SAWYER V.S. WOODWORKER NOMENCLATURE
The Sawyer has had his way with the log, and we already looked at how grain orientation affects the lumber appearance and stability, now on to language and the consumer. It is common to refer to boards by the supposed method used in sawing them, such as quarter sawn, rift sawn, or plain/flat sawn. In a recent video, I invoked the term rift sawn, and was told by a commenter that I used the term incorrectly, and that rift sawn lumber is actually lumber that has about a 45º degree grain orientation. (that comment thread is in the bottom of this post) The truth is that in lumber and milling terminology, there is no authority, and no consensus. As such, there is no correct or proper term. Here is a Duck Duck Go search that illustrates the diversity and confusion of terms.
There is also a strange divide between sawyers and the the lumber merchants and users which reveals a hard contradiction. If one wanted to do the work, a stint of historical research might yield an evolution of these terms that could create a basis for claiming that certain terms are more justifiably used for certain methods of sawing. To get woodworkers and lumber merchants to start using a “corrected” terminology seems like herding cats. Sure it would be of utility to adopt a common convention and that would avoid much confusion, but between the unlikelihood of effectiveness and the level of effort involved, it doesn’t seem important enough to bother. Regardless, I’ll make my argument for what a less confusing common convention might look like at the end of this article.
A board is what it is and is not the terms we might use to describe it. Even if 100% of people agree that a board is correctly and accurately described by the term quarter sawn, or rift sawn, it is still not either. The object, the board just is what it is. Unequivocal acceptance of terminology implies that there is somehow, somewhere a consensus, or authority, or that there is some absolute grounds for using a given terminology. I do not believe that any of those are true. If anything, I think we are confusing ourselves by referring to lumber by the method of sawing, because it is impossible to know what method the sawyer used in all cases. I often use these sawyer terms myself to describe lumber, but it really doesn’t make sense.
It is my best guess that the lumber terminology that refers to a board as sawn in a certain way, derives from sawyer terminology referring to the strategy used to cut up logs. For instance in quarter sawing, the log must first be quartered in order to pursue that strategy. But there are also two and quite different methods of sawing up those quarters, which are both commonly called quarter sawing, and more variations on one of them.
I think it is likely that the term and method which seems to be most commonly referred to as rift sawing (as a strategy, not as a grain orientation!) derives from riven lumber, which is split from logs rather than sawn. If you split a log into halves, then quarters, then 1/8ths, then 16ths etc, then hew those down into boards with an axe, you get about the same thing you get with what seems to be most commonly referred to as rift sawing; the end result being that all grain will be vertical. Some entomological and historical research might help support or call into doubt that theory, but I can’t be bothered. I just don’t think it matters that much. The only reason I’m talking about it so much is that I think it offers a window into our use of language and our attitude about words and definition, and the validity of convention and authority.
Grain orientation and sawing methods is an interesting study of language, because it involves two main parties, the lumberman and the wood consumer. The lumberman may sell the lumber merchant wood that is literally quarter sawn, which involves first cutting the log into quarters, thus the term. But in selling wood to consumers, all that really matters is the grain orientation, not the sawing method. The truth is you can get 90 degree grain boards out of a single log when sawn by any of the above illustrated three most common methods, and others; it’s just that you will get more or less of it. This creates a perfect storm for confusion. It makes a lot more sense to dispense with sawing terminology on the merchant/consumer end, and use grain orientation to describe lumber. It would make sense to use sawyer terminology if you were buying a whole log, or having a log custom milled, otherwise, it doesn’t matter how the log was sawn, just the end result.
The culture of wood consumers and lumber merchants it seems has somehow come to often use the term rift sawn to indicate lumber with a diagonal grain. But the most common use of the term rift sawing from the sawyers end is a method which produces zero diagonal grain boards! It’s sole purpose is to produce 100% vertical grain boards at any cost.
The term quarter sawn on the other hand commonly seems to indicate vertical grain wood in the lumber world, while the methods most commonly called quartersawn in milling produce both vertical and diagonal grain. So, if the terminology originally derives from sawyers and the mill, it could be argued that the lumber merchants and woodworkers have it sort of backward if anything. But are they wrong?
Language is not just manufactured, it’s a product of living, changing culture. I once read a thread where someone posted a picture of what almost anyone would call a hatchet and some guy said, that is not a hatchet, a hatchet is …. I don’t even remember what he said, some old type of chopping hatchet axe thing that was different. But if you walk up to 100 people on the street and say what is this and hand them a standard short camp hatchet, they are almost all going to call it a hatchet, with maybe a random person calling it a camp axe. So, basically it is now effectively known as a hatchet by majority use. Language is fluid and evolves over time. Which came first, the dictionary or the word? The dictionary attempts to maintain standards and conventions, but it is also there to document and legitimize new and changing language. And regardless of all of that, a board of whatever configuration just is what it is in spite of our monkey chatter.
The nomenclature around lumber and milling is very confused and confusing. Because of the contradictions in milling and lumber terminology, and because ALL of the most common milling methods produce vertical grain lumber and all but one produce diagonal grain, I think the best argument that can be made toward a more sensical standardization of grain orientation terminology, is to leave the sawyers terminology to those milling the wood. If woodworkers and lumber merchants were to stick to grain orientation and work toward a convention around that, much confusion could be avoided. Not only is it not possible to take a vertical or diagonal board and know what method was used to cut it, but it is also completely irrelevant to the user. The obvious exception would be if you are having a log custom milled. But, you’d better make sure that you and the sawyer are on the same page regarding terminology of sawing strategies.