How to Tell Grain Direction – 3 Quick Ways

Being a natural building material, its important to work with timber rather than against it. Telling grain direction is one part of that. Here are three ways I use to tell the direction of grain

1 – Look at the Face

Grain direction

Pros: Accurate and can do on all timber

Cons: Can be a slow process, particularly if you are a beginner.

Look on the face of the timber for grain. I like to think of the small marks (vessels) like long grass that over time does not stand straight up because of the wind. The grain direction is like the wind. 

You want to see the little > going mostly if not all in the same direction. The grain runs from the larger bit of the > to the smaller bit.

Very straight grain

2 – Feel the timber

Pros: Fast and accurate for undressed timber

Cons: Not always applicable, Splinters

Think of the timber like a hairy leg. The direction of the grain is the way the timber feels smooth. When I use this method, I make sure I run my hand both ways to make sure one is definitely smoother than the other. If you can’t feel much of a difference then id try a different way.

This is the best method for rough sawn timber although you are susceptible to getting splinters in your hands if they aren’t used to working with wood.

Some species are also easier to feel than others.

3 – Look at the edge

Pros: Fast, good for working with a lot of timber

Cons:  Not always 100% accurate

Look on the edge for the grain lines. This is the fastest way I know although it isn’t always perfect but pretty good. Especially if you have a large pack of timber and are running it through a thicknesser or surface planer.

Whichever way the line(s) are rising, that is the grain direction.

Frequently Asked Questions About Grain Direction

How do Knots effect grain in timber?

The grain around a knot will typically go into the knot from all directions.
The knot itself is usually very hard, particularly when large like the Pine sample above.
This combination can make planing, thicknessing or using a chisel much harder. It will almost always cause a detremintal finish through chipping.
Best avoided if possible.

How do Gum Veins effect timber and grain?

Gum veins are caused by trees trying to protect themselves against infestation. A tree will produce sap to trap the insects which is what causes the gum vein in timber.
Gum veins don’t effect grain, although they do effect the timber visually. The gum vein is just dried gum and should be thought of as empty space, so it can cause issues when working with timber by weakening it.

A small Gum Vein is visible in this table top. It’s size means it won’t effect the performance of the timber, just the aesthetics.

What is the difference in reading the grain in Hardwood vs Softwood?

From my experience, telling grain direction is easier with hardwoods. It is also more important. Particularly when machining, as hardwood chips easier and you get more tear out.
Softwoods tend to be a little harder to read, but at the same time have more forgiveness when machining and working with them

Close up of rough sawn hardwood. Easy to tell the grain direction (through feel) but also important because it will chip easily.

How I use these 3 techniques

These techniques can be used in conjunction with each other. Sometimes I will use all three techniques, and sometimes just one. This typically depends on the type of timber (hardwoods I am more cautious and allow a little more time).

In Conclusion

Reading Grain Direction is an important part of working with wood.

These three quick techniques are a working guide, more than a theoretically perfect one. I hope it will help save you from getting bogged down in the excess detail, and spend more time woodworking.

A good guide with a lot more detail can be found here.

These 3 are what I use and I hope they are some help to you. Thank you for reading my guide on how to tell grain direction.