Lumber Lingo: Quarter Sawn Oak

Just about anyone who’s ever shopped around for wood products—from individual homeowners shopping for decorative shelving or kitchen cabinets to contractors seeking vast amounts of wholesale lumber—has heard or seen wood marketed as “quartersawn oak.” The attentive consumer has likely noticed the higher price tag attached to such wood products, but some may wonder exactly why such cuttings are so prized.

Quarter Sawn Oak Defined

flat vs quartersawn Sapele

Technically, quarter sawn (a.k.a. quartermortersawn or quarter-sawn) wood is wood cut radially, or at right angles to the tree’s growth rings, as shown here. As you can see, each section produces only a few quartersawn boards, producing vast amounts of waste. Of course, the low yield contributes strongly to the heightened expense of these special cuts of wood.

Despite the low yield and higher price attached to quarter sawn oak, it is still prized for many applications. The main reasons for using quarter sawn oak include stability and appearance. The stable form means less shrinkage and warping, and the appearance of quarter sawn oak includes a prominent ray fleck, or medulliary-ray figuring which appears as vertical graining. Without knowing the genesis of a board, you can usually tell if it’s been quarter-sawn if the grain appears as straight, tight parallel lines running the entire length of the board. Sometimes referred to as “tiger oak,” this visual feature became a hallmark of the American Arts and Crafts movement as well as the Mission style of cabinetry and home furnishings.

Quarter Sawn Oak Deviations

Oak is not the only wood that can benefit from quarter-sawing: It can highlight the ribboned appearances of highly figured maples and sapeles, as well. (Quarter sawn maple is often used for high-end acoustic and electric guitars, for which both structural and aesthetic purposes.) Often, what is called quarter-sawing in the US yields more riftsawn boards than actual quarter sawn boards. Riftsawn boards are produced with a different orientation to the growth rings that isn’t quite the true right angle used to produced truly quarter sawn boards; as a result, they offer a different visual effect but leads to less waste and is less expensive to produce.

Quarter Sawn Oak Dates

During the Middle or “Dark” Ages (approximately 400 to 1400 A.D.), Gothic furniture relied heavily on the use of oak lumber. Remaining popular through the 1600s, oak was first quarter sawn and imported to Northern Europe during the 1300s. Known as wainscot, these boards were typically made from White Oak. It wasn’t until the 1900s, though, that the Arts & Crafts and Mission styles adopted quarter sawn oak as their material-of-choice. While mahogany and ebony are also major players, oak remains the star of the team.

While the celebrated style of quarter sawn oak may be giving way to the more frugal plain-sawn wholesale lumber, quarter sawn oak pieces are becoming collector’s pieces that are bound to stand the test of time.

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