Imagine this is a log ready to go through a sawmill. I’ve sketched out plain-sawn cuts on the bottom half, and quarter-sawn cuts on the top half.
Plain-sawn, also called through and through, is pretty simple. Slabs of wood are simply cut from the log as it lays on the mill. It’s easy to see how simple this would be to set up and handle. Pay special attention to how the annual rings lay across the end grain of the resulting boards.
Quarter sawing is more complicated. The log is quartered, one board is cut off the quarter, the remaining section is turned, another board is cut off, the remaining section is turned, another board is cut off — until there’s no more log left. Intuition tells us this is more complicated to execute, but look at how the annual rings lay across the end grain of the boards.
The annual rings in this piece of quarter sawn wood are nearly perpendicular to the face grain. The trick question is, “Which way will this board cup?” The answer is that it won’t cup. This is one of the benefits of quarter-sawn wood.
Back in the day I worked at a cabinet shop where we built all the fixtures for a national retail chain. They specified quarter-sawn cherry for all their stores because they didn’t want the overly-busy look of plain-sawn cherry on all the walls and cabinets.
This piece of plain-sawn oak has a dramatic cathedral or flame pattern in the face. What you’re seeing as flames is the result of the way plain sawing slices across the annual rings. Plain-sawn wood tends to have a much more dynamic grain pattern in the face.
Then There Are The Flecks And Rays. When wood is quarter-sawn the internal rays of the wood are exposed. In some materials, especially red and white oak, this can be VERY dramatic, giving the finished wood an amazing three dimensional appearance. Think of the old Singer sewing machine cases. Great examples of quarter-sawn oak.
Not all woods provide this benefit.
Three Reasons To Pony Up. Knowing that quarter-sawn wood can out price plain-sawn by a factor of two (or more), here are the compelling reasons to buy it.
Quarter-sawn wood is more stable than plain-sawn. Not only is it less prone to cupping, it also expands and contracts less.
Quarter-sawn provides a “quieter” and straighter face grain than plain-sawn.
In some woods, especially the oaks, quarter sawing reveals dramatic internal rays that add a very cool dimension to the material.
It’s relatively easy to find quarter-sawn red and white oak. Other species can be much more difficult to locate in quarter-sawn, and may require a number of phone calls to track down.