When compared side by side with mass market pieces, heirloom Amish furniture stands out starkly. But occasionally, imitation pieces are marketed as “Amish,” and when a side-by-side comparison isn’t possible, it is helpful to know what to look for to ensure authenticity.
First, it’s important to remember that Amish made furniture making is an art. It was one of the first forms of American folk art, gaining marked attention from art dealers and historians as early as the 1920s. Some of the early pieces are on display at the Smithsonian Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many pieces are curated in regional museums around the country. These are not just dressers and sofas, they are works of art.
We must also keep in mind that furniture making is a heritage to the Amish, and many families or communities become widely known for their particular design details, niches, and specialty features. The wood is hand-chosen, so the grain enhances the design and highlights the features. There are no identical pieces.
So with the difference in craftsmanship between the Amish and modern manufacturers, you may wonder why there are knock-offs at all? Why would anyone bother to try and fake it? The reason is simple: profit. Imitators (should they be successful in their imitations) may stand to make a considerable profit on knockoff Amish furniture.
Here are some considerations for anyone wanting to ensure their purchase is authentic:
- Think small: Since Amish made furniture is never mass-produced, you will mainly find it in small, specialty stores or online sites that identify their sources in specific Amish communities. Furniture manufacturers attempting to sell imitation Amish furniture at a large, general retailer show their hand this way.
- Inspect the pieces: The pieces should be solid wood. Finishing is done by hand, with both the sanding and the varnish. Genuine Amish furniture does not use laminates, particle board, or veneers. Drawers will usually come with dovetail corners and fully extending drawer slides. The wood is usually either quarter-sawn or plain sawn, which enhances the appearance of the grain. The styles are mostly traditional, such as Mission, Shaker, or Queen Anne, with some specializing in Southwestern, Rustic, or Cottage styles.
- Ask questions: Amish furniture sales are extremely specific and sales staff is trained to talk about the craftsmanship. Ask about the wood. Is it kiln dried? Which sawing method is used? Since modern technology and electricity are usually not used by the craftsmen, ask whether the shop is powered by hydraulic or pneumatic power. Retailers with genuine relationships with the craftsman will often know such details.
- Look for excellence: Amish furniture makers work among their family and community members and view their work as a form of devotion. There is great care taken in the selection of wood, the joining of the pieces, and the appearance of the grain. If you’re looking at something with visible glue seepage or shoddy screw work, the piece is not authentic.
- Expect an intermediary when buying online: The Amish do not sell their pieces directly online. There is always a middleman between them and their customers. The intermediary retailer develops relationships with the families and craftsmen of an Amish community in order to offer the furniture to the general public. Exceptional retailers will offer customization of design and materials, so online buyers can choose their desired components, but there will always be a significant wait time. This is because the work is all done by hand and there is a high demand for such beautiful, durable pieces. If any site is claiming to be a direct source (craftsman to customer), this should give you pause.
Amish made furniture is stunning and durable for generations. Authentic pieces are worth the investment because of the artistry, skill, and quality involved in their creation. If you are going to invest in something of worth, it’s important to make sure it is a true piece of Amish artistry, and not a manufactured fake.