Sawing for Grade, or Sawing for Character?

A discussion comparing "grade sawing" and "flitch sawing" (one aims for highest grade lumber, the other for character). April 27, 2007

What's the advantage of flitch sawing a log, especially if you want the best lumber possible, which I've understood to be called "sawing for grade"?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Can you explain what you mean by flitch sawing?

From contributor T:
It's all about what you want or what your customer wants. Yes, you will get a higher grade when sawing for that purpose - rotating the cant and sawing of the clear faces, and aligning knots properly to appear towards sides, ends, or on one face.

It seems that flitch sawing is becoming more of a trend after George Nakashima established himself for natural edged free form furniture. Basically, grade sawing produces clean grain, and flitch sawing produces character.

I am assuming that you mean flitch sawing to be the same as through and through sawing. While sawing through and through/flitching, it is a good idea to cut out the pith (center core) and throw it into the firewood pile. But sometimes you can get away with leaving it depending on species (and dimensions to be cut), and allowing the woodworker to decide its fate.

If you are sawing for yourself, you might want to quartersaw. Quartersawn boards hold a higher value, and are more stable.

From contributor N:
It is terminology - a flitch is an unedged board, either one or two sides with wane. Sawing for grade is trying to get the best from a log.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
In a private e-mail, the questioner explained that flitch sawing is what many people call live sawing or through and through sawing. Some of the differences are that in flitch sawing, you have a lot of pieces with quarter and rift grain patterns, all the pieces need to be edged, the average lumber grade and value is lower unless pieces are ripped, sawing speed per log is increased, cupping is increased when dried, cant production (such as a 6x6) is not possible, and many sawmills cannot saw a 20" deep cut which would be required in a 20" diameter log.

There is more information in "Sawing, Edging, and Trimming Hardwood Lumber," available through the Forest Products Society or the NHLA.

From contributor T:
Gene, I disagree about flitch boards losing value. In the production world of large sawmills, I see and understand that it's not worth flitching. But there are large sawmills that specialize in this.

I flitch or through and through saw when I am dealing with crotch wood, burls, and rare woods like pear, apple, and large walnuts. Many people in my area seek to make George Nakashima replicas, or pieces similar to James Krenov in the contemporary style. Or maybe Chippendale highboys with walnut crotch figure. My customers want to work with natural edged boards because they have a sense of fulfillment dealing with a board that more resembles the original tree. 75% of my sawing work is not flitching and I do understand that world, but it is not what I am trying to work into. It's just my bread and butter for now and I do still love it just because it's sawing. But to me boards that are edged lose their character and their identity. There are many successful companies out there that deal with flitches (but not strictly).

As far as warping goes in flitch sawn wood, due to a combination of grain patterns, you just have to know what you're doing and take the time to care for it to eliminate the additional warp.

I don't know of any sawmills that can't handle at least 25" in actual cutting width except for swing blade mills.

I agree that the lumber grade is lower, but character is the goal of flitched boards. Sawing speed is definitely increased, but extra care is needed in certain steps. When setting up a log to be flitched, you can generally only move the log twice… Once to position the log for the initial cut and continual cutting until you are too close to the log clamps or dogs. And twice to flip the log 180 degrees to use the last cut as a parallel reference on the deck of the mill to continue sawing so your last cut is parallel to the last cut you took in the first position of the log. While flipping the log 180 degrees, you must take care not to damage the edge. This may be easy on small logs, but try it on a 20"+ diameter log! It is easy for me to flip large logs because I have a knuckleboom. This may make it easy for me with little effort, but it comes at a large price and the logs must pay for the boom to justify it, and they have.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
I agree with your comments for specialty logs. Higher value of specialty logs can be obtained at times by flitch sawing. At the same time, however, grade sawing and the flat grain pieces of such material may produce more favorable grain patterns than q-sawn patterns in a wood such as walnut or maple.

For the typical hardwood log, however, I do not believe that flitch sawing can yield higher value lumber. In fact, there have been studies looking at the loss in lumber grade when flitch sawing typical hardwood logs, and the loss is substantial. I did say that the "average lumber grade and value" were lower. With the specialty products you mention, we would bypass standard lumber grading.

I managed a circular mill with a 54" diameter blade. Our maximum cut was a fraction over 19". This would be the maximum for many circular mills. Band mills can usually cut larger; for example, the WoodMizer LT-40 has a 28" wide throat.

From contributor A:
If you go back to the top and read the question, he asked about producing the "best lumber possible." If grade is his concern, then grade sawing will produce the best lumber possible. There are a thousand ways to open a log, and every log is different. These large knotty characters that make for good natural edged boards have very little good grade lumber in them and the best use is achieved by through and through sawing.

But if you took a 24 inch straight grained red oak log and through and through sawed the log, you would lose money more times than not. For someone who is just playing around with the mill on the weekends and not making a living from sawing, this may be okay. But from the standpoint of buying a log and making it pay the best, it would be most profitable to grade saw.

Yes, there are markets for qsawn and rift sawn lumber, but one must count the cost of the lost center wood that would have gone as a tie. There are handling concerns and wasted space in kilns that must also be considered and these costs are added to any profit seen by through and through sawing.

Through and through sawing also has stress relief problems as well as handling and turning problems. How much time is lost turning a log on the mill with a KB loader? That would imply that the mill is out in the open, so days lost sawing to weather will have to be counted, or only saw when it is nice. Weight of the larger pieces must be considered. The questioner asked how to produce the best lumber, and by-in-large, grade sawing is the best way.

From contributor A:
Now I find the photo I need. To say that sawing one way or another is always right can not be true. But the ability to look at a log and tell what you can sell and make the most money from is the difference between a sawyer and someone running a mill.

From the original questioner:
I'd like to thank one and all for your responses! I had acquired 10 sugar maples from the parks department and had 7 of them sawed for grade and 3 sawn through and through with live edge. The character in the flitches is incredible and as there wasn't really a lot of FAS or select grade in these logs anyway, I'd have to say that I'm really pleased with the big slabs (28" diameter logs) more than the grade lumber. Well, we all know it's good to have something for everyone! As an aside, I regretfully must say that my Amish sawyer hit not one, but two ceramic insulators in one log and destroyed his 60" circular sawblade.

From contributor T:
I definitely agree and understand that typical straight grained logs are best and yield highest value when grade sawn. It kind of seems odd that logs of rarity and higher value are more valuable when flitched, not grade sawn. It makes perfect sense when seeing the wood and knowing it, but weird to see it in writing.

Flitched boards are about the character, but too bad it's impossible to flitch a log and not get pure plainsawn or pure quartersawn, or pure rift, with the natural edge just for character for the final piece made from the wood.

Are there any standards for grading flitched wood? I have researched pricelists on many various web pages and all seem to be within a ballpark figure per board foot.

Contributor A, why would I lose time with a knuckleboom loader? It is indoors in a Morton building with tall ceilings. I couldn't saw everyday of the week like I do, if it wasn't for my business partner who provided the building and the KB (not to mention all the logs, being that he owns a tree service).

I visited your webpage and it looked like you were loading your logs with a tractor setup with forks. I imagine that would slow you down, compared to me with a knuckleboom setup with a grapple. But then again, nobody knows a machine like a full time operator.

From contributor A:
I have a KB loader that I unload TT loads of logs with. It stands close to 14 ft tall when it is as low as possible and with the boom all the way up I can reach over 30 ft high. It would need lots of overhead space. The time it would take to flip a log on a mill would be quite slow as compared to just sawing.

Yes, some logs will yield better market when through and through sawn and the reason you see the common price is that it is what the market will bear. A swing mill with a slabber is the best way to saw these large chucks of logs and make the widest boards.

From contributor W:
I'm not an expert, but I don't think the hardwood grading rules are different for edged versus flitch sawn lumber. The rules deal with the size and number of clear cuttings on the best face of the green board, and wane (lack of wood) affects the grade in a negative fashion (lowers the grade). The grade can often be raised by edging the wane to acceptable length and width for the grade desired. All of that said, flitch sawn lumber is really a specialty market, so while the board may not grade FAS because of the amount of wane present, you could sell the board using the BF as if the board were edged but charging a premium for the figure and extra small/short cuttings available - I think that's why many flitches are priced by the piece, and have to be seen to be appreciated... Just a thought.

From the original questioner:
Regarding contributor T's reply… "too bad it's impossible to flitch cut a log and not get pure quartersawn…" Would not a "perfect" log (i.e. veneer grade) do just that?

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Hardwood lumber is graded from the worst face, basically, unless it is planed. Flitch sawn lumber can be graded using the standard rules, but the two top grades require wane 1/2 the lumber's length maximum on each edge (basically). So, the best grade is No.1 Common for flitches. However, as the flitch often contains a lot of knots in the middle of the piece of lumber (near the core of the log), the grade is often lower.

Only the few pieces near the center of the log (when flitch sawing, when sawing through and through, or when live sawing - same name) would be quarter or rift sawn. Pieces further out will be flat sawn. This is true even for a perfect log.

From contributor H:
I think the answer lies in your market. I've made more selling bookmatched slabs than a few pretty boards. I can't grade them for lack of that certificate, but know the basics. Customers tell me what they are looking for and I do my best to oblige them. Boards or live edge slabs, I keep both on hand.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Anyone can grade hardwoods. You do not need a certificate or other training or authority. An inexperienced grader may be wrong, but he or she can still grade hardwoods.

From contributor W:
Green lumber grades are generally done on the worst face, not the best - poor proofreading on my part. Just a note to all that the lumber grading short courses given by the NHLA are a great way to gain an understanding of the grading rules for hardwoods. You can also get a copy of the rules book from the NHLA at their website,, but the course is valuable - for the buyer, the seller and the sawyer.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:

The latest version of the Rule Book is being printed right now. It includes special rules for alder and better organization.