Little-Known Facts about Amish Woodworking and Craftsmanship
When you think of Amish furniture, you probably think of the clean lines of Shaker or Mission style, solid, hand-crafted furniture. Those are typical features of the genre, but what else do you think about? Do you think of how Amish furniture became popular? Do you picture a lone craftsman, working in a barn with no power tools?
Do you consider how durable the furniture will be? Do you think of how custom made Amish furniture compares to other handcrafted or mass-produced furniture? Do you wonder how you would possibly be able to use Amish furniture in a design plan? Do you think it’s all the same? Do you think about its environmental impact?
Let’s think about these questions and take a look at some of the interesting facts about Amish furniture.
The History of Amish Furniture
Amish furniture has its roots in two different styles – original pieces dating from the 18th and 19th centuries have fetched bids in the hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
You can see examples of the styles from that era in folk art collections in museums across the country, but by the beginning of the 20th century, a great deal of Amish furniture was made in the Shaker and Mission styles.
These simple but elegant designs lent themselves readily to the skill sets of the craftsmen who learned and passed down their skills in small Amish communities across Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The design meshed with those skills and produced timeless and beautiful furniture.
During much of that same period from the late 1800s through the 1920s, the arts and crafts movement developed. The movement was a direct reaction to the poor design quality and lower aesthetic value of mass-produced items offered by early factories. The movement craved creative designs and quality products, and it was only a matter of time before it would embrace Amish furniture’s handcrafted quality and beauty.
By the 1920s the arts and crafts movement had made Amish furniture an incredibly popular choice for furniture buyers throughout the country. The combination of simple, beautiful designs and excellent craftsmanship made Amish furniture popular well past the end of the arts and crafts period and through the trends that followed – and it’s still prevalent today.
Our contemporary Amish furniture is made using the same techniques that artisans have been using and passing on for many generations, even while some classic pieces of Amish furniture have lasted through those same generations. It’s difficult to go wrong when choosing the traditional styles of handcrafted Amish furniture.
Do Amish Craftsmen Use Power Tools?
Everyone can conjure the image of an Amish family riding a horse-drawn buggy or of an Amish farmer tilling the fields with a horse-drawn plow. It’s relatively common knowledge that they don’t use electricity, as their religious beliefs lead them to keep their customs separated from much of modern society. And staying off the electric grid helps them do just that.
However, when food safety laws started dictating that they had to refrigerate the milk they were selling from their small dairy operations, they began using refrigerators powered by gas or diesel compressors. This led to harnessing that same power to run some small appliances in the home as well as some of the tools used in furniture making.
Using power woodworking tools has helped Amish craftsmen maintain their high standards of precision and quality, and it saves them valuable time. They use pneumatic and hydraulic tools powered by gas or diesel compressors. Some may use a generator to turn a series of pulleys with various instruments connected to the pulley system throughout the workshop.
Depending on the shop, different Amish craftsmen use different blends of manual and power tool. A rip cut — a cut in the same direction as the grain — may require a power tool, while a hand saw may suffice for a cut across the grain. A hand auger drill may work for a small job, but a power drill may make sense for putting a hole in a larger piece of wood.
The Environmental Impact of Amish Furniture Production
One of the more interesting facts about Amish furniture is that it’s environmentally friendly. It’s true — and not just because we don’t have to factor in the use and transmission of electricity. There are a variety of other ways that Amish furniture production maintains high conservation standards and a low carbon footprint.
- Sustainability. The lumber used in making Amish furniture is harvested sustainably, so there’s no clear-cutting of large swaths of hardwood forests, leaving large areas to erode away before the continuous growth comes in. Trees are cut selectively when they’re ready to be used for lumber.
- Shipping. Because Amish furniture is American made, there’s no need to burn the fossil fuels to carry it across the ocean on a cargo ship.
- Storage. Because Amish craftsmen make their products per the specifications of each order, there’s no need for large warehouse facilities to hold mass quantities of furniture while it’s waiting to ship. Nor is there a need to control the environment in those facilities.
- Long lasting. Handcrafted Amish furniture last for years – even for generations, so you don’t have to worry about your handmade dresser decomposing in a landfill. Other furniture made from particle board or MDF will need to be replaced often, and the resin used to make it will prevent it from biodegrading for a long time.
- No “off-gassing.” Because no toxic chemicals are used in the making of Amish furniture, you don’t have to worry about your handmade bookshelf off-gassing any chemicals into your home. Products made with particle board may be ecologically sustainable, but the resin or the laminate will off-gas some of the chemical components, like formaldehyde, into your home.
While browsing through our selection of Amish furniture, many products may look similar, but in fact, they are all different. The craftsman chooses each piece of wood when building a piece of furniture, inspecting them for flaws and looking to how the individual pieces will come together as a whole item. Artisans won’t use wood with flaws for furniture.
Wood grains can vary like fingerprints, so each item will be unique. You may think that a white oak piece that you’re ordering is just like all the others, but the lumber can come from different trees with variations in the grain. Each piece is selected for its overall quality and for how it will look as a part of that table. There will be no other table like yours.
You can also vary your options by size — shelves and tables can be made in a broad variety of heights and widths to meet your needs. You can also select the type of wood — cherry, oak, maple, quarter-sawn oak, etc. (Quarter sawn oak is milled, so each usable board is cut perpendicular to the grain. It renders more of the trunk unusable, but the resulting boards are much sturdier — and sometimes more expensive.)
You can choose from a variety of finishes, as well, and you can review samples of stain colors with each type of wood as you order. Each piece is made to order, so you will end up with a piece that is unlike any other. If you like, you can also wait to stain or paint your piece of furniture when it arrives. Or, you can simply treat the wood to preserve its natural color and grain.
Craftsmanship and Quality
One of the hallmarks of Amish woodworking techniques is the precise and sturdy joinery. Many pieces are made entirely of wood, often with no screws or brackets or pocket-hole joints holding any of the pieces together. Amish craftsmen often use the following types of joinery when building individual pieces of furniture:
- Mortise-and-tenon joints are usually used to join two pieces at a right angle. A few inches at the end of one piece is cut down to form a narrower stub called the tenon, and a slot or hole called a mortise is cut to fit the other piece’s tenon. These are very secure joints, but glue or a wedge or pin are usually used to lock it together.
- Dovetail joints are a variation on a box joint often used in drawers or cabinets to hold the corners together. A standard box joint has straight “fingers” cut into the end of each board to lock them together. The trapezoidal fingers in a dovetail joint are cut at opposite angles to ensure there’s an exact fit and a much more secure hold than a box joint.
- Tongue-in-groove joints are used when joining boards side-by-side lengthwise to make a sturdier connection. A groove is cut down the side of one board, and the edge of the next is cut down to fit in the slot. Many of the edges are glued together for the width of the tabletop or the vertical back of a piece of furniture as needed.
The adhesive used to join pieces of wood together to make these joints — especially pieces of wood for kitchen and dining room items — is food grade and non-toxic. You should have no worries while preparing food on your kitchen table or island. Matter of fact, many cutting boards and butcher blocks are made using the same type of glue.
The skilled artistry, along with the carefully selected wood for each piece, will ensure that your product is not only unique and beautiful, but it will last for generations. A mass-produced piece of furniture won’t have carefully chosen pieces of wood — if it even uses solid wood at all — and much of it won’t have the same secure joinery as Amish furniture.
Indeed, a great deal of mass-produced furniture won’t have high-quality hard wood, let alone specifically chosen wood. Much of it will have a lacquered or veneered coating over a lower quality substitute, like medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or particle board. The lower quality wood and wood substitutes won’t have the strength or durability of high-quality Amish made craftsman furniture.
The joinery certainly won’t be the same high quality, either. Some will use different brackets or inserts. Some will use pocket-hole joints — a hole drilled at an angle close to the end of a board to allow for a screw to be offset and join the two pieces at a right angle. None of these are as durable as the joints a craftsman would use.
Amish Craftsman Furniture Prices
Naturally, the high quality and excellent craftsmanship of Amish furniture is going to lead to a slightly higher price point when you compare it with mass-produced furniture. However, don’t let that turn you off. Amish made furniture is heirloom quality. You won’t have to replace any of these pieces of furniture, and you can even pass the savings on to future generations when your furniture lasts for more than a lifetime.
Mass produced furniture can’t promise you that durability, but what about other custom-made furniture? There are many custom builders out there with large and small operations, and many of them will use the same types of joinery as an Amish craftsman. They may even make similar Mission or Shaker style products. They may be just as selective when it comes to the choosing the right piece of wood as an Amish builder would be.
The quality of work done by other custom builders may even be comparable to that of an experienced Amish craftsman. Some manufacturers will use a large, vertically cut section of a tree trunk to make a tabletop. There is lots of artistry that goes into making a table like that, and it will likely end up costing you more. It will certainly be very durable, though.
The styles will vary with many custom furniture makers. Some pieces may be very similar to Amish craftwork. Others may mix building materials, like thick hardwood table tops on a steel frame, or they may blend relatively rough-hewn parts with precisely finished parts. Some may specialize in ultra-modern styles or retro mid-century styles – after all, making furniture is a creative process!
The prices, along with those styles, can vary and sometimes vary wildly, depending on the builder. Sometimes you may be paying more for the name a craftsman has made for himself over the years even though the quality is comparable to that of other less expensive products. Prices aren’t necessarily consistent across different markets, and there are other variables when it comes to pricing.
Many custom furniture builders have a much higher overhead because of the constant use of electricity and the limited use of hand tools. They may be paying for the lease on the workshop property, as well. High-end power tools can be costly, and they may have been purchased with credit. Amish craftsmen don’t have to worry about any of that.
However, many custom builders are looking to make something new and unique in its general appearance, rather than something unique in the details and timeless in its appearance. That distinct look is what gives a general craftsman his name. On the other hand, Amish furniture gives you that timeless look with unique details and unparalleled quality in what’s an affordable package.
Another thing that helps makes Amish furniture more affordable is that the proceeds go to craftsmen to support their families and their communities. The proceeds aren’t going to profit a large, impersonal, multinational corporation, and they definitely aren’t going to pay for a workshop with a high overhead, either. An Amish workshop is simple and self-sustaining.
Another thing to consider is the cost of shipping. Because Amish furniture is made in the United States, from American hardwoods, there’s no need to factor in international shipping costs, either. That’s going to be part of the equation with a great deal of mass-produced furniture that’s available on the market.
Versatile Design Plans
How you plan to feature your new purchase in your home is another significant consideration, and incorporating Amish furniture into your design plans for your home gives you a surprising variety of design options. You may feel that purchasing Mission or Shaker style furniture limits your design plan to a Mission or Shaker style theme, but your furniture choices don’t have to set your theme.
If, for instance, you purchase a full set of furniture for your living room — sofa, chairs, shelves, end tables, etc. — you can still have a very personalized design plan and have some variety. You can use throws, pillows, window treatments, artwork and other such items to add color, texture and variety. Your choice of lighting will also enhance the colors and contrasts and highlight the beauty of your chosen furniture.
On the other hand, you could also just get one or two pieces to add some classic Amish style to an already completed room. Perhaps you just need an entertainment center and end tables to finish off your family room. A custom Amish entertainment center, along with a pair of Mission end tables could bring this room together, making it the central place to entertain in your home.
Either way, whether you’re considering the various ways you can incorporate Amish furniture into your design plans or you’re just considering the sheer volume of options for a single piece, you have a significant range of choices. No matter what, your new Amish furniture will be the center of attention – whatever piece you choose or in whatever room you use it.
What Do You Plan to Do?
The history of Amish furniture is deeply enmeshed with the history of arts and crafts design movement. People had started to see how mass-produced furniture was lacking in quality and durability, and they wanted more. In Amish handcrafted furniture they found what they were looking for, and still, today, we can see that mass-produced furniture is lacking.
And we can still look to Amish furniture as an alternative. It’s a higher quality and higher value for the price. It’s an American family business, and you will save in the long run. If you’re interested in saving right now, you can browse through the inventory of our own solid wood custom-made furniture for every room of your house at AmishOutletStore.com.
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