Composing with Grain

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This article is from Issue 42 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Putting the best face on your work

By Peter Tischler

Perhaps the most creative aspect of woodworking happens when we choose which pieces of wood to use for a project. Much like painting a picture or composing a musical score, selecting the best grain pattern for various project parts can greatly enhance the overall harmony and balance of a piece. Conversely, haphazard grain can create a hodge-podge of lines that compromise the flow and finesse of a design. Fortunately, the tricks behind creating a stunning-looking project boil down to a few simple suggestions, combined with the willingness to look and learn.

In this article I’ll show you some of the principles of “reading” a board, laying out stock, and cutting parts with respect to the grain of the wood. I’ll give you some basic design guidelines here based on those principles, but don’t feel restricted by them. Use them as a springboard for your own creativity. Keep in mind that, although there is no particular “correct” approach to composing grain for a project, the eye is generally more pleased by balance, symmetry, and lines that complement form.

So pony up for some nice lumber, and be prepared to add a new visual dimension to your next project. I think you’ll find that the bit of extra time and material it costs you pays big dividends.

Selecting lumber

Selecting lumber for a project is challenging because hardwoods are sold in random lengths and widths, so cutting diagrams are seldom helpful. Before visiting the lumber yard, prepare a rough drawing of your project, as well as a cutting list to get a rough idea of the quantity and dimensions of boards you’ll need.

At the yard, pick the boards that best suit the part sizes, factoring in an additional 30% or so to account for knots, checks, and other defects that will need to be removed. On top of that (if the budget allows), buy an extra board or two to allow greater flexibility in choosing a desired grain pattern. This extra material is also insurance in case you need to remake a part due to a mistake.

To ensure the best color, texture, and grain match for your project, try to find matching boards from the same tree. Better mills will often arrange lumber from the same logs in the same stack. You may also be able to find board matches in smaller lumberyards, and even in home centers, by inspecting the ends of the boards (if the stock is rough-sawn), or by matching up knots or other distinctive grain patterns.

When selecting boards for prominent parts like door panels, drawer fronts, and tabletops, I search for the cleanest and most highly figured boards. Wide, plainsawn stock yields the best, most visually interesting material for these parts, with the annular rings at 30° or less to the face of the board (Figure 1).

On plainsawn boards, the face grain near the edges is often fairly straight, with the pattern in the middle displaying what I call “landscape figure.” When edge-joining full-width boards like this to create wider panels, the joint in the straight-grained areas is often rendered nearly invisible. The downside of wide, plainsawn boards is that they are not always the most stable, which is why I favor straighter grain stock for legs, rails, and stiles, which I get from riftsawn or quartersawn sections of a board.

“Straightening” grain

Oftentimes a board may have the straight grain that you need for a particular piece, but it doesn’t run parallel to the edge of the board. You can “correct” this by simply ripping the board to your desired width, sawing parallel to the straight grain (Figure 2). Mark out the width of the board, then make the first cut on the bandsaw. After jointing the cut square, rip the opposite edge on your tablesaw.

Book-matching

Bookmatching is the process of resawing a board (slicing it through its thickness), then splaying the two pieces apart as you would open a book (Figure 3). This results in a near mirror image displayed on the faces. There’s no better way to achieve visual balance and symmetry for paired door panels, stiles, drawer fronts, and other prominent parts.

About Our Author

Peter Tischler makes chairs, cabinets, and other furniture at his shop in Washington, New Jersey. He specializes in incorporating the techniques of straw marquetry in his work. To see more of his work, visit www.petertischler.com.



Legs


Typical furniture legs bear many grain composition sins. Perhaps the most common offense is that one face of a leg displays wild grain, while the grain on the adjacent face is straight and mild. This is not a complementary state of affairs, especially since all four faces of a leg may be evident.

To avoid wild, inconsistent grain on the faces of legs, cut them so that the annular rings of the end grain run diagonally from corner to corner, as close to 45° as possible. The best source for leg blank material is rift-sawn stock, often found at the edges of a plainsawn board (as shown in the drawing above.) It’s important to cut all your legs from the same board for grain and color consistency.

Curved legs often suffer from grain direction that conflicts with the shape of the leg itself, leading to a chaotic look and perhaps compromising strength in the process. For the best looking curved leg, lay it out on a section of a board that offers a complementary curve to the grain. This also ensures strength because it avoids creating “short grain” areas that are prone to breakage.

Cabriole legs deserve further consideration because of their complex shape. As with most legs, riftsawn stock is your best choice. However, the orientation of the diagonal annular rings produces two distinctly different results. Orienting the rings side-to-side yields a bull’s-eye pattern at the knee, which is more dramatic (although not what I personally prefer.) On the other hand, annular rings that run front-to-back result in grain that appears to follow the outline of the leg.



Aprons and rails


Table aprons, cabinet rails, chair rails, and other relatively narrow structural components deserve careful consideration of the grain for both strength and beauty. In general, use straight-grained stock for straight parts to ensure strength. Avoid extreme grain runout, which can weaken a piece. Whenever possible, I lay out arched aprons and rails to take advantage of complementary curved grain on a board, centering any unique grain pattern if possible to avoid visual imbalance. Aprons and rails provide a good opportunity to use up narrower rippings from previously sawn boards. Partially for that reason, I tend be less concerned about the grain pattern than I am with other, more prominent furniture elements like doors and drawer fronts.




Drawer fronts


I always reserve some of my best looking stock for drawer fronts, making sure to cut them from the same board to ensure color consistency.

A good approach to making a horizontal run of drawer fronts is to crosscut them sequentially from the same board so the grain flows uninterrupted across the row. If there is a particularly interesting focal point in the grain, consider centering it along the length of drawers. If you offset it, consider how that affects the balance of the piece. A horizontal row of drawer faces can also be resawn from a thick board and book-matched end to end for a more symmetrical continuity.

A vertical stack of drawers calls for a different approach. Using a board long enough to yield all the fronts I need, I sometimes lay out my widest drawer front first and let that dictate the pattern. After marking a centerline of the dominant figure in that front (such as a strong cathedral pattern), I rip each additional front to width, centering it on the same figure. Another approach is to book-match the fronts, which works particularly well if you have an even numbered stack of drawers.



Tabletops, case ends, and other panels


When edge-gluing boards to make tabletops, case ends, and other panels, use the widest boards possible, since they usually offer up the most attractive grain pattern. Cut your selected boards a few inches oversized in length if you can afford the stock. That way, you’ll be able to shift them a bit in relation to each other to better match the adjacent grain.

Whenever possible, glue straight grain to straight grain in order to better obscure the glue joint. Sometimes, trimming an edge back just a bit will create a nicer match. Check for this by overlapping the edge of one board onto another and comparing the adjacent grain. It can help aesthetically to organize the board widths symmetrically from the center outward, as shown in the drawing at right. Some woodworkers alternate the annular growth rings for each adjacent board to reduce overall cupping, but I feel that the most attractive face of a board should be the “show” side, regardless of grain orientation.



Doors

Cabinet doors often serve as the focal point on a piece of furniture. Keep in mind that a framed door isn’t unlike a painting in a frame. In this case, the frame shouldn’t detract from the “grain painting” within it.

I often use my most highly figured wood for door panels. While it’s generally best to use a single wide board for a door panel, sometimes you have to edge-join pieces to get the width you need. In that case, my first choice is often to resaw a thick board and edge-join the resulting pieces to create a book-matched panel.

When you’re making a wider panel from whatever boards you have on hand, flip the boards face to face and end to end, playing with the various combinations until you decide what looks best. Whenever possible, edge-join straight grain to straight grain to obscure the joint lines. If a panel includes cathedral grain, I usually orient the arch upwards to lighten the appearance of the cabinet.

For aesthetics and proper operation, a door must remain flat, which requires careful selection of the frame material. For the stiles, I generally select straight grained, well-seasoned wood to ensure stability. It’s not visually necessary to use straight-grained pieces, but if a stile has sloped or tapered grain, I try to match it on the opposite stile for symmetry, either by book-matching or just by careful selection of my pieces.

As for rails, I’ll often rip both the top and bottom rail from the same length of straight-grained board so they’ll match well in grain pattern and color. You can also resaw and book-match them for symmetry. With arched rails, it’s attractive to use stock with grain that’s complementary to the curve of the arch. Paired doors demand thoughtful grain composition to ensure balance and symmetry. For stability, it’s best to use straight-grained stock for the outermost (hinged) stiles. Because the innermost stiles are adjacent to each other, grain continuity or symmetry is particularly important. One trick is to rip both pieces from a wider board so that the finished stiles sit side by side as they came from the board. Alternatively, you could book-match them.

The rails can be crosscut sequentially from a longer board to ensure grain continuity, or you can book-match them end to end to create symmetry across the paired doors.  

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