Go Figure

Finding Hidden Surprises in Wood

Some years ago, Guild member John Watson generously gave me a bunch of 2″ x 4″ x 18″ hard maple offcuts he had lying around. They have been really useful for various purposes. And one of John’s pieces will now, hopefully, achieve some small measure of fame through this article. For me, it has certainly made possible a heightened appreciation of wood and its aesthetic possibilities.

This shows how the grain is oriented with respect to the four faces which have been labeled North, South, East and West. Consider first the North face. The grain runs more or less parallel to the North face. This is because the piece was plainsawn (sometimes called slab-sawn or flat-sawn). Plain-sawn wood is by far the most common in lumber yards, mainly because sawing that way produces the most yield from the logs and the most profits. The North face shows a familiar grain pattern, just another piece of ordinary maple. There is more or less a grain direction up to down, but the grain pattern also curves and forms the familiar cathedral grain shapes that we probably just assume that’s what all wood looks like.

Now consider the East surface. You can see that the end grain is not parallel to the Eastern surface at all, it runs into it at an angle – not quite at 90° – but in that ballpark. Wood cut in this way is called quarter-sawn and is desirable in woodworking for many reasons. For one thing, wood expands and contracts due to humidity changes by only about 30% on a quarter-sawn surface than it does on a plain-sawn surface, rendering the object made from it more stable. But what concerns us here is appearance. Notice that the grain lines are parallel! Depending on your tastes, you might consider this a lot more attractive for a woodworking project than showing the flat sawn side. At a minimum it presents you with another decorative possibility in whatever you are building.

The South surface is plain-sawn. But this time, it is cut through a discoloration in the piece. It is similar to the North face in grain pattern, but with the discoloration visible. Some would consider such discoloration a defect and others an aesthetic feature, depending on their taste. Finally, consider the West side. By tilting the table saw blade I have rendered this side “perfectly quarter-sawn” meaning the grain runs into the surface at as close to 90° as possible. Plus a hidden surprise emerges – an aesthetic delight. The wood reveals an entirely new feature, its medullary rays, which look like horizontal flecks and short stripes of a contrasting color. What are the decorative possibilities of such a pattern? The photo below shows a guitar made by one of my students.

The body is walnut and the decorative banding (called binding) made by him of maple cut in such a way as to present a perfectly quarter-sawn face. As you can, see it produces a striking effect. Other woods also show surprising decorative features when they are quarter-sawn. My favorite is cherry. The photo below shows a bottom view of one of my guitars. Notice how the medullary ray effect really leaps out, especially when viewed close up as in this photo. To my own taste, the effect is as striking as the rarest exotic piece of wood you can find. Nonetheless it is a humble piece of local cherry, carefully cut for perfect quarter-sawing, as explained above.

To find quarter-sawn wood can be a challenge. Most lumber yards, even ones specializing in fine hardwoods, usually don’t go to the trouble. Narrow pieces can be made in the home shop from flat sawn lumber, but to get wide boards you need a saw mill. Over the years I have been building up a network of suppliers. One of these is in Center Sandwich, NH – Tom Thiel (www.northwindtimber.com). Tom has often gone the extra mile to get woods to my specifications. He specializes in guitar woods but also supplies material of interest to fine woodworkers. He has even traveled to Brazil in search of Brazilian Rosewood, the legal kind from fallen trees and stumps. To do this he dresses up in an Indiana Jones outfit and rides a horse through the Amazon jungle. This is very dangerous because there are flying poisonous snakes that hurl themselves from the trees at you as you gallop by, or so Tom tells me. But I digress…

We have so far dealt with only one kind of figure – medullary rays – which can be brought to light in many kinds of woods simply by sawing them correctly. Besides medullary rays, which pretty much all woods have to one degree or another, there are all sorts of other kinds of figure to be found in wood, such as beeswing, tiger, bearclaw, flame and curl. These, for the most part, are found only in a limited subset of trees from their respective species. You can’t create them by how you saw the planks.

One of my favorites is curly cherry. Curl is found in perhaps only 5% of cherry trees. The photo here shows the back of one of my guitars using cherry that is both curly and also perfectly quarter-sawn. It also has a few black pitch pockets and small knots. To my taste, it is about as beautiful a piece as wood can get. The curls are the relatively long light and dark stripes perpendicular to the ebony center stripe. These actually shimmer and switch appearance from dark-light to light-dark as light hits the guitar from different angles. All curly woods I have experimented with show a similar effect.

Bear in mind that if the piece were not well quarter-sawn, you would still see the waves, but the medullary rays would disappear. Notice also that the medullary rays are not uniform over the entire back – they only appear in places. This is because their appearance depends on the underlying grain being almost precisely 90° to the surface. And since the grain is not geometrically uniform in orientation across the whole piece, you only see the rays where the angle happens to be close enough to 90° in that particular area. To me, that inherent irregularity only adds to the charm.

Interestingly, the guitar back in this photo, which I consider ideal, would be rejected by the major guitar factories. They don’t want small pitch pockets nor small knots. They are not even too keen on rays. This leads to interesting conversations with my wood supplier, Tom Thiel. “Well I have some sets the factories won’t accept because they have defects,” he says. And I respond, “Tom, these aren’t defects! They are features! To me they are what gives the wood its character and charm.” But he’s really good about getting me just what I want, as you can see from the photograph.

Perhaps this article has stirred some interest in exploring the decorative possibilities of the features hidden in woods – even common ones such as cherry and maple. I hope you will enjoy seeing what hidden surprises you can discover by quarter-sawing woods in your shop. I recently discovered a very subtle but, to close inspection, striking effect by quarter-sawing a piece of holly. So experiment. Try perfectly quarter-sawing some wood you have lying around the shop. See if you like the effect, maybe to use in some decorative inlay or for a set of table legs. Or see what happens when you combine rays with other types of figure. Your aesthetic taste will likely be different from mine, but you will have a larger palette of decorative possibilities to choose from.

© 2011, John Whiteside