How can understanding wood grain help me improve my furniture design?

Furniture design is subjective, which means that it can be difficult to find sound advice about how to get better. But there is one area in wooden furniture design that we see neglected way too often — it’s one of the easiest ways to spot if a piece has been made by an amateur or a master. Once you understand it, it will quickly become a permanent tool to improve the quality of the furniture that you build.

We are talking, of course, about designing with the grain.

For the amateur furniture builder, it’s easy to think of wood only as a material. It’s easy to look down at a cutting list for a project, to blindly choose a board, and to start sawing pieces without considering how the grain of each component will work together when completely assembled. You could spend months crafting a beautiful chest of drawers just to have it ruined by improper grain selection and mismatched board colors.

We want to make sure this never happens to you, so we’ve put together some quick tips and tricks to help you best use wood grain patterns to your advantage.

Plan the Grain for Each Part of Your Furniture

Should you really have to find the perfect grain for each piece of your furniture? It depends. While the wood grain of each separate component is important, there are a few universal rules you can follow to avoid endless hours of planning.

Use straight wood grain for narrow components.

For long, straight pieces of wooden furniture like table legs, rails, stiles, and aprons, use boards with tight and straight grain. Wood grain that goes against a component’s natural direction will cause that piece to stand out. Consider a table leg with grain that runs horizontally. Apart from being structurally weak, side-to-side or wavy grain contrasts the long, narrow form of the leg. When used inappropriately on tall wooden furniture like bookcases, horizontal grains create an illusion of imbalance and break the visual flow of the design.

More broadly, using straight grain boards for long vertical components keeps those areas “quiet.” Master furniture makers use this to their advantage — it allows them to very intentionally draw attention to areas of the piece they want to emphasize.

Experiment with different grains on larger components.

Lage and wide components of your furniture, like door panels and drawer fronts, are perfect places to experiment with wild and crazy wood grain. If there’s a particular board with beautiful grain that you want to showcase, use it in an area where it can be prominently displayed. Be careful when you mix wide components with other grain, too. The gorgeous wood grain of your door panels will go unnoticed if the grain on the longer rails and stiles of the door are pointing in lots of different directions.

Make your gluelines disappear in straight-grained areas.

When gluing large panels like table tops, make your glue lines in the areas of the boards with the straightest grain. If you can’t make a large panel out of a single board, or by bookmatching two pieces, you’ll need to glue together many boards to get your desired width. If you’re using quarter-sawn or rift-sawn lumber, this shouldn’t be much of an issue since the board’s grain will be uniform.

When gluing flat-sawn boards together, make absolutely sure that the edges where the boards are joined have straight grain running in the same direction. Gluing boards together where cathedrals (also called peaks) meet straight grain, or where cross grain meets diverging cross boards, will make your glue lines extremely obvious.

The goal of a panel glue-up is to leave invisible glue lines and continuous grain from board to board. In some cases, this can give the impression that that the panel is made from one piece of wood.

Color Match the Components of Your Furniture

Carefully arranging wood grain in your pieces is only half the battle. The other half, color matching between boards, is no less important — but it’s a little easier than grain planning.

The complexity of color matching tends to depend on the species of wood used for a furniture project. Walnut, for instance, is notoriously difficult to color match, which is why lumber yards and home centers only stock walnut that that’s been steamed so that the color of the boards is more uniform. Unsteamed walnut, which has a broad range of tones from deep purples and browns to creamy whites, is hard to find as a result.

Color Match Adjoining Pieces

Ideally you should try to color match your entire piece of furniture, but that might not always be reasonable. At the very least, by focusing on color matching adjoining pieces, you can get pretty close to a consistent final product that doesn’t have many dramatic contrasts.

Take what you’ve learned in the section above on wood grain to help color match your projects. Grain determines a lot about a wood’s color variation. Tight grain areas, where the tree grew more slowly, will be denser and exhibit different colors than fast-growth areas of the tree. Keeping this in mind while building your project will make color matching easy.

Make projects using wood from a single board or tree

This method isn’t always feasible, but it will save you time and frustration if you can do it. For small pieces, like boxes, this is easily accomplished. Use a single board for these projects and matching the grain and color will be a breeze. For larger projects, buy wood cut from the same tree if possible.