Rift, Plain, and Quarter Sawn White Oak Flooring Explained
Have you ever noticed how one oak floor may look uniform and have tight, straight grains while another has bold, undulating grains? This is because both types of planks can come from the same tree. It’s how the sawmill cuts the log that determines how the finished board will look on the floor.
There are multiple ways to cut straight boards out of a round log. We will discuss those methods and how the boards look afterward.
Regardless of species, all logs go through the same process, and each type of cut yields the same look. Therefore, today, we will refer to only white oak.
The type of cuts used to make the planks affects the lumber’s clarity, graining, price, and grading. So let’s start by looking at the different ways lumber mills cut up the logs.
Rift Sawn vs. Quarter Sawn vs. Flat Sawn
There are primarily three cuts that you’ll see at your local flooring store. They are flat, quarter-sawn, and rift cut.
1. Flat Sawn
Flat sawn or plain sawn is the most common and least expensive method of sawing lumber for flooring. However, as the saw blade reaches the beginning of the heartwood, the log turns 90-degrees, and the mill continues cutting. After they cut all four sides, they finish by cutting boards out of the heartwood.
It is a more efficient milling method than a quarter or rift sawing. However, they don’t use the heartwood for flooring material which generates more waste. These boards are strong, yet they are the most likely to have issues like warping, twisting, and cupping.
2. Quarter Sawn
Quarter sawn lumber, as the name implies, starts by cutting the entire log into quarters. Then, the mill cuts a board from one flat surface, rotates the log, and cuts the next board, alternating as they cut. As a result, they end up with ever narrower boards until only a wedge piece is left.
Quarter-sawing yields stronger boards than plain sawn, but the higher waste adds to its cost.
This promotional video does an excellent job of demonstrating the difference between quarter and plain sawing.
3. Rift Sawn White Oak Flooring
Rift sawn white oak lumber, like quarter sawn, starts by cutting the log into quarters. The difference here is that the mill cuts each quarter into a spiral pattern. Visualize the end of a log and the circular rings like a clock face. Rift cut boards come out of sections at the 2, 4, 8, and 10 o’clock positions. When viewing the end of the board, the grain pattern runs between 30 to 60 degrees from the face, with 45 degrees the optimal cut.
Rift cut lumber is difficult to make and creates the most waste. However, the boards are the most uniform, have the straightest grains, and have the most resistance to warping or cupping.
This animation demonstrates how the rift-cut boards emerge from the log. It’s like cutting a pie into slices, except the process does not use the center wood core.
There is one more cut we need to mention. It’s called live sawn lumber.
Before there were electrical or steam-powered saws, good old-fashioned two-man saws and muscle turned trees into boards. Live sawn was the only way pioneers could cut boards to make their homes and barns. They cut boards from logs by slicing them lengthwise, and hopefully, kept each board the same width. Lumber mills are recreating the look again due to increasing demand for rustic or old-timey look of barn wood and wide planks.
The technique is called Live Sawn. Other terms for this cut are French cut or European cut. It’s the simplest way to cut a log. A lumber mill will place the tree on their saw and cut slices down the length of the tree without turning it. It’s like slicing a loaf of bread lengthwise to get long, uniform slices. These planks provide a full range of the tree’s characteristics and grades of lumber all in one board. The center cuts will show a cross-section of the entire tree with the darker heartwood and cathedral grain patterns in the middle to the tight grains of the outer sapwood.
Live sawn is the only method that includes the heartwood. Typically, lumber mills discard heartwood and use it as pallet-grade lumber.
Comparing the Grain Patterns in White Oak
White oak has a unique grain that lends itself to a variety of different looks. Depending on the type of cut, oak can look like an entirely different species.
Flat Sawn White Oak Boards
The rings that intersect the board are no more than 35 degrees from the top plain of the board. The grains resemble dark cathedral or flame shapes and designs.
Flat sawn planks yield an irregular grain pattern depending on where the board came from inside the log. For example, a board near the outside of the log looks like quarter sawn, while planks from the center have a curved or cathedral grain pattern.
Quarter Sawn White Oak
Quarter sawn boards have more consistent graining because the growth rings run parallel to the larger faces of the board. However, the grains on the long edge of the board may still be inconsistent and not parallel.
With this cut, the growth rings are at 90 degrees to the face of the board. Because the cuts are not across the grain as in flat sawn, the board’s face has straighter graining. This cut produces white oak’s signature “tiger stripes” called medullary rays. In the living tree, medullary rays carried nutrients within the tree. They can be very wide and pronounced or thin and subtle.
Rift sawn yields boards of the highest quality and clarity. Each board is nearly flawless, with arrow-straight lines unmarred by tiger stripes, knots, or color variations.
The Differences In Price And Quality
Before we talk about the price, you must understand the different grades and descriptions. The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) describes the various flooring cuts as follows:
- Quartered Only/Quarter Sawn – A minimum of 50% of the piece must include quartered characteristics. That means the angle of the growth ring tangent to the board’s face should be between 45 and 90 degrees. Most of the grain lines should be parallel to the length of the board. There must be medullary ray flecks present and broader than 1/16”.
- Rift Only/Rift Sawn – A minimum of 75% of the board must contain rift characteristics. These include the growth rings are between 30 and 60 degrees tangent to the board’s face. Grain lines are tight and mostly parallel to the length of the board. It has reduced medullary ray flecks of less than 1/16” wide if any.
- Rift and Quartered – This grade is a mixture of quarter sawn and rift sawn combined at the mill during the production run. Rift and quartered white oak is the most common and affordable flooring of the three options.
- Live Sawn – Sometimes referred to as French cut, live sawn boards include all of the qualities and characteristics of each cut in the same piece of board.
- Plain Sawn - This is the most widespread type of cut for oak flooring. It provides a grain pattern that is more spread out and not as tight as the other cuts. As a result, the grain pattern may have a wavier appearance instead of straight.
Other factors in the price of oak flooring are the grade of the boards. The three grades are:
- #1 Common, and
- #2 Common, also known as “Rustic” grade or “Builder’s” grade.
Grading is not about quality. It’s about the appearance of the board and the length. For example, Select has very few imperfections, such as knots or large grain patterns. #2 common or Rustic has lots of character, including knots, varieties of color, and grain patterns. Grading is a way to order the look you want on an oak floor.
When it comes to plain sawn flooring prices, this method is the most common and easiest to produce, resulting in the cheapest option. The next step up in price is quarter sawn white oak. There is more waste in the cutting process, but the boards have a more uniform appearance. For example, in furniture making, a custom leg in quarter sawn white oak can be twice the price of the plain. Another reason for the price increases is that fewer mills produce this type of lumber.
The rift sawn white oak flooring price is the highest. Because of the high waste and low supply, rift sawn is the most expensive lumber for oak flooring. It’s also the highest grade and the most dimensionally stable of the four cuts.
Few lumber mills produce it due to the high labor cost and waste. However, if you can afford it, a rift sawn oak floor is gorgeous.
Generally speaking, when you move up the quality ladder from plain sawn to rift and quartered, expect to add about a dollar to the cost per foot.
What is the Best Cut for Oak Flooring?
Each type of cut creates boards of unique character. For example, flat sawn oak makes boards with that distinctive significant flame or cathedral grain pattern on the surface. However, since the grains go in different directions, these boards can expand and contract more. As a result, it’s more prone to warping, cupping, and twisting than other cuts with straighter grain patterns.
(Flat sawn white oak boards)
Quarter sawn oak doesn’t show the big cathedral grains of flat sawn, and it’s less likely to warp. However, it displays straight, even grains highlighted with the rays or tiger stripes desirable in oak flooring.
(Quarter sawn white oak boards)
Rift sawn oak is the best choice if you want a floor that’s entirely free of dark or uneven grains. On the other hand, it can look monotonous across a large floor, so most people like the look of a mixture of rift and quarter sawn.
(Rift sawn white oak boards)
Easiklip is a mixture of plain sawn, rift sawn, and quarter sawn oak flooring in 5-inch wide, prefinished planks. It’s an excellent choice for DIYers and anyone who wants a moderately priced solid white oak floor. It comes in five colors. You can see them and order samples here.
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- Easiklip Floors - Harry Chu