Cherry Log: Quartersaw or Flatsaw?

      Appearance would argue for flatsawn, stability for quartersawn — but it's more complicated than that. October 1, 2010

I have a cherry tree that was recently logged and is 24 inch diameter and 16 foot long with very little taper. I have plans to have it sawn and dried with a few projects in mind. What are the best dimensions to have it sawn, since I will not use all the wood for current projects?

Forum Responses
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
I suggest 4/4 and 5/4. If you plan on making some legs, then 8/4 squares.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. On the 4/4 and 5/4, any recommended width of the boards?

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Use flatsawing techniques and get them as wide as that technique allows.

From contributor N:
Dr. Gene, why do you promote flatsawing this cherry?

From contributor E:
If you are planning to make tables or chairs with it, I recommend some of it cut 10/4 and 12/4, either squares or 8-10" wide. You can always resaw it thinner depending on what you make.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The flatsawn grain in cherry is some much more active than q-sawn. It's what the marketplace enjoys. 10/4 and 12/4 squares are okay, but drying is long and difficult. It is much easier to laminate 4/4 into thicker pieces. With grain matching, it will look fine.

From contributor E:
Yep, 12/4 is very time consuming to dry properly. Yes, you can grain match very good and it may look fine... I make Queen Anne furniture and would never use glued legs; even though very few persons would ever notice, I would know.

From contributor N:
Dr. Wengert, I really appreciate your knowledgeable input in these forums and mean no offense, but while I can certainly appreciate a particular consumer's choice for flatsawn lumber, I would seldom recommend it when quality and stability are the desired results. I avoid flatsawn hardwoods for furniture products and personally mill for and build with more stable and, in my humble opinion, more beautiful boards. I have noticed that markets are dominated by flatsawn lumber and have attributed that to ease of processing. Perhaps I am part of a minority on this issue but felt a need to offer my opinion.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
There are two major differences between quartersawn and flatsawn. (Appreciate that we never get 100% flatsawn or quartersawn; we are talking about the overall appearance.) Flatsawn has the cathedral grain patterns from the annual rings, while quartersawn has parallel lines running lengthwise. It is interesting to note that q-sawn grain is preferred in much of Europe and Japan, and in certain furniture styles. So, the grain appearance is a matter of personal preference indeed.

Second, quartersawn is slightly more stable *when the MC changes*. Quartersawn cherry will change about 0.12% in size for a 1% MC change for quartersawn and 0.24% for flatsawn. So with only annual MC changes of 3% MC in most of the USA, stability is not a big factor in most cases. Further, especially when we consider that flatsawn is often not true flatsawn (rings run perfectly parallel to the face) but also has some angled grain, this will reduce this 0.24 number; similarly q-sawn seldom has rings perfectly at 90 degrees to the face, which increases the 0.12 number. So, the difference in practice between q and f lumber is actually fairly small indeed.

From contributor T:
Do you think there's any truly flatsawn grain in these cherry boards?

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor N:
I had the distinct privilege of working for a very high end craftsman some years back on a very high end custom kitchen. For most of my woodworking career I had been working to a quality level commensurate to the budget for the job. Upon arrival in his shop I questioned the level of quality required. His reply was something along the lines of "We should always seek perfection and only accept less when necessary." I took my reading glasses to work for the duration of the project and learned a ton. It really doesn’t take much longer to do a job the best you can; in fact, it often saves time.

Once again I agree with you completely that we are seldom blessed with perfectly processed, perfectly dried wood, trees are crooked, time is money, but a guy starting out with a raw log and a sawmill is in a great position to define that quality.

Using your math, quarter sawn lumber moves half as much as flat sawn. Given that lumber and finished furniture face an unknown future, wouldn't we benefit by starting with the best material we can find or process?

Having built a few pieces early in my wood processing career that either blew themselves up or moved with little provocation, I now opt to leave this board on the shelf. Once again I accept that personal preference is a ruling factor and respect your broad based knowledge, but is there really any debate about the comparative stability of flatsawn and quarter sawn lumber?

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
What has not been stated is that quartersawn lumber moves twice as much in thickness as flatsawn. Thickness movement is also important, so this increased movement of quartersawn must also be considered when trying to say what is best. Therefore, one cannot accurately state that quartersawn cherry is best.

With the grain being better in flatsawn (which is most obvious after finishing) to many people, and the actual stability being not much different, I would suggest that flatsawn lumber is better, but that is an opinion and not a fact, as previously stated. But let's look at some more facts.

Perfectly flatsawn lumber moves twice as much as perfectly quartersawn in width, as previously stated. But we seldom will have perfectly flat or quarter grain, so the difference in practice is not that much. (Remember that we are talking about cherry lumber here. Some of the oaks have bigger differences, plus oaks and a few other species have ray flecks when q-sawing. Softwood stability is more uniform.)

When sawing quartersawn lumber, the yields drop by 15% or more, so although one may want it for stability, it is also wasteful. For that reason, often quartersawing is more accurately called riftsawn.

Quartersawn lumber also has knots that are spike knots rather than round or oval knots. Spike knots are not very pretty to look at. That is another reason not to quartersaw, but to get closer to riftsawing and riftsawn and flatsawn are very close in stability; so close that it is not worth considering.

Here is a more complete list of the differences which applies to all species when comparing perfectly flat to perfectly quarter:

Flatsawn shrinks and swells in thickness about half as much as quartersawn.

Quartersawn shrinks and swells in width about half as much as flatsawn. (This can be important for exterior siding that is subject to frequent wetting and drying. It can also be important for floors and other products that cannot tolerate much movement.)

Knots will be round or slightly oval with flatsawn, but will be long spike knots in quartersawn. (Generally, spike knots lower the strength more than round knots.)

Shake and pitch pockets in the log will affect fewer pieces when manufacturing flatsawn than when manufacturing quartersawn.

When manufacturing flatsawn lumber, the yield of lumber from a log can be several percent to as much as 20% higher than when manufacturing quartersawn.

Flatsawing requires less technical and mechanical effort than quartersawing.

Flatsawn lumber is prone to cupping in drying.

Quartersawn lumber is prone to sidebend in drying.

Quartersawn wears better when used as a flooring material than flatsawn.

Flatsawn lumber, especially oak, is subject to surface checking, honeycomb (interior checks) and splitting (especially end splits) in drying, while quartersawn is not.

Flatsawn lumber dries up to 15% faster than quartersawn.

Quartersawn lumber will accentuate other grain patterns such as wavy grain and interlocked grain.

From contributor D:
Suggesting that the user's taste for the appearance of the wood could be the most important factor to consider when deciding on targeting either mostly flat or mostly quarter sawn wood from a cherry log. I think it is all beautiful, but the difference in appearance is substantial.

From contributor R:
I called a sawmill to check the prices of logs and as they were telling me the prices, she said they don't want any cherry. She said it's like poison now. So it looks like cherry has fallen out of favor.

From contributor K:
Q-sawn cherry is just, blah! Makes fine BBQ wood.

From contributor J:
Contributor T, where are you located? That looks like some sweeeet cherry!

From contributor T:
Muskegon, Michigan. If you like cherry, here's some more.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

This cherry grows right on the Lake Michigan shoreline. This wood came from a cherry tree that was approximately 110' tall according to the people who took it down. It was a 50/50 share cutting job, about 1500 board feet. I got 750 as my share. The 8.5' long logs were the same diameter at both ends. I've seen them growing out there on a cottage owner's site. He wanted me to take two of them down and cut them up. I could look up and not see the first limb on the tree before the trunk disappeared into the tree canopy from other trees. That would be as high as the top of a regular red oak tree where the trunk was still going up with no limbs. Just incredible cherry trees.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

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