there’s oak, then there’s riven oak

flatsawn red oak
flatsawn red oak

The other day I bought this piece of wood at one of the large “home-improvement” stores. This piece of kiln-dried red oak is 1/2″ x 6″ x 24″ – thus one board foot. Price, about $7. I actually paid less than that, because there was no sticker on it, and the cashier couldn’t find the price. So it was about $4.50. From my standpoint, this piece of wood is about as bad as it gets, the only way it could be worse is if it had a knot in it.

I bought it to compare with the red oak I use every day, the radially-riven stuff, from a freshly-split log. Here’s three boards, one of mine, then a quartersawn red oak and finally this tangential-sawn, or flatsawn board.

riven, quartersawn, and flatsawn red oak
riven, quartersawn, and flatsawn red oak

to understand them better, let’s look at the end grain. Hopefully this picture is big enough to see the growth rings in the first two boards from the left, (running horizontally in the photo, across the thickness of these boards) and the medullary rays running perpendicular to the growth rings:

riven, quartersawn, flatsawn red oak
riven, quartersawn, flatsawn red oak

The riven board has its rays running almost right on the faces of the board. The quartersawn board has its rays running close to the faces, at times running out of the faces. The flatsawn board mostly has its growth rings running parallel to the faces of the board. The most stable of these 3 is the riven board, and in additon, it’s the easiest to work with…there is little or no disturbance in its fibers, thus easy to plane, carve, etc.  Below is a detail of the riven and the quartersawn boards. When I work the riven stuff, people often say “Oh, it’s like quartersawn stock…” and my standard reply is that this is what quartersawn wood wishes it was… Notice that the rays in the quartersawn board are running at an angle to the faces of the board. It’s not a bad piece of oak, it’s just not the best.

riven and quartersawn
riven and quartersawn
I get even pickier than that, when I can. I also want the oak to have grown slowly. Here are two extreme examples, both riven and planed in my shop. One grew about 30 or more years per inch; the other about 3 or 4 years per inch. Technically the faster growing oak is stronger, but seventeenth-century furniture is overbuilt anyway, so strength is not a factor for my work. I want ease of working, and also I find the slow stuff more pleasing to look at. The marks I made on the slow-growing one below are ten years.
(l) slow growth, (r) fast growth red oak
(l) slow growth, (r) fast growth red oak

Here are the faces of these two boards:

(l) fast grown (r) slow grown red oak
(l) fast grown (r) slow grown red oak

The fast one was too much trouble, I threw it in the firewood pile.

I just checked a local hardwood dealer’s website, and they have quartersawn white oak on sale for $7.50 per board foot. When I buy the log, I pay about $1 to $1.50 per board foot. I am sure once I have all my labor in it to rive and plane it into boards the cost become quite high. No mind, I get all the wonderful work of riving and planing that stuff, and the stock I get can’t be beat.

driving a wooden wedge
driving a wooden wedge
sixteenths red oak
sixteenths red oak

23 thoughts on “there’s oak, then there’s riven oak

  1. This was really interesting. I am new to hobby woodworking and just leraned the difference between quartersawn and flat sawn, and now I find this! Great post. I have not been to plymouth plantation since I was a kid. I used to spend summers at my aunts and uncles in buzzards bay and am from NY. I now live in MN, there is lots of great lumber here!

  2. Peter: Thanks for your discussion of the virtues of radially rived oak! It is such a wonderful wood to work that I have never since had the desire to work any other wood. Oh yes, getting the log, busting it up and riving on the ray plane are not at first for the weak of heart. However the heart grows stronger as the rived wood appears.Your photographs were clear and very explanatory. I suggest that anyone take a a piece of straight grained oak firewood and using whatever tools are at hand bust out a triangular piece with ray planes on both sides!

  3. Dear Peter
    Thank you so much for such an interesting and informative post. These things must take a lot of your time, but rest assured, posts like this are real gems to learners like myself.

    Thank you once again and the photos are fantastic.

  4. Peter:

    I read this article today and the problem is I am only trying to think how I would use the kiln dry flatsawn board. JA has taught me well, because I am only seeing the lowest quality shop tasks and/or pegs from that board. I have been blessed to come to know riven oak so early in life. The wood is predictable, beautiful, and wonderful to work. Thank you for writing on the topic. Back I go to the drawing board to think of ways to use that sawn board.


  5. Short, sweet and on target. Early shovels were made of riven wood before metal was used. Wooden picks were needed to break the soil first. Your site explained the term “riven” to me.

  6. I await the opertunity to do some of this work myself! I’m interested to see how it performs under the plane because the kiln dried stuff i have now, though really a p.i.t.a. to plane.

  7. Sorry, i forgot something… How do you get it from the pie shape to a board shape? draw-shave? bandsaw? If its drawshaving then it seems like a WHOLE LOTTA work that most wont appreciate

  8. […] If you read some of my earlier posts, especially the one on the wine sideboard, you know its not that I have a great fondness for red oak either, though to be fair, the last I worked with it, it was kiln-dried, plain sawn.  Even for those who don’t like oak, there is something alluring about the look of quartersawn oak, with the flecks of medullary ray. Want to know more about qualities of riven (split) oak, guess what: Peter wrote about that too. […]

  9. I understand your frustration with modern oak I have specialized in reclaiming old growth oak qnd heart pine for seven years. I’m still learning about white oak all the time. There are several different types if whit oak and also the grading can be difficult. That being said I have found the best oak comes from high in the Appalachian mountains. I have salvaged Appalachian white oak with ring counts as high as 50 ring per inch. Low land oak isn’t as high in ring densities and there are verities such as swamp oak and chestnut oak that can have a gray or green color. A pure high grade white oak should be golden or golden brown with tight ring growth. I would suggest getting your oak from west Virginia or close to that region. Also rift sawn should be in an X pattern with the end grain showing the ray crossing the ring in a perfect X. Quarter should be ring straight up and down with the ray running close to the board parallel. Basically the opposite of flat sawn. Hope this is helpful to you

  10. Rift is 45 degree cut in oak. Quarter is a 90 degree cut and flat is a 180 degree cut. Going with ring growth.

  11. The inevitable question with riven wood is then how are you going to dry it? One year per inch thickness wait time for air dry? That’s the real cost, not money. Years of time. I’m going to froe some red oak rift sawn like this post and test it for shrinkage vs moisture measurement over time, I know the rift sawn cut should be much more stable than flat or quarter. Maybe if it’s good enough it could be workable in a short time. It’s certainly worth a try. Who wouldn’t prefer to use their own beautiful, superior wood, often fresh oak logs found for free, rather than buy garbage wood? What an excellent post, thank you for the pictures.

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