When shopping for lumber, how do you identify each type of board, and what are some examples of when you would choose to use each one?

In other words, what are the visual and physical characteristics that may make a board desirable or undesirable in certain types of projects (or even different parts of the same project), and once one selects a type of board for a project, how would that person go about identifying the correct type of board when looking through stacks at a store or hardwood dealer?

Note: for the purposes of this question, I am not interested in the different cut patterns that can be used to mill a log into the various "cuts" of lumber as discussed in What are the common cut patterns used to mill a log into boards?, because I purchase my lumber already-milled and do not mill my own logs.

  • possible duplicate of What are the common cut patterns used to mill a log into boards?
    – FreeMan
    Mar 26, 2015 at 12:26
  • That question has been under discussion for the past few days, and the answers focus on the common cut patterns for cutting up a log. This question is about when to use different types of boards and how to identify them when purchasing already-milled lumber.
    – rob
    Mar 26, 2015 at 15:34
  • 2
    That makes more sense as a separate question now. Good changes. Tweaked the title to better reflect the question.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 26, 2015 at 15:55
  • I think that the "when would you choose to use each one" makes this question both way too broad and opinion based.
    – JohnP
    Mar 26, 2015 at 16:16
  • 1
    Let's take it up in meta.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 26, 2015 at 16:23

3 Answers 3


While named the same, the milling processes and resulting boards are two different things. It would be easier to say that each of the milling processes can yield boards of different types. There is confusion that stems from this. Presently the following is accepted.

Understand that it would be inaccurate to expect that a specific milling process would produce boards of all the same type.

It's Always the Grain

The answer is the grains appearance and the growth rings on the face. It is common to expect that the face of a board or plank is where you will find the end grain. The rings on the face and grain along the length of the board will have distinct characteristics. Following all the descriptions will be a comparison image.

Flat/Plain Sawn

  1. Appearance: The growth rings have the most extreme angles are should be within the range of 0 to 30 degrees. The length of the board will have a unique look referred to as cathedral or arrow.

  2. Properties: The angle of the end grains major drawback is that it will dry faster and can absorb moisture faster. That of course is dependent on the wood location. That is the reason this wood is most unacceptable to warping ( mostly cupping). Even so, it's appearance makes it very desirable and is usually cheapest to acquire.

  3. Uses/Application: Common applications include hardwood flooring and decorative shelving among others.

Quarter Sawn

  1. Appearance: Growth rings on the face/end are perpendicular/90 degrees to the boards width. At is acceptable for the growth rings to be withing 60 to 90 degrees and still be considered Quarter sawn. These rings run parallel the whole length of the board. Some woods, particularly oak, when cut this way display a fleck pattern which has no special property other than appearance.

  2. Properties: Considered the most resistant to warping and has the least water absolution when compared to the other cuts. Make quarter an ideal choice for making furniture or applications where wood expansion is important element.

  3. Uses/Application: You would see quarter used for musical instruments as well where you want the shape to persist throughout the instruments life. Usually the most expensive to acquire but can be justified given its long term properties.

Rift Sawn

  1. Appearance: For the board to be considered rift you will see growth rings on the face/end that have angles between 30 and 90 degrees.

  2. Properties: Considered the compromise of the two cuts. More resistant to warping than flat/plain sawn and absorbs less moisture. The grain that runs the length of the board will be parallel as well but not near as exact as it would be with quarter.

  3. Uses/Application: This would be considered general use if you don't need the appearance of flat or if true quarter is not economically viable.

Comparison Image

Below you can see the three different types in relationship to each other. Don't worry about the XYZ. Those letters are just there to show you what axis the boards in the picture follow.

Sawn types


You will check external sources and you will run into viable references that will use the name Quarter to describe Rift and vice versa. One thing to remember is while the naming convention can be misleading the properties of the boards holds true. Trust the grain!

  • This is very useful. I may end up pulling this up the next time I go buy lumber...
    – James
    Mar 27, 2015 at 14:26
  • @Matt another interesting use for rift-sawn wood is table legs. Fine Woodworking's single-board side table uses rift-sawn legs to achieve a consistent vertical grain pattern on all faces of each leg. finewoodworking.com/item/115620/single-board-side-table
    – rob
    Apr 4, 2015 at 8:30

I believe, at least what my take is on saw mill techniques, is that plain sawn is a sawing technique as is quater sawn, or radial sawn, are other techniques. there is another version of sawing technique that is called "rift sawing". I heard of this one for the first time just a few days ago when another member posted a question that may have asked the same question, in a different manner.

The process of plain sawing lumber will produce all the types of sawn wood, flat, quarter, and rift plain sawn Quarter sawn wood will only produce quarter and rift sawn wood quarter sawn 2

Rift sawing, though I think it should be called "radial sawing" produces only quarter sawn wood, but it produces the most waste.

rift sawn

I will have to add more later, it is getting real late

  • 3
    This would be a great answer for woodworking.stackexchange.com/questions/400/…, but in this question I'm asking when to use the different cuts of wood and how to identify them when purchasing lumber.
    – rob
    Mar 26, 2015 at 15:36
  • If you dont mind the traditional vs. modern helps with the confusion I had and would like to add it to my answer.
    – Matt
    Mar 26, 2015 at 20:25
  • I was planning on expanding into that, but for some reason I felt I had to give what the terms all meant first. Last night I ran out of time, today just ran too long. Matt did a pretty good job of how each can be used.
    – Jack
    Mar 27, 2015 at 6:17

Good question. I'd heard that quartersawn wood reacts less to seasonal wood movement, but couldn't be sure. A quick search found this website:

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.

I've also heard that in some species, quarter sawn is called "vertical grain" (e.g., doug fir).

I personally prefer plain-sawn wood because I like the variety in grain patterns you get from plain-sawn wood (particularly walnut, which has alternating colors of brown, purple, green, light brown, etc).

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