Chapter 3: Amish Carpentry Techniques
Amish woodworking is a highly skilled trade. The Amish pass down generations of knowledge to future woodworkers. The majority of Amish-owned businesses produce wood products such as furniture, gazebos and small barns. Many Amish men are involved in residential and commercial construction where they get to apply their building wisdom.
Regarding furniture, Amish woodworking involves a mix of simple design and fine artisan detail, and all furniture is built to last. In this chapter, we will explore the labor-intensive process of Amish woodworking, as well as common Amish carpentry tools and techniques.
Amish Woodworking Tools
Opinions about using technology vary between Amish communities. In general, the Amish avoid using tools powered by standard electric grids. Electricity from public power lines is considered a modern convenience that threatens a tight-knit community or family structure.
Instead of plugging into the standard grid, Amish woodworkers may use pneumatic tools powered by air compressors or battery-operated tools. This allows them to serve their community by building high-quality pieces in a timely manner.
Overall, the Amish use standard woodworking tools, including both modern tools and traditional hand tools – they just power them in different ways. For example, they may use pneumatic tools such as:
- Drill press: Used for drilling holes with precision
- Band saw: Useful for making smooth cuts and cutting out irregular or curvy shapes
- Sander: Used to create a smooth surface with sandpaper
- Buffer: Used to polish and buff a surface to a shine
Those are just a few of the air-powered tools you may find in an Amish workshop. Amish craftsmen may also use traditional woodworking hand tools such as:
- Hatchet: Used for striking and chopping wood
- Saw: Used to cut wood
- Plane: Used to trim and shave wood
- Chisel: Used to cut, carve and shave wood
- Hammer or mallet: Used to strike woodworking chisels
- Awl: Used to cut markings or lines where a saw will cut the wood, or to pierce holes into wood
Amish Woodworking Techniques
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 holding any of the pieces together. Amish craftsmen often use the following types of joinery when building individual pieces of furniture.
1. Mortise and Tenon Joints
Mortise and tenon joints are traditional woodworking joints that have been around for thousands of years. It’s one of the strongest woodworking joints and involves attaching two pieces of wood at a 90-degree angle. Simply said, a mortise and tenon joint works by inserting the end of one piece of wood into a hole in another piece of wood. This is done by cutting down a few inches at the end of one piece to form a narrower stub called the tenon.The woodworker will cut a slot into the other piece, called the mortise, to fit the tenon.
Although these are very secure joints, glue is used to secure the pieces. A woodworker may also use a wedge or pin to lock the pieces together. A highly skilled Amish woodworker might carve a mortise and tenon joint by hand, or they may use pneumatic tools to cut the joint and save time. Mortise and tenon joints are commonly used to join furniture legs.
2. Dovetail Joints
Dovetail joints are attractive “tail” and “pin” joints. You may have seen dovetail joints used in antique drawers or cabinets to hold the corners together. A dovetail joint looks like interlocking fingers and is a sign of excellent craftsmanship. Well-made dovetail joints are durable and long-lasting.
Dovetail joints require the skill of an experienced woodworker, especially if the joint is hand-cut. Dovetail joints are interlocking pieces of pins and tails that fit snugly together. The tail piece of wood consists of carved-out pin sockets and tails. The pin piece consists of carved-out tail sockets and pins. The two pieces interlock.
There are several variations of dovetail joints, but the two main ones are through dovetails and half-blind or single lap dovetails. You may find both types of dovetails used in a drawer in Amish furniture. These joints hold the drawer together to form sturdy, durable drawer sides.
3. Tongue and Groove Joints
Tongue and groove joints function the same as mortise and tenon joints. The difference is, tongue and groove joints are much longer than mortise and tenon joints. The tongue, which is the same as a tenon, is carved to fit perfectly into the groove of the other piece of wood. Tongue and groove joints are used when joining boards side-by-side lengthwise to make a sturdier connection. Many of the edges are glued together. This joint may be used to create a seamless flat surface or wider panel such as a tabletop or the vertical back of a piece of furniture.
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 yourAmish-made kitchen table or island. In fact, many cutting boards and butcher blocks are made using the same type of glue.
Besides joinery techniques, Amish craftsmen may use chisels to add fine details by hand. Finally, they will sand and finish the pieces by hand to create a smooth, polished surface which showcases the wood’s grain patterns and beauty.
The skilled artistry, along with the carefully selected wood for each piece, will ensure that your Amish furniture is unique, beautiful and built to 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.
Amish Furniture Woodworking Plans
A lot of Amish furniture is built in Mission or Shaker style. We explore the different types of Amish furniture in the next chapter. If you are a woodworker who wants to build Amish-style furniture, browse our selection of Amish-made furniture for inspiration.
Rather than following strict woodworking plans, the Amish often construct furniture tailored to a customer’s preference. A customer might have furniture custom-built regarding size, type of wood used and stain color. Also, the craftsman chooses each piece of wood when building a piece of furniture, inspecting them for flaws and looking at how the individual pieces will come together as a whole item. Artisans won’t use wood with flaws for furniture.
While browsing through our selection of Amish furniture, many products may look similar, but in fact, they are all different. 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 part of the whole.
How Much Is Amish Furniture?
Naturally, the high quality and excellent craftsmanship of Amish furniture are going to lead to a slightly higher price point when you compare it with mass-produced furniture. However, 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.
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 choosing the right piece of wood, and the quality of work done by other custom builders may even be comparable to that of an experienced Amish craftsman.
However, many custom furniture builders have 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.
Also, many custom builders are looking to make something new and distinct in its general appearance, rather than something unique in the details and timeless in its appearance. That trademark look is what gives a general craftsman his name. On the other hand, Amish furniture gives you a timeless style and unparalleled quality in an affordable package.
Another factor 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.
Lastly, consider 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. On the contrary, international shipping costs may be part of the equation for a great deal of mass-produced furniture that’s available on the market.