September 12, 2021

How to tell the direction of grain? A Practical Guide

Woodgrain refers to the lines that naturally appear in lumber. They are a byproduct of the carving pattern used when the mill cuts the boards of a piece of wood with the angle of the existing growth rings.

How to tell the direction of wood grain for sanding

You can tell the wood grain direction by looking at the end of a piece of wood. The grain runs parallel to the longest side of the wood. To sand in the correct direction, you must sand along the grain, not against it. This will help you avoid damaging the wood and creating unsightly scratches.

Once you have determined the direction of the grain, make sure your sandpaper is positioned correctly before you begin sanding. If you are unsure of the direction of the grain, try running your hand over the surface of the wood. You should feel slight resistance when you move against the grain and smoothness when you move with it.

Quarter Sawing

This method will help you to identify the direction of grains easily by cutting a log into even boards that form parallel plains; the lines of grains will appear automatically, running consistently along the length of the board

Besides casting lots to figure out the direction of the wood grain, of which you will have an equal chance of getting things wrong, you can use the following methods.

Splitting the board

Wood is made up of long fibers that run at an angle to the board’s surface. If you split the board, you can see the direction of the fibers.

Feel the Fuzz

You can tell the direction of the grain by merely running your hand over the board. The direction of the grain feels smooth, while the opposite feels uncomfortable or rough. This is because many grains stick outside or above the surface of rough lumber.

Rays are the best clues.

A general angle of rays on a board’s plain sawn face invariably points in the same direction as the wood’s fibers.

Look for Vessels

When there are no visible rays, you can alternatively look for vessels which are cells that are usually long and dark dashes. These are easy to see on a piece of wood, for example, Walnut and Mahogany wood.

Check and spot figures

By following the figures in ring form through to the edge of the wood, you will notice that they will become lines and ovals that lend each board a distinctive figure. The figure made by the growth rings is the visible clue to follow because the angle of the figure is steeper at one end of the board than the other. Make sure to use the vertical end to decide which way to plane.

Interpreting what is going on in the wood is another word describing finding the grain of the wood.

Identify any knots in your wood

The knots will tell you where the branches were when the tree was growing. Whatever happens beneath the surface of the wood shows what is happening in the surface fibers.

Use a shallow setting on your plane around the knots and the surrounding area, as they are surrounded by different directions of grain which can be challenging to plane and work with heavy sets.

a man inspecting a piece of wood

Growth rings

By merely checking the reduced diameters of the growth ring, you can depict the face of your wood closer to the center of the tree.

Use fingernail against the wood

Nicely and softly, run your fingernail on the wood, and if the nail catches, you are moving in the opposite direction of grains, so it means you will have to plane the other way.

For visually complicated grains, use a scraper instead of a plane because it will be tough to find areas where you can be sure. The cutting edges of a scraper are highly refined, enabling the cutting edge to enter the grain at the shallowest angle possible.


Grain directions are like the fur of a cat. Stroking the cat one way will purr, and the opposite side will make it shine.

Edges explain the faces and vice versa.

Determining grains is similar to examining grain lines on the board’s edge. By planning the board’s face, the tool’s cutter presses the fibers down, and you will get a clean cut. Planning in the opposite direction will give you a rough and will lead to tearing out.

There is no universal solution to knowing the direction of the grain.

You can run a pen on the board. Once it is caught, like when using fingernails, you know that the direction of the grain is the opposite way.

Determine the grain direction of a paper

  1. Hold your sheet of paper or lay it on the table
  2. Take your sheet of paper and gently bend it half lengthwise, so it curls loosely.
  3. Turn the paper around and gently begin  to bend it in half widthwise in the direction perpendicular to step 1
  4. Notice the direction which was easier to bend–craft-16013

Grain of steel

Acid etching

The grain of steel is not visible to the naked eye. It would help to determine if you washed the steel with a 255-nitric or sulfuric acid solution. Flood the face of the steel with acid, and as soon as the surface begins to etch, wash the acid off with pure water. The acid will etch the surface, revealing the grain flow pattern.

Oxidation Etching

Hydrochloric acid and hydrogen peroxide. Another quick and easy solution is etching the surface with a 3:2;1 solution of water.  This will oxidize the surface of the steel after just a few minutes. Wash the oxidizing solution away, and the grain flow is revealed clearly when the piece is dried.

Surface polishing

Polishing the casting will show you the underlying grain flow. This does not work for all metals, and When you surface polish, you can see some grain flow under a microscope or magnifying glasses. 

Importance of grain flow

  • Best results when playing or carving
  • Easy to cut or curve
  • Reduces risk of breaking the wood

Learn grain dynamic

Cut along the wood grain to prevent the knife from digging into the wood at the wrong place. If the wood does not show the grain, the knife will find it. If the knife is digging up large chips or chunks of wood, you are carving against the grain

Hold the board with stripes on edge, traveling left to right towards the board’s face from the edge center. The stripes form into a point as they meet the face. The stripes points show the direction of the wood grain, from left to right.

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