Glue Ups & Grain Direction

by | Feb 7, 2018 | 12 comments

grain direction and growth rings

Gluing up can be a frantic time.
And if you’re like me, it’ll be messy too.

But how much should we be planning ahead, before we get it all stuck together?

When we glued up the top for our Hall Table build, we received a few questions on this topic.

They were good queries, pondering over grain direction and alternating growth rings.

So I thought we’d cover this in a little bit of detail.

The text book thoughts on this:
– Always alternate the growth rings on consecutive boards (for stability).
– Try to ensure the grain runs in the same direction throughout a glued board (for ease of planing).

In a perfect world we’d follow the above.
But then we’d also have nice clear boards, with nice straight grain.

timber selection sap wood in cherry
Rarely is anything perfect.

With the glue up in question, I was dealing with some cherry boards that were gnarly, sappy, and belonged on the scrap pile.

Grain direction barely occurred to me, as I tried to salvage something that would pass off as acceptable, visually.
I didn’t even alternate the growth rings. I couldn’t, I had no choice.

Since every job is different, here’s a few thoughts on how, why and when I’ll layout boards for a glue up.

What’s The Priority?

  • Structural Stability?
  • Beauty?
  • Ease of Working?

Generally I’d consider stability first.

If stability is going to be important then I make sure that the growth rings are alternating.

Boards want to cup as they loose moisture.
The amount they move varies a lot.

So if you have wide boards with obvious growth rings, alternating them will be very effective in keeping the glued up board flat throughout its life.

Surprisingly though, many designs will do a good job at holding a board flat without this.

Carcase sides that are dovetailed,
A framed panel,
A top secured down to a wide frame.

These will struggle to move if they wanted to.

But what if your board is not fully supported?
Let’s say a chest lid hinged along one edge, or a stool or table top with legs shoved straight in to it.

In these examples the board is pretty much free to move.
So alternating the growth rings will certainly help to minimise the cupping over time, and in that case I’d prioritise it when planning my glue up.

buttons for securing table top.

This thin top is secured to a very rigid base with buttons. This will help to minimise cupping of the top.

Next comes beauty.

In our Hall Table, it’s not a top that’s being held by a single point.
It’s fixed to a frame using buttons.

This is an ideal situation that gives flexibility for the timber, whilst also holding it firmly down.
The frame will hold it flat here.

So with a top like this I go with what looks prettiest instead. After all, it is probably a focal piece.

Often the inside of a board is very different to the outside visually.
By alternating the growth rings you’re likely to get a problem with colour matching.

gluing top without alternating growth rings

You can see the growth ring aren’t alternated in this top. And this has allowed me to hide all of that sap wood, along with some other undesirables on the underside.

So what about the grain direction?

The idea of making sure that the grain runs in the same direction when gluing boards together is certainly sound.
It’ll make it easier to plane up and avoid nasty tear out and such.

The trouble is though, even in one board the grain’s going to come back at you at some point.
On the face of a wide board you’ll often find that on one half of the board’s width the grain is going one way, and on the other it’s going the opposite.
Because trees have twist in them as they grow.

When you’ve got a top to glue up out of two, maybe three wide boards, the chances are that you’ll have some alternating grain to deal with however they’re laid out.

You can certainly optimise, but altering the layout when there’s only a small number of boards can make a big impact visually.

Again, I would say with a top like this, go with what looks prettiest.

Because ultimately, it’s our job as craftsman to work the wood and make it look its best.
Not let the wood work us.

Your approach to planing can minimise any deep ragging out.
And when setting up for smoothing, I can plane in any direction, without tear.
That’s all about getting the plane set up right.

A well set up, and sharpened plane will deal with any nasty tear-out. Even if the grain runs in opposing directions.

When Ease of Work Comes First.

There are builds when it makes a lot of sense to ensure the grain all runs in the same direction.

Something like a laminated workbench top.

When I built workbenches I was deliberately over the top with my wood selection.

I made sure I had plenty to pick through so that matching colours wasn’t difficult. If I came across a laminate I didn’t like it got demoted it to a different project.
Because the workbenches had to be perfect.

If a top was laminated I always tried to get as much of the grain running in one direction as possible.

This is preferable and much more beneficial when there’s a large number of narrow edges to be planed, rather than the wide faces.

oiled cherry table top

Prioritising beauty – the oiled cherry top.

Ready for your next glue up?

If you can give thought to all three of these aspects when gluing up boards, then you’re laughing.

But I find that in some builds prettiness wins, sometimes you’ve got to optimise for stability.

Ignore the text books, and let the job in hand tell you.

P.S Our Hall Table Video Series has completed today.
We’ve been thrilled with your response, thank you to everyone who’s watched along.
The details for this Series have been updated, and you can learn all about it here.

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About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. Matthew Platt

    Thank you Richard,

    By far the most clear and concise summary of this sometimes tricky decision making process I have seen.



  2. Allan

    My biggest challenge with glued panels is the outside boards wanting to twist. I used to plane the surfaces of the boards to near finished dimensions (easier to handle) and then glue them up. Several days after the glue-up I would find the individual boards cupped or twisted or a big bow in the entire panel. Since the panels were near the finished thickness dimension there was nothing I could do except plane the panel to a thinner dimension. My method now is to plane the edges and glue up the panels in the rough. The entire panel is then planed to finished dimensions.

    Twist is still a problem no matter when I plane to finish thickness. The boards twist and then I am left with panels that are thinner than planned or I have to scrap the whole panel because there is not enough thickness to work with.

  3. Les parlane

    Great info…thanks for that.

  4. outside

    i met an old craftsman who taught me something about gluing any two bits (or more) together. every piece of wood (that isn’t quarter sawn) has a side that comes from the centre of the tree (heart) and a side that comes from the edge (bark) His tip is to glue edgeside to edgeside and/or heartside to heartside.. whether its altenating up and down is irrelevant as long as you stick to the rule. this way the bond is stronger because the timbers ‘match’ and move in very similar ways. seems believable to me.

  5. Duncan D

    Great advice, Richard. Thanks.

    In those situations where warping will be a problem I sometimes rip out the centre flat-sawn section of a board and edge-joint the remaining straight grained/ quarter sawn pieces. A bit more work and more wood, but sometimes well worth it in the long run. Depends on the species of wood too, and the actual character of the grain in particular pieces. Pine, for instance, will often warp badly the first time it’s moved suddenly to a very different environment, say from the shop to a centrally heated house. So I find it useful to give made up and planed panels etc a few days laid out in sticks in an intermediate, cool and not particularly dry place before taking them back into the shop for glue-up. A moisture meter can be useful here. I don’t use one much now but using one in the past has given me a useful idea of what to expect in different environments. Maybe good advice would be just to borrow one for a while.

    When trying to get the most from the beauty of the grain I also find it useful to work, if possible, with boards that are quite a bit longer than the finished top or panel. That way you can move things laterally to get the best combinations of grain, for example to avoid putting together areas of grain in adjacent boards that will visually highlight the joint. To cut pieces to length before trying them together really restricts your choice and can push you towards using a pair of boards the same way up.

    All this uses more wood, but in the whole business of making furniture that’s a critical balancing act.

  6. Leon

    Fantastic write up! I’ve just discovered this site and it is full of useful information i used to be a restoration joiner using reclaimed wood and traditional methods, this reminds me of making up farm house style tables.
    great effort!


  7. Ed

    Excellent article! What if I said, design for stability so that you can always build for beauty? So, if stability issues are dictating your work, then rethink your design. Add battens to the chest lid. Put the table top on a frame. If you have something to do that pushes the envelope, then wait for just the right piece of wood or rethink the design. Of course there are exceptions, like choosing special grain for tooling, and that’s why I like your article so much. Very practical.

  8. foromir

    One of the photos caption says “This thin top is secured to a very rigid base with buttons. ”
    Are there any details on the joint available for non-premium users? It’s rather vague.

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Foromir,
      Buttons is a fairly standard term that’s used to describe wooden blocks which are used as a connection for a table top to its base. If you’re not familiar then a quick Google search should give you a better idea.

      • foromir

        This I could have done. I simply took into consideration that:
        1. Your implementation could be non-generic.
        2. The results may be riddled with contemporary “big box store” solutions.
        Classic overthinking, I see it now 😉

  9. Jake Mullally

    Your comments of esthetic intrigue me. You say to “work the wood” not let the “wood work you” seems counterintuitive to me. To is, I love Mistakes of Nature & of Man. When I see a piece void of any of the natural aspects it looses something in my eyes. I suppose like art, food & wine it is in the senses of the person partaking that satisfaction & pleasure is achieved.
    I know it is symantic but when I whittle, or work some stone or glass I never try to “make it” look it’s best but attempt to enhance what’s there or to reveal something in the materials.
    I often think about Stratavarius when I’m working with materials. His instruments have never really been equaled, though many years of study have attempted to repeat his work. Maybe he heard which materials desired greatness. Just a thought.

    • Richard Maguire

      Hi Jake,
      I absolutely agree with your sentiment on this 100%, but when a customer wants a smooth top, regardless of grain directions, it’s my job to give them that.
      When I’m just making odd pieces for sale I do let myself become more ‘free’, but then it’s always about context.
      I feel furniture is my art, but it’s also my trade, that’s a very hard balance.


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