Imagine an Amish furniture maker, busy at his craft. What do you envision? If you’re like many people, you imagine a person using hand tools exclusively, his work area lit with kerosene lamps. Your picture of gas lighting is plausible, as the Amish faith bars the use of electrical grids. (The idea is to avoid allowing outside influence over their lives.) However, because gas lamps are highly flammable around combustible sawdust, skylights and daytime working hours are standard in Amish furniture workshops. Moreover, some Amish furniture makers use pneumatic power tools.
Pneumatic tools are powered by hydraulic pumps or diesel generators connected to air compressors. The pump or generator engine powers the compressor, which pumps highly pressurized air into a connected reservoir.
The Amish began using compressed air power tools after new government regulations required dairy farmers to refrigerate their milk before it was picked up from the farm. To comply with these regulations while avoiding dependence on electrical grids, the Amish decided to use diesel generators to power milk coolers. Soon, it was discovered that the generators could serve double duty, compressing air for pneumatic tools while also cooling milk. Today, Amish families use a myriad of pneumatic tools, from clothes washers to blenders to sewing machines.
In other words, the stereotypical image of Amish families using only human-powered technology is a bit outdated. Let’s take a closer look at the tools and techniques that they Amish use to craft wood furniture.
Hardwood Selection: Key to the Amish Furniture Building Process
Furniture wood selection is an art passed down through Amish generations. Hardwood choice is a critical step in custom Amish furniture process. Amish furniture apprentices learn to spot the most attractive, consistent, strongest lumber. Unique grain patterns and colors set apart the exceptional boards chosen for Amish furniture.
Amish furniture makers generally work with Quarter-sawn White Oak, Cherry, Brown Maple, Oak, Walnut, Hickory, Elm, and Rustic/Sap Cherry when building real wood furniture. These hardwood lumbers offer intriguing grain patterns and strength, for long-term beauty and durability. The Amish’s exclusive use of hardwood distinguishes their furniture as high quality.
Tools used in Amish Furniture Craftsmanship
Once the lumber has been chosen, it’s time to get to work. The wood may be kiln-dried, or it may be stored in a humidity-controlled environment. At the time of assembly, Amish woodworkers use several tools, including but not limited to:
- Hand planes
- Miter saws
These tools are used to cut boards to the correct dimensions. Next, the edges are sanded and prepared for exact fits with other boards. Grain patterns and colors are considered when matching boards for assembly. Joining techniques follow.
Amish Construction: Joint Techniques
Beyond the types of tools used workshops, traditional Amish furniture is distinguished by strong, durable joints, such as wooden pegs, mortise and tenon joints, and dovetail joints. While these approaches take more time than simpler joints, they deliver added strength and durability.
Mortise and Tenon Joints are glue joints used to connect perpendicular boards. This is the strongest joint in carpentry.
Tongue and Groove Back Joints are primarily used in furniture that has a solid wood back. Because they allows the natural contraction and expansion of wood over time, tongue and groove joints are perfect for pieces with wide spans of timber.
Dovetailed Joints may be used in various pieces, such as on the front and back of drawers. An alternating connection pattern with no protruding parts makes this type of connection perfect for areas that demand an attractive yet strong joint. Drawers with dovetailed joints can stand up to 200 pounds of weight, assuring long-term use into the next generation.
Preparation and Staining
Once Amish furniture is assembled, the final steps provide protection for decades to come. Amish craftsmen sand all surfaces, often first with an air sander and then by hand with a block sander. A wood stabilizer is then used to seal all edges. Finally, a catalyzed conversion varnish is applied, for the ultimate protection against moisture, heat, and everyday use. Here at Gish’s Furniture, we offer dozens of stain choices to perfectly match your décor.
The use of pneumatic power tools does not detract from the elegance and strength of Amish furniture. The Amish lifestyle is still based on deep-rooted simplicity. Amish families do not watch TV, drive cars, or use electric lights. Wash day on an Amish farm still means clothes hung out to dry. And the Amish commitment to strong, attractive furniture techniques still delivers gorgeous, long lasting furniture.
[Photo by: Tanner Young via CC License]