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What is Wood Grain? : And Why Wood Grain Is Important

Say you’re at your parents’ house, they’ve decided to redo the cabinets, and they just want to hear your opinion on a choice of wood.

Of course, they’ve already made up their minds, so you can throw your opinion straight into the ether.

But anyway, you find yourself looking at a bunch of little planks of wood. And with whatever care you have left, you say the red-brown curvy looking one.

So even if you didn’t know why you were saying it, you still identified a woodgrain and color that caught your eye.

Woodgrain is a commonly used term when explaining the look and strength of different wood types.

It refers to the direction and spacing that the wood cell fibers grow. The tighter the fibers grow, the more the wood can withstand bending.

Basically, the tighter and straighter the grain (the lines in the wood) - the stronger the wood.

Timber with more curvy grain, and more knots, means less strength.

People may prefer a more curved grain for aesthetic reasons, such as in wooden arts and crafts.

When it comes to aesthetics, the texture (how it feels to the touch and eye) of the woodgrain can be an important distinction too.

That said, determining a woodgrain is largely dependent on the requirements of your job.

Picking the Right Wood Type for the Job

When first getting started on a woodworking project, the obvious first step, besides checking for your phone/wallet/keys, is to pick out the correct wood. you can understand more of What Is Woodworking

Now is a good time to review the look and support you will absolutely need from the wood.

But before we get further into woodgrain, you should know that the two main categories of wood are: Hardwood and Softwood.

While softwood does not actually mean the wood is limp or easily bendable, it just means that it’s slightly less dense - and sometimes with less graining - than hardwood.

Softwood tends to come from evergreen (has leaves all year) trees, which are faster-growing, usually cheaper, and will work just fine for most projects.

Popular softwoods include pine, spruce, cedar, and fir. For example, Douglas fir is well-known in the US lumber industry for its versatility.

Hardwood refers to slower-growing deciduous (its leaves fall in the winter) trees with a higher density and a more nuanced grain pattern.

This density is why hardwoods tend to be structurally stronger, though you must be more wary of tear-out.

While the nuanced grain pattern is why many find them more appealing for design than softwoods. 

Popular varieties are, but not limited to, maple, poplar, cherry, oak, and ash.

With, or Against, the Grain?

In woodworking, when we divide graining into two basic categories, we have: straight and cross grain.

Straight grain is a cut that has streaks which run parallel from end to end length wise.

Cross grain is a cut where you go against the parallel lines, resulting in anywhere from a 1 to 90 degree angle off of the grain.

There are more specific types of grain beyond those blanket terms.

We also have irregular grain - where the wood fibers don’t grow straight, they curve a bit around knots and such.

There is diagonal grain - where a straight-grain log isn’t sawn along the vertical axis.

Spiral grain - is where a tree that grows twisted - has fibers which follow a spiral pattern that grows with either a left, or right, turning twist.

An interlocked grain comes from a tree whose fibers grew in opposite directions with each layer.

Lastly, we have wavy grain - where the direction that the wood fibers grow constantly changes like waves in water. Knots may or may not be there. Different than an irregular grain.

See: Saw

So you’ve gotten this far, good job! Still a bit to go, but you’re far enough to get close to picking out the right wood for your needs.

 A new thing to consider to make sure you get what you need, the direction of the sawing.

A piece of timber is taken to the saw to be turned into lumber.

 A good sawyer understands that the lumber needs to have a consistent pattern for many people’s needs.

The different methods of sawing produce different results, like the direction and angle of the graining.

Different Methods of Sawing

  • Flatsawn - This method produces lumber with lines going up the vertical length of the piece. It is made by cutting along the same axis for the whole log. Considered to be a less stable cut, it can cause cupping and bowing in the process of drying. Also, to use this method on the sawing of the whole log is wasteful since there will be a lot of excess scrap.
  • Quartersawn - This method produces lumber with ring lines that shoot out at 90 degrees from the wide face of the plank. Structurally, the vertical grain gives quartersawn logs greater stability and strength. It ends up looking like rainbow lines - a very “beautiful” cut.
  • Riftsawn - You can think of riftsawn cuts as being the middle ground between the more vertical flatsawn graining and the more horizontal quartersawn graining. The look tends to be more uniform since you get more variability in the other two methods. More strong of a cut than flatsawn, riftsawn comes close to dimensional stability of quartersawn.

Definitions and Grades

Ok, I know this seems like a lot of detail, and it is. But I think you’d rather take the time to figure it out here calmly while you’re reading this, than confused in the aisle at your local home improvement store.

Or maybe you’re at the store reading this, in which case - better late than never, friend.

So now we’re onto lumber grades, which have classifications based on two main factors: its appearance, and strength.

Lumber grades are either stress-graded, or non-stress graded.

Stress-graded means that the wood is being used in a load-bearing capacity where it needs the strength.

Non-stress graded acts as a blanket term for the wood that is meant for alternative utility, and appearance lumber. There is a rating system for non-stress graded lumber to help you determine the quality of the planks.

Appearance lumber is what is used in projects where there is a chance that the wood may be visible. This is where the information above refers back. Also, there is a rating system for appearance lumber to help you pick out the right amount of graining and knotting you’re seeking.

Hardwood Grades

Hardwoods are generally sought after for their appearance.

They have certain issues that are specific to their denser growth pattern. Due to these issues, hardwood grades are classified by the amount of defects.

The defects affect the length and amount of usable material yield. The highest quality hardwood lumber is classified as FAS (Firsts and Seconds), and the lowest quality hardwood is classified as #2 Common, with a few other grades in between.

The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) of the US grades hardwoods by the number of defects in a board.

* First and Seconds (FAS): Min. board size of 6” x 8”, 83%+ usable material, both sides meet requirements, length of 8’ or longer

* FAS One Face (F1F): Min. board size of 6” x 8”, 83%+ usable material, only one side needs to meet requirements, length of 8’ or longer

* Select (Sel): Same requirements as F1F except, min. board size of 4” x 6”

#1 Common (#1 Com): Min. board size of 3” x 3’ or 4” x 2’, 66% usable material on both sides, length of 4’ or longer

#2 Common (#2 Com): Min. board size of 3” x 2’, min. 50% usable material on the poorest face, length of 4’ or longer

Softwood Grades

Non-stress Lumber Grades:

#1 - Construction: Average amount of tight knots

#2 - Standard: More, and larger knots

#3 - Utility: Has knotholes and splits

#4 - Economy: Has many defects, splits, and knotholes

#5 - Economy: Has the largest waste areas and defects.

Appearance Lumber Grades:

A Select: No splits, knots, or visible defects.

B Select: A few small defects.

C Select: Small knots, still high quality.

D Select: Good appearance, but may contain other small blemishes and pin knots.

1 Common: Has an overall knotty appearance; knots are tight, small so they will not fall out

2 Common: Also has an overall knotty look, but with slightly larger knots than in 1 Common.

3 Common: Larger knots than in 2 Common

Special Types of Woodgrain

Because wood comes from a formerly living entity, there are some really unique patterns in lumber that you can only find in particular species, or even just from a specific batch of a given species.

On top of that, a particular method of sawing would be required to skillfully derive the lumber from the timber.

Of course, if it’s unique enough, and you’re in that kind of market, there may be an understanding that you’ll have to pay a pretty penny for the choice of cut. Kind of like choosing granite or marble.

Some examples of woodgrain with unusual, entrancing patterns are: silver grain, crotch figure, curly grain, bird’s eyes, quilted figure, ribbon figure, and burl figure.


As you can see, if you go deeper - woodgrain can be a dense topic. Punning aside, the further you go, the more detail you will be able to add to your design.

With that added detail you’ll naturally get higher quality and finer precision.

In the end, the goal of this added knowledge should be to hopefully help your own Mom and Dad stay sane and satisfied with their choice of cabinets. Touch wood!

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