How To Tell The Direction of Wood Grain

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I hate shaving.  Fortunately, I do not need to be clean-shaven every day, especially if I am working in the shop or the garden.  Still, even shaving 3 days a week is an annoyance.

But, when I do shave, I know the smoothest shave will come by running the blade against the direction of whisker growth.

Key Points:

  • The eyes have it.  Examine the surface, the edge, and the end, to get a sense of the grain direction.
  • If the eyes are not enough, the feel will fill in more information.  No taste test is necessary – it’s wood, not food.  By the way, have you ever wondered why wood and food are not pronounced the same way?
  • Finally, if you are still confused, take a scraper tool to the wood, and if the scrape is smooth, you’re going with the grain, not against it.

Run your finger up your cheek, your upper lip, or your leg; then, run your finger in the opposite direction.  One will feel a little smoother than the other, and that will tell you the direction of whisker or hair growth.  A better, closer shave will come from a very sharp blade; a dull blade can nick your face or your leg, so if your blade is dull, keep that styptic pencil close by.

This piece is not about shaving, obviously, but the principles applicable to shaving are also applicable to woodworking.  It has to do with wood grain direction. The difference has to do with how you work with wood vs. how you work with your face or legs:  in woodworking, we want to be working with the grain, while in shaving, we work against it.

Otherwise, it’s same, same, the same.

We need to be able to determine the grain direction on the piece of wood we’re working with.  Can our finger find the grain lines?  Is it only a matter of feel?

Wood Grain

Wood Grain

We know that wood grain refers to the alignment, feel, and appearance of wood fibers.  It’s an important consideration for any project to determine the direction of those wood fibers and to work with them when cutting, planing, and sanding.  The result will be a better project.

When viewing and discussing wood grain, there will be several types:

  • Straight grain:  exactly what it suggests – running in a single direction along your piece of wood
  • Cross grain:  again, what it suggests, although in this case, it will refer to fiber growing out from the center of the tree the wood has come from
  • Spiral grain:  as the tree trunk twists during growth of the tree, the grain will develop something of a spiral direction

Cross and spiral grain wood can be cut to reveal beautiful grain presentation in wood.  When it comes to timbers, though, and their use in construction, cross grain, and spiral grain are not suitable, as they will weaken over time.  Only straight grain will hold structural integrity for long periods of time.

Hardwood boards without straight grain will need special attention in machining them.  Machined in the wrong direction, you run the risk of grain lines along the edge separating.  

When referring to the texture, or feel, of grain, you mean the size, difference in size, type, and configuration of the wood’s fibers.  This will affect the appearance of the grain, whether it is fine-grained or coarse-grained.

Whether a wood is open-grained or closed grain has to do with the size of the pores in the wood:  larger pores will be open-grained, while smaller pores, not even visible to the naked eye, will be closed-grained.  We’ve mentioned this aspect of woods, softwoods, and hardwoods in past articles.

Examples of open-grained woods include elm, oak, and ash, while examples of closed-grained woods include maple, cherry, pine, and birch.  You can read up on those woods if you’d like simply by clicking on their highlighted names.

Determining the Directions of Grain

Just as we use our senses of touch and look in the mirror to determine the direction of beard growth, we use our senses to determine the direction of wood grains.

We look in different places on the piece of wood, and we feel along several places of it.  Between look and feel, we can usually identify the grain orientation.  That grain orientation will reveal itself in several ways to us as long as we are patient and know what we are looking for.

Visual Inspection of the Wood

Wood Grain

Eyes on the face of the wood can point us in the right direction (there’s a little bit of a pun in there) to find the direction of the grain.  

The lines you see on the face of the wood will generally point in the direction of the grain.  While it may not include every line running in the same general direction, most will point that way, and your eyes will tell you that direction.

You’ll also find grain lines along the edge of the piece of wood.  Although not absolutely determinative of grain direction, it nonetheless is pretty accurate.  There will likely be a bit of curve to the lines, too, as growth rings are circular, not straight, and that will result in curves along the wood edge.  Whichever way the curve rises along the edge will be the direction of the grain.

For even more visual inspection, take a look at the end grain of the wood.  That’s where you will most clearly see the growth rings of the wood, and in doing so, you’ll learn which face of the piece of wood was in closest proximity to the center of the tree.

Working with wood whose end grain shows rings that are very close together is desirable.  This is so because there is less apt to be wood movement due to shrinkage.  When we find wider spring and summer ring growth, we’re more apt to encounter greater expansion due to the greater humidity in the warmer weather.

So, look at the face, the edge, and the end.  The collective information that visual inspection will help you gather, the greater the degree of accuracy in determining the direction of the grain.

Tactile Inspection of the Wood

The feel of the wood will be as revealing of growth direction as the feel of your face or legs will tell you the growth direction of your beard or the hair on your legs.  It could be a stand-alone reveal, or together with visual inspection, can serve as confirmation of what our eyes detected.

For undressed lumber, the feel will be very clear.  Run your hand in both directions, and you’ll find one to be rough (against the grain) and one to be smooth (with the grain) in most instances.  Or use your fingernail, and it catches along the wood you know you are running it against the grain.

However, if the feel is mostly the same in both directions, you will want some other way to verify grain direction.  Be sure to watch out for splinters, too.

If the visual inspection and the feel inspection still don’t provide a solid answer, you might want to grab a hand tool  We’d suggest a scraper (rather than a plane).  The cutting edge on a scraper has a lower angle, rather than the more acute angle of a planer, and will enter the wood grain at the shallowest angle possible. 

Why Do We Want To Work With the Grain Rather Than Against it?

Simple:  tear out.  If you cut against, plane against, rout against, the grain, you run the risk of tear out.  This will ruin the piece of wood you are working with for your project, and you’ll need to start over again or change the dimensions a bit to remove the tear out.

The purpose of finding the direction of the grain is to keep your project pieces clean and neat.  It’s that simple.  

Video Demo Finding and Working With The Grain

It’s short and directly on point, all in less than 2 minutes.  If you want to see grain detection in motion, take 2 minutes to watch this, and then you’ll be all set going forward in your woodworking.

You do not need to be a wood whisperer to determine the grain direction of your work pieces.  Follow the eye and hand method, see everything, feel everything, and then get to work.  

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