersawn parts versus riftsawn parts: the seasonal movement is similar between these two types of grain orientation. Riftsawn wood is easier to find from your planks and it is also easier to hand plane. Quartersawn wood, with the rings at 90° to the face, will also present the medullary rays on the face of the board. When hand planing this board, you will soon find out that the rays are orientated across the grain and tend to catch when planed, so tear-out is possible. It is therefore preferable to select a drawer side where the annual rings are between 45° and 80° to the face of the board, thus avoiding the issues with rays on the face of the drawer side.
Buying the Right Planks
Now that you know what to look for, how do you purchase the correct plank or planks to get the correct grain for a specific furniture component? Let us use the example of a small solid wood coffee table. We will want to obtain flat grain planks for the top, for which I will usually purchase 5/4 stock. For table tops, I want my milled thickness to be in the order of ⅞” to 1″ in thickness to allow enough wood to drive a screw into without poking through. From a wood technology standpoint, it is best to select wood that is already dry, with dimensions that are close to what you will need in the end. So, to make the table top, we remove equal amounts of wood from the top and bottom faces of the plank to flatten perhaps three planks that started out at 60″ x 8″ x 5/4 thick. Using an under bevel along the bottom edges of the top will reduce the apparent visual thickness. Select planks with cathedrals in the middle and tight grain toward the edges of each plank. The closer the grain is to being parallel to the board edge, the less obvious the joints will be between the boards.
My local wood supplier stocks quartersawn wood, which is ideal for the aprons, but if this is not the case for you, select a plank of riftsawn wood. This is essentially a plank taken from closer to the heart of the tree. If the 5/4 plank is nine inches wide, then you can get parallel lines from the riftsawn edges. Place the broader grain at the top of the aprons, where only the cat will see the pattern, and the tighter grain toward the bottom of the apron. Try to keep the grain parallel to the apron, to avoid the look of a tilted part.
Look for 6/4 or 8/4 riftsawn stock that shows parallel lines on the face of the board, and significant curvature to the rings on the end of the plank. Ideally we are looking for classic riftsawn wood, in which the rings intersect the face of the leg at 45°. You may have to take the four legs off of either side of an 8/4 plank, leaving essentially a flatsawn center part.
The remaining center portion of this 8/4 plank can then be used to make other components for your furniture. If you resaw this flatsawn section, you will end up with quartersawn stock that is perfect for making the sides of small drawers, or stretchers.
The ability to select wood is just as important as tool skills or design skills and should be learned. Try these methods and see how the visual impact of your furniture will improve dramatically.
Ted is an avid guitar-maker in Ottawa, Ontario. His electric guitars blend premium components with sensitive use of exotic woods, creating one-of-a-kind boutique instruments.