In the context of sawing, woodworkers talk about ripping cuts and cross-cuts, or ripping and cross-cutting. If you are new to the field, just as I was a few years ago, you might be wondering: what do these two terms mean, and why does it matter?
The short answer to this question, as I learned it, can be summarized as follows: the difference between ripping and cross-cutting is that ripping is cutting a piece of wood in the same direction as the grain (along the grain) while cross-cutting is cutting perpendicular to the grain (across the grain). The distinction matters because these two basic cut types differ in the typical cut length, cutting resistance, optimal saw and blade type, and in possible complications.
Next, we will go through the main differences between the two cut types, which are also summarized in the table below. If you interested in a deeper understanding of ripping and cross-cutting, read on!
|means…||along grain||across grain|
|cut length (typ.)||1’…20′||1”…12”|
|saw types||table saw,|
handheld circular saw
handheld circular saw
|blade drift||may occur||usually none|
1 Cut length
Rip cuts and cross-cuts differ significantly the average cut length.
Rip cuts are usually longer than cross-cuts. The reason behind this is simple: the grain in lumber almost always runs along the longer axis of the piece; a ripping cut, which is along the grain, therefore runs along the length of the piece of lumber too. Typical lengths for a ripping cut range from one foot to tens of feet.
Cross cuts, on the other hand, are usually short. Indeed, with standard lumber they can be only as long as the piece is wide. This means that the most common cross-cuts into 1×4’s or 2×4’s are only 4” long. With wider planks such as those used for floor joists, a cross-cut may range from 8” to 12”. Cross-cuts much longer than this may be necessary in working with engineered woods, such as CLTs, LVLs or glulam.
2 Saw type
Rip cuts and cross-cuts are optimally accomplished with different saws due to the typical cut lengths.
Rip cuts are long, sometimes tens of feet, and need a saw whose travel is equally long, or preferably unrestricted. This makes table saws, band saws and handheld circular saws the best saw types for rip cuts. A table saw is the archetypal rip saw, as it can handle very long boards.
Cross-cuts are short and not very demanding for saw travel. However, the challenge with cross-cuts is that they must often be made into the middle of boards that are long themselves.
This places two requirements on the cross-cut saw: first, there should be plenty of free space for the board on both sides of the saw blade; second, the blade, not the board, should preferably move in the cut, as pushing long and usually off-balance boards sideways is quite difficult to do stably.
Miter saws, handheld circular saws, hand saws and chain saws fit the bill, and are the common saw types for cross-cuts. Band saws and table saws, by contrast, are suited for cross-cuts into very short pieces only.
3 Cutting resistance
Direction of cut compared to the wood grain defines the two cut types, and has direct relevance in the cutting process itself.
Cutting across the grain, i.e. cross-cutting, is more difficult than ripping, because it has to cut the strong fibers running along the grain in wood.
While cutting some fibers is also necessary in ripping cuts, ripping can mostly get away with severing only the much weaker physical ties that exist in wood across the grain. If you have ever ripped a board with a hand saw, you have felt the relative ease with which the blade eats into the wood.
4 Blade type
Due to the mentioned difference in the cutting process, rip cuts and cross-cuts are optimally made with different types of blades.
Ripping blades have flat-headed chisel-like teeth with a large spacing (low TPI) for efficient removal of thick and long shavings; you can think of the ripping teeth as row of narrow planer blades.
Cross-cut blades, in turn, have pointed teeth, whose tips lean left and right alternatingly. They are intended to cut the wood fibers on either side of the kerf, and are spaced more densely (high TPI) to reduce the cut depth. You can think of the cross-cut teeth as a staggered series of knives.
In practice, the same blade is used in most saws both for ripping and cross-cutting. The reason is that the cutting efficiency improvement one may get from using a ripping blade for rips and cross-cut blade for cross-cuts is usually not sufficient to warrant a tedious change of saw blade between cuts. Instead, most saws are fitted with either a cross-cut blade or an “all-rounder”, which can do both types of cuts well.
That said, if you know you are going to use a given saw mainly for one type of cut for a longer period, fitting a blade optimized for the cut type is going to be worthwhile.
5 Blade guiding
Rip cuts and cross-cuts also differ slightly in the ease of blade guiding.
Cross-cuts are typically quite neutral for the blade: fibers must be cut equally by both the left- and the right-hand side cutting edges in the blade teeth. This symmetry keeps the saw blade in balance and, as a consequence, the cut usually runs straight.
In a perfect world, a ripping cut would be similarly balanced: weak cross-grain ties to be cut equally on both sides of the teeth. In reality, however, the grain in boards is always oblique or curved, at least a little, and no rip cut ever goes exactly along the grain.
Instead, in rip cuts the blade is always going a little sideways into the grain, and must cut more of the strong wood fibers on one side of the teeth than on the other. This creates a force imbalance in the blade, and as a consequence, the blade flexes, veers off course, and makes a crooked cut.
This well-know annoying phenomenon is called “[the blade] following the grain”. The phenomenon is the worst in saws with flexible blades, and relatively unnoticeable in saws with stiff blades. Band saws are notorious for following the grain; circular saws, by contrast, are relatively immune to the phenomenon.
There are quite a few differences between ripping and cross-cutting as we saw: it matters when you are selecting the saw and the blade, thinking about cutting speed or space usage, or diagnosing possible issues.
To end, let us take a moment to discuss the relative importance of ripping and cross-cutting.
Whether you are cutting firewood or working in construction, cross-cuts are undoubtedly more frequent than ripping cuts. The reason behind this is that while you can often go with one of the standard lumber cross section dimensions, you will have to cut the long boards to length.
The ripping cuts still play a very important role. As a rule of thumb, the finer your work, the more often you have to rip. And even if you do not rip, it is good to remember that someone else upstream in the lumber production chain has done the ripping for you!
I hope this comparison has helped you appreciate the differences between rips and cross-cuts, and will bring value to your work. Happy cutting!
Ripping and cross-cutting sheet goods
Plywood has wood grain running in two directions; particleboard has grain running in almost all directions! What does “ripping plywood”, an expression often heard in woodworking, really mean? What is ripping and cross-cutting in the case of sheet goods?
Technically, when cutting plywood you are always both ripping and cross-cutting at the same time due to the alternating orientation of grain in the plies.
However, the terms ripping and cross-cutting are often used colloquially with sheets goods to refer to cuts along the sheet length and width, respectively. That is, a cut is called a rip cut if it goes along the longer axis of the sheet, and a cross-cut if it goes in the shorter direction – regardless of the grain. This use of the terms has nothing to do with grain direction, and may be confusing to beginners in the field.