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Rift sawn wood has been cut from a log using a radial cutting pattern, so that the face of each board is perpendicular to the log’s concentric annual growth rings. Drawing a rift sawing diagram on the end of a log would resemble the spokes on a wheel. Rift sawing wood is the least economical method of sawing, producing a great deal of waste and requiring time-consuming adjustment of the log or blade before every cut. The boards produced by rift-sawing are much more stable than plain-sawn boards, and marginally more stable than quarter-sawn; that is, it’s the least likely cut of wood to warp, and shrinkage is minimal. The grain pattern on the face of rift sawn wood is straight and narrow, and the “flakes” caused by the wood’s medullary rays on the face of the boards aren’t as pronounced as they are on quarter-sawn boards. Rift sawn wood is used primarily in applications where a uniform grain appearance is desirable, such as furniture legs.
There are two other ways to cut planks or boards from a log: plain-sawing and quarter-sawing. Plain-sawing is simply slicing a log lengthwise into boards of equal thickness and varying widths. Plain-sawing wood is the quickest and most economical cutting method, with little waste, but the boards are most likely to warp. Quarter-sawing wood involves first cutting the log into quarters, and then into boards following one of a few different techniques. Depending on the technique followed, quarter-sawn wood produces more waste, but the boards are more stable, and many woodworkers believe that quarter-sawn wood, when finished, is the most aesthetically appealing because of the flake-like patterns made by the medullary rays in hardwoods.
Softwoods — wood from coniferous trees like pine, fir and hemlock — generally are only plain-sawn, a method of sawing wood that simply cuts slices of wood from the log, never changing the orientation of the log to the saw blade. Softwoods are usually used for dimensional lumber, for framing houses and other wood projects. Plain-sawn wood will exhibit a wide variety of grain patterns because on some boards, the growth rings of the wood will be more or less perpendicular to the face of the board, and on others, will be at angles of 15 to 30 degrees.
Although hardwoods like oak, cherry and maple will sometimes be plain-sawn, sawyers will also quarter- or rift-saw logs of these popular hardwoods. This is done both to reduce the possibility of the boards warping, as well as to present end users with boards of relatively uniform grain patterns. Rift-sawing a log, as mentioned, is the most wasteful because the log’s orientation to a fixed blade must be adjusted because each board cut is oriented toward the center of the log, like the spokes of a wheel. Thus, there will be many triangular-shaped lengths of wood left over from the cutting process. Additional boards can be cut from these waste pieces, but they will be narrower and thus more limited in their use.
It should be noted that there’s some controversy in the woodworking community about the difference between rift sawn and quarter sawn wood, with some claiming that there’s virtually no difference between boards cut by these two methods. Indeed, based on characteristics of the cut wood, rather than the method used to cut it, many quarter-sawn boards cannot be distinguished from rift sawn, and some of the boards cut by plain-sawing also meet the qualifications of quarter-sawn or rift sawn.