When the first Amish arrived in the United States, they primarily settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. As populations grew, settlements spread and there are now major settlements in Holmes and adjoining counties in northeast Ohio, and in Elkhart and nearby counties in northeastern Indiana. All of these communities are surrounded by forests filled with White and Red Oak, as well as Cherry, Maple, Hickory, and Black Walnut. Always self-sufficient, the Amish have taken full advantage of this bounty of beautiful wood to build their own furniture.
During the past century, the primary occupation of farming has been supplemented by woodworking. At first, the general public could only purchase Amish furniture directly from an Amish shop or nearby retailer. But now Amish woodworkers cooperate with “English” businessmen who distribute their goods worldwide via the Internet and we can all enjoy the beauty of Amish craftsmanship in our own homes. First the wood is plain sawn or quartersawn in “English” or Amish mills. Not only is the plain-sawn technique faster, but it produces a wide and long open grain effect, accented by long dark lines that reveal the growth rings. Rough to the touch, these growth ring lines create a textured surface. You’ll find that most dining tables and wooden dressers are crafted from plain-sawn oak. Amish furniture makers prize quartersawn oak for its beautiful rayflake grain designs. It is also resistant to the effects of atmospheric moisture. When cut this way, white oak is very durable. If properly finished, it will not likely rot, decay, cup, twist, or crack.
The problem with the quartersawn milling technique is that it’s very labor intensive. The first step involves cutting a whole log lengthwise into quarter rounds. The quarter rounds are then cut perpendicular to the growth rings, rotating the length 90 degrees back and forth with each cut. The end result is a feathered or furry grain both beautiful and strong. In contemporary Amish mills, this cutting is now done using saws powered by diesel generators. The generators are an allowed form of electricity because the Amish retain control of the power source.
Once the wood is processed, the Amish craftsman carefully chooses the perfect piece of lumber from the mill offerings for each piece of furniture. With an artist’s eye, he will select complementary pieces to create a lasting masterpieces for any home. Generations-old techniques are employed in the construction of each custom piece from a dining table to oak dining room chair. Dovetail joints are used for drawers, and slats and support pieces are connected in the mortise and tenon fashion. Each piece is finished with exceptional care, following multiple sanding and finish-application steps. A properly cared for Amish furnishing will retain its original finish for its lifetime.
The traditional methods of handmade solid wood Amish furniture construction stand out in direct contrast to imitation mass-produced furniture imported from overseas, which is usually made of particle board and veneer. Be sure to carefully inspect any prospective furniture; there are many of these imitation Amish-style furniture items on the market, and you want to get what you’ve paid for. By purchasing a genuine Amish furniture item you are making an investment in an item of decorative utility that will last for generations.