Different Cuts of Wood


“Cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth”

This old proverb advises to cut and stitch the cloth according to the material available.


Cutting lumber can be compared to this same idea. What will the log yield? What is the desired look, style, pattern sought after. It can all be altered in the way that you cut the log.

Quarter Sawn, Rift Sawn, Plain Sawn, Live Sawn

Have you heard these terms and wondered what they mean. We often struggle to define these terms however I will try to explain them in a way that works for me.

Let’s take a look at Oak as a species. Early in our country’s history Oak trees were and still are very prevalent. The cell structure of Oak is ring porous with radial rays that can be readily split along the radius of the log. Metal wedges were driven into the logs and split. The log would split along grain lines fairly evenly. To produce planks from these logs a tool called a froe was used.


A froe could be driven into the end grain of the log.

A froe (or frow) or shake axe is a tool for cleaving wood by splitting or riving it along the grain. It is an L-shaped tool, used by hammering one edge of its blade into the end of a piece of wood in the direction of the grain, then twisting the blade in the wood by rotating the handle. The froe used the handle as a lever to multiply the force of the grain, allowing the wood to be sliced (riven) along its grain.

The lumber produced from this cut was called Riven Oak. This term is a derivative of the now more often called Rift Cut. According to R.W. Symonds, “The Craft of the Joiner in Medieval England” the term “riven oak” was used prior to the term “quarter sawn”.

This method of splitting the log to lumber also produces lumber that is stronger, more stable, less prone to checking, warping, and splitting and has a more refined grain pattern. At the time much of the early colonial furniture was produced this way with only hand tools. The early woodworkers discovered that green cut lumber that was processed from logs where the annual rings of the log ran perpendicular to the face of the lumber produced material that did not expand and contract as much with changes in moisture content. The product that they produced was straight grain with quartering characteristics.

The method of quarter sawing gets its name by cutting the log into quarters lengthwise. This produces boards whose end grain is perpendicular to the face of the board. Quarter sawing produces a very appealing look where the grain is tight, straight and parallel.


In certain species the quarter sawn lumber will display a prominent ray fleck on the face of the lumber. These rays are part of the cell structure of the growing tree that radiate outward from the pith or center of the log to the sapwood. These appear as shiny bands that vary in width from specie to specie. They are called medullary rays. 

Most production mills do not quarter saw lumber due to the increased time that it takes to quarter the log and the decreased lumber volume that will be produced from each log. To produce high quality quarter sawn lumber the mill first needs to start with a large log that when quartered will produce lumber of good width. This usually starts with a log that is at least 20″ and larger in diameter on the small end and straight. Another consideration is the tightness of the growth rings of the log. A slow growing tree with many rings to the inch will yield lumber that is much easier to machine and work than that of a fast growing tree with a small number of growth rings to the inch. Quarter sawn lumber also takes greater care in drying due to the fact that the cells in this orientation give up their moisture slower than that of lumber that is plainsawn. All of these factors combined together raise the cost of the end product.

Quarter Sawn Log

Next on our list is rift sawn. This is most commonly defined as a board with grain oriented at an angle of between 30-60 degrees to the wide face of the board. Since the grain is oriented at roughly 45 degrees to the tangent of the log, there is not really any practical way to “rift saw” a log. If you look at the diagram above, the riftsawn boards would be the 3rd and 4th board up from the bottom and the 3rd and 4th board down from the top.

Rift sawn lumber is particularly popular in oak because it is very uniform. The medullary rays are mostly hidden at this gain angle, and every board looks almost the same. It still has much of the dimensional stability of quarter sawn.


It is important to note that you will get rift sawn characteristics in quarter sawn and you will get quarter sawn characteristics in rift. At Heppner when you order rift you will get a ratio of 80% rift sawn to 20% quarter sawn and if you order quarter sawn you will get 80% quarter to 20% rift unless noted otherwise.

Live sawn is the oldest method of cutting, but the newest to America. The most common method in Europe, is gaining popularity in the states. Instead of being cut to produce plain sawn, quarter sawn, or rift sawn wood, the log is cut straight through with each cut parallel to the last. This produces a mix of plain, quarter, and rift sawn woods (about of third of each) and eliminates virtually all waste. This method also yields wider boards making it very popular.


The last cut that is available is plain sawn or flat sawn material. Plain sawn cutting is the most economical and yields the wide boards. The annual rings are generally 30 degrees or less to the face of the board: this is often referred to as tangential grain.

It is amazing to see the variety of colors, patterns and grain configurations that can come out of a single log. Hopefully this clears up your questions about what these terms mean and how we are able to get so many different looks from our local hardwood resources. Please feel free to ask us a question if something is not clear.