According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, an heirloom is “a valuable object that is owned by a family for many years and passed from one generation to another.” Heirloom furniture is of such high quality that one’s great grandchildren may enjoy it. That is the main difference between heirloom furniture and merely nice furniture. Only the heirloom is of such high quality and classic taste that it can be enjoyed by successive generations. Nice furniture may cost less initially, but it will succumb to the time, use, and weather, unlike heirloom pieces. Heirloom furniture makers, such as the Amish, are not building for years of use. Rather, they construct tables, bookcases, and chairs that will last for decades. However, unless you’ve studied furniture extensively, it can be difficult to distinguish heirloom from high quality furniture at first glance. Let’s take a look at a few of the telltale signs of heirloom pieces.
How to Identify Heirloom Furniture
1. Solid Wood Construction. Think back to your hours watching “Antiques Roadshow.” Can you remember a time when furniture experts raved over veneer or plastic? We’re guessing that you can’t, because solid wood furniture is the gold standard for quality. Solid wood is rich, unique, and long lasting. Faux, laminated, and veneer wood simply cannot stand up to time as solid wood can. Plus, low-quality veneer or faux wood furniture often off-gasses dangerous chemicals, putting residents at risk. So, your first step is to determine the composition of the piece before you. If it is solid wood, proceed to the following steps.
2. Assembly. Look for planks that fit together perfectly, and examine the width of the boards. Any board over 4” in width is more likely to warp over time, so look for boards in widths of 4” or less. Next, notice the direction of the grain in each board, particularly the grain patterns at the end of each plank. You want grain patterns that are moving in opposite directions. This keeps the piece of furniture in a state of dynamic tension, as each plank’s cupping tendencies are offset by its neighbors. Furniture built with this attention to long-term strength will remain smooth for decades to come.
3. Research Manufacturing Details. Ask the craftsman about how the piece was constructed, if possible. Inquire about the wood’s moisture content. This is important because high moisture levels make it difficult to get a good glue bond at the joints. Heirloom furniture should be kiln dried, with 6-8% moisture content, to ensure exceptional joint strength. When properly constructed and glued, the joints are often stronger than the grain itself. The joints must be properly cut, clamped, and glued for at least an hour in order to achieve a tight bond, in which the glue soaks an eighth of an inch into the wood fiber. This means that a piece of furniture will not fail at the joints, even under stress.
4. Search for Routing, Sawing, and Sanding Evidence. When done properly, sanding opens wood grain to accept stain. This is critical for heirloom pieces; without stain, heat and moisture will mark and weaken the wood. Too-coarse sandpaper will leave a blotchy, swirled surface, while too-fine sandpaper can clog wood pores, blocking stain from penetrating deeply. The same is true of sanding tools. The wrong sander can crush the grain, preventing stain saturation. Finally, poorly done routing will show up as chatter marks (in cherry wood) or loose fibers (in hickory). All of these signs indicate less-than-ideal craftsmanship and lack of attention to detail. If you see an uneven stain, chatter marks, loose fibers, swirls, or blotches, chances are you’re not looking at an heirloom.
5. Examine the Joints. Heirloom Amish collectibles will have strong joints connected with glue. Look for dovetail joints on drawers. Mitered joints should have a barely perceptible seam. Expect to find some expansion space behind trim pieces; this allows some movement, protecting mitered joints.
6. Scrutinize the Curves. Heirloom pieces feature steam-bent curves, built from single pieces of solid wood. This will lend grace and strength to the piece. However, lower quality furniture may feature curves constructed of thin strips of laminated wood. Cracks along the outer edge indicate weakness, stemming from the wood being stretched. Budges and wrinkles (particularly along a bed’s inside corner) points to buckling during the bending process, and again communicates weakness.
7. Scout Out the Surface Finish. Prioritize pieces that have catalyzed conversion varnish. This modern varnish solution prevents water marks. Tomato juice, ink, and even battery acid cannot harm it. Heirlooms will take years of beatings—spilled glasses are inevitable over years of service.
Gish’s works with a select few Amish craftsmen to create quality pieces that will last for many years to come. Our craftsmen have generations of experience behind their work. They have been apprenticed since their teen years in honing heirloom furniture. In a world of planned obsolescence, Amish furniture stands apart for its true heirloom quality. If it is Amish built, you can rest assured that it is indeed an heirloom that your family can enjoy for generations.