What Is Quarter Sawn Oak?

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Amish woodcrafters are known for their quality furniture and their woodworking skills.  They go to great lengths to create and produce well-made oak furniture that will last.  Among those lengths is the sawmilling of their own lumber.

Trees are felled, or logs are purchased and then broken down in their own sawmills.  The two most common cutting methods are discussed below in some detail.  

White oak and red oak are the most common types of oak used for furniture. Both are hardwoods, determined by the trees and not by the hardness of the wood, with white oak having a Janka scale rating of 1360 and red oak’s rating of 1290. Their ratings are close enough that once the wood has been worked, finished, and sealed, they each perform well and last a long time.

White oak wood will offer medium tans and browns that also display a bit of yellow, while red oak offers brown and white tones with a slightly pink hue to them. Each of these is a good choice for furniture and flooring because of their durability – one of the most durable for kitchen cabinets, with its hardness and strength helping it resist rot and warping from moisture in the kitchen environment, as well as dents and dings.

The manner in which oak logs are broken down at the sawmill will have an effect on the appearance of the lumber.  The most common cuts for oak include:

Plain sawn Oak

Also known as flat sawn, this manner of breaking the logs down at the sawmill is cutting them such that growth rings intersect the face of the lumber at no more than a 30-degree angle.  Cuts are made parallel through the whole log, using the most of the log of any cutting method.  You’ve probably seen videos of logs being cut from top to bottom without moving the log.  It’s the most efficient way to break down a log with a minimum of labor and waste.  

Quarter Sawn Oak 

This method of breaking down an oak log involves cutting the logs in quarters and rotating each quarter as it is cut so that the growth rings intersect the board’s face at a 90-degree angle.  Logs are cut in quarters, and then each quarter is rotated and cut into lumber.

This is a much less efficient way to break down oak logs and results in more waste than plain sawn oak.  It takes a while to get to the widest part of each log quarter for usable dimensional lumber, with the rest either being waste or of less usable dimensions.

The appearance of quarter sawn boards will be much different than that of plain-sawn boards because the growth ring angles will be different.

The advantages of quarter-sawn oak include:

  • A straighter grain pattern
  • A more interesting and pleasing appearance
  • Greater stability
  • Resistance to warping ad cupping

Patterns will present with quarter-sawn oak, usually referred to as “rays” or “flecks”, that can look a little bit like freckles.  We wrote about these ray flecks in a previous article about quarter-sawn sycamore, a common way of breaking down sycamore logs.  They enhance the appearance of quarter-sawn oak and give a unique beauty to furniture produced with it.  

Arts and crafts work with oak usually involve the use of quarter-sawn wood.  Also, mission furniture, a style made popular by Amish woodcrafters, also involves the use of quarter-sawn oak, giving mission furniture its distinctive look separate from the mission style.

Qualities of Quarter-Sawn Oak

Quarter-sawn oak is easy to work with, accepts staining quite well, and offers unique patterns and appearances.  It is rich in color and with a grain pattern that is not as thick as that of plain-sawn oak.  It also resists wear and decay and is not susceptible to the effects of a moist environment or of seasonal changes in the environment.  

It is more expensive, though than plain-sawn oak, as there is more labor and waste in the cutting process.  It is not a good wood for a paint finish, though – staining will bring out the beauty of this cut and should not be hidden.  Since the appearance and grain pattern of quarter-sawn oak is unique, it is a shame to hide it with paint.

Quarter-sawn oak is typically cut from higher quality wood, and of the two types of oak, red and white, it is usually white oak that is quarter-sawn.  In our research, we found quarter-sawn white oak at around $15 per board foot, while plain-sawn red oak was half that price.  You can see the effect of higher quality wood, more labor, and more waste has on the price of quarter-sawn oak.

We have two videos to present to you:  one just on quarter-sawn oak and that distinguishes between quarter-sawn and plain-sawn.  Each is interesting, and the first one also has some tips on finishing quarter-sawn wood.  If you’ve never worked with quarter-sawn wood, you will find these videos both interesting and informative.

The first:

And the second:  

We’re sure you’ve seen mission-style furniture and have noticed the appearance of the wood.  It’s different from other furniture styles, and the reason is because of the way the wood is milled.  

Now you know that method of breaking down white oak logs, and maybe it will inspire you to take on that mission-style project you’ve been considering.  Expect to pay extra for the wood, but the finished product will be beautiful, and you’ll be glad you paid up for the wood.

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