4 types of wood cuts and the effects on grain pattern

When lumber is cut it is usually cut in one of 4 different types of wood cuts.  These 4 types of wood cuts can create different characteristics in the wood grain of the lumber. Understanding how the different cuts can affect the overall look of lumber used in furniture making will help to make identifying different wood types easier. The 4 types of wood cuts which we will examine are Plain or Flat Cut, Rift Cut, Quarter Cut and Live Cut. 

Table of Contents

Plain or Flat Cut

Plain Sawn Wood

Plain or flat cut wood comes from logs that are cut lengthwise, producing boards with the annual growth rings roughly parallel to the face of the board. The sap wood and the heart wood are cut separately rather than together.  This is the main difference between plain sawn wood and live sawn wood.

This cut is the most cost-effective cut of wood and produces the least waste. It also however produces the largest distance between grain and results in a less stable wood.  Plain sawn lumber can warp as it dries. Despite this, plain sawing remains the most common type of wood cut.

This is a popular cut of wood used in furniture making or veneer due to the wavy grain pattern it can produce.  It also is known as cathedral grain pattern.

The end grain of plain sawn boards shows the tree’s growth rings, in the growth pattern.

plain cut end grain

Examples of Plain/Flat Cut Wood

Grey Elm Flat Cut Veneer
Grey Elm, Plain Cut
Walnut Flat Cut
Walnut, Plain Cut
Red birch, Flat Cut
Red Birch, Plain Cut
Red Cedar - flat cut
Red Cedar, Plain Cut

Quarter Cut

Quarter Cut Wood

Quarter cut wood is cut is a labour-intensive cut, where the logs are cut into quarters before sawing the wood further into planks.   Only the centre of the quarter cut is used, and the rest is discarded or used for other cuts.  This makes the quarter cut boards more costly than other cuts and it produces the most waste. 

In addition to being higher cost, this cut produces boards which are stable and have less tendency to shrink or warp, creating a sought-after board where stability in the wood is required. 

This cut is usually done at 90 degree to the growth rings and as the grain runs vertical (creating strength) it produces linear lines. 

The end grain of quarter cut wood runs in near straight lines. 

Quarter Cut End Grain

Examples of Quarter Cut Wood

Elm Grey Quarter Cut
Grey Elm, Quarter Cut
Walnut Quarter Cut
Walnut, Quarter Cut
Hickory Quarter Cut
Hickory, Quarter Cut
Yellow Pine, Quarter Cut
Yellow Pine, Quarter Cut

Rift cut

Rift Cut Wood

Rift cut wood is cut at a slight angle of approximately 45 degrees to the growth rings of the tree. It’s achieved by sawing perpendicular to the radius from the centre of the log. This produces straight grains and a tighter grain pattern. 

Rift cut is often made from the remaining or discarded sections of quarter cut logs, which results in smaller cuts, often of sap wood. It is hard to produce wider planks from the rift cut.  

As the rift cut is part of the quarter cut process, it also means the rift cut is a costly process. 

The end of the board shows the approximately 45-degree annular growth rings.  The end of the grain will be more angled than the straighter grain of the quarter cut.

Rift Cut End Grain

Live Cut

Live Cut Wood

It is easy to mistake live cut with a plain cut.  The main difference is that the live cut is made through the whole diameter of wood, which includes the heart and sap wood. 

As the wood is cut straight through, this cut can produce wide, cost-effective planks, popular for hardwood flooring. 

This cut can showcase the growth rings in flame and cathedral patterns.

As the cut is made across the whole diameter of the log, the grain pattern can reflect the differences across the annular rings with a chaotic and busy pattern, including lighter and darker woods from the heart and sap.

The end grain is like the end grain of the plain cut.   You can see the curves of the natural growth of the tree rings.

Live cut End Grain

Comparing the 4 types of wood cuts in short

When looking at the 4 main types of lumber cuts, it’s clear that each produces a distinctly different look in the wood grain. Here’s a brief recap:

Plain/Flat Cut – Produces a varied look with a lot of cathedral grain patterns. The growth rings in the log result in a wide mix of grain directions in the cut wood.

Quarter Cut – Produces a straight, uniform grain pattern like rift cut, but also features flecks and a distinctive ray fleck pattern perpendicular across the grain. This creates visual interest.

Rift Cut – Produces a consistent, straight grain pattern thanks to the radial cuts aligned with the growth rings. This results in a uniform look.

Live Cut – Produces a mixed look, with some straight grain and some curved patterns resulting from the angled cut. Overall, more variation than rift or quarter cut.

Cathedral walnut veneer, coated with clear shellac and top coat
Walnut Veneer - Plain Cut (cathedral grain)

Wood Figure

Figured wood refers to unique grain patterns which differ from the standard straight or uniformly wavy grain patterns found in most woods. These grain patterns are highly sought after for the dramatic looks that they can create.

The dramatic grain is often caused by anomalies in the wood can change the typical appearance of grain patterns made by wood cuts. Check out the 5 typical figured wood patterns. 

Cherry Figured Flat Cut
Figured Cherry, plain cut
Cherry - Figured quarter Cut
Figured Cherry, Quarter Cut

The traditional grain patterns in the photos of the figured cherry are different from the traditional grain patterns in the similar cuts.  The plain cut, is less cathedral and the quarter cut is more wavy, less lineal patterned.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to identify wood types can be tricky.   As you start to develop an understanding of how one species of wood looks, you will come across a piece of wood or furniture with a different cut. This can completely change how the grain pattern looks. This can be confusing when you first start on your journey of developing a knowledge of wood types. 

Learning the 4 types of wood cuts can support you in your journey of identification.  How flat cut walnut looks, can differ from quarter cut walnut. Knowing this, will increase your wood identification knowledge. 

Furthermore, when going to purchase new wood veneer, understanding the types of wood cuts will help you to make a good choice in purchasing the right veneer for your project. Heaven forbid you purchase quarter cut walnut when you really required flat cut walnut!

Wood Identification Kit from Sauers

Curious for more information on the Veneer Identification Kit from Sauers & Company?  I find this package of veneer samples incredibly helpful for identification of wood types. While the package contains a number of more exotic woods, it also have your furniture standards.

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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