Many people have false impressions about Amish-made furniture. Amish furniture isn’t a “look” or style; it can be country, traditional, contemporary or modern in design. It is not a quality distinction. The designation “Amish made” does not mean that the furniture is produced according to a single standard of excellence in construction. Amish furniture quality is as varied as individual people themselves.
While not readily apparent to an outsider, many variations in Amish orthodoxy and practice exist: Old Order, New Order and Beachy are examples. And, even within a specific group, differences abound from community to community in terms of traditions and rules of conduct. Similarly, not all Amish furniture is identical. Different materials and construction may be employed by each builder or builders and can translate into disparate pricing, as well as varying degrees of refinement, for similar items. There is no one method of production utilized or benchmark of quality bestowed by being “Amish built”.
To confuse matters further, many Amish builders copy designs from others. This may lead the casual observer to believe they are purchasing identical pieces. In fact, what appears on the surface to be the same, is actually very different in execution. “Borrowing” designs is not unique to the Amish and is quite common throughout the furniture industry. When shopping for Amish-made furniture, you should look for the hallmarks of quality and assess the merits of construction just as you would furniture built by any other single artisan or manufacturer. When making comparisons, keep in mind that large price variations for seemingly identical pieces is a sign that all may not be as it seems. This is when “hands on” inspection becomes critical to determine if you are getting the best value for your money. Here are some things to consider.
KEY: expect to pay more | avoid
1. Is it really solid wood?
Just because it’s Amish-made does not mean the furniture is completely solid hardwood. Many Amish builders (and other furniture makers) combine the use of solid wood and hardwood plywood for various reasons. Plywood is not always a bad thing, and builders actually prefer it in some cases. For example, plywood is used in instances where solid wood of an equal dimension would be less stable. In heirloom-quality furniture, plywood is usually limited to unexposed areas such as case backs or drawer bottoms or in structural areas where rigidity is crucial. However, some makers use it for case sides, drawer boxes, and other high use areas to save money. Because the plywood is often veneered with a more expensive wood, such as Cherry or Walnut, it may be difficult to spot.
When shopping online be sure to read the fine details. Even when terms such as “solid wood” and “old world Amish craftsmanship” are prominently featured on the home page, pay equal attention to what is left unsaid, especially when drilling down to descriptions of individual items. For instance, if a dresser is described as having a “solid top and drawer front,” it may mean that the sides and other areas are plywood since they were left unspecified. If the price is significantly lower than a similar-looking piece from another source, you should have high suspicion that plywood has been used in prominent areas.
2. How is the furniture constructed?
Traditional woodworking methods such as dado, dowel, dovetail, and mortise & tenon joinery should be employed in the construction of the furniture. Screws should be used for secondary support only. While it is typically the case that Amish builders use these methods, it is not always so and you should ask about how the furniture is joined just to be sure. However, even when traditional methods are used, the execution and fine detail can vary greatly. In-person examination is crucial. Look for the following:
Drawer Boxes: Check for dovetail joinery in both the front and the back of the drawers. Some makers dovetail the front only, particularly when the drawers do not fully extend, as the back of the drawer may be difficult to see.
Primary wood vs. Secondary wood: Most solid wood furniture features a “primary” wood from which the framing members, drawer fronts, tops and sides are constructed while a “secondary” wood is used for the drawer boxes. For example, a dresser made of solid walnut may have drawer boxes made from another, less expensive hardwood, such as maple. The mixing of woods for primary and secondary areas in furniture construction has been used for centuries and is not considered substandard. It is common practice in the furniture industry to label such a piece as “solid Walnut” even when a secondary wood is used for the drawer boxes. It is not considered dishonest to do so as it is generally presumed unless otherwise noted, and makes the furniture more affordable.
However, the type of secondary wood used does matter. Avoid cabinets with plywood drawer boxes as they can snag clothing. Mixing softwoods such as Pine, and softer hardwoods such as Aspen or Poplar, with tougher hardwoods like Oak, Cherry and Walnut should also be avoided, as they are not as durable. Preferred secondary woods are Maple, Oak and Ash. Maple has a smoother grain and is typically more expensive than Oak or Ash.
When price is not a concern, the drawer boxes may be made with the primary wood, typically for aesthetic reasons. For instance, a cherry dresser with drawer boxes that are also constructed of cherry will have a seamless and cohesive look when the drawers are open. Many Amish makers will use the primary wood for drawer boxes by request, however this usually increases the price by about 25%-35% depending on the wood species and number of drawers.
Drawer fronts: Are the drawer fronts made from one single plank of wood or do they feature multiple, glued up boards? Both types are solid wood and will provide a lifetime of use. However single plank drawers accept stain more consistently and highlight the unique beauty of figured hardwood grain patterns. Single plank drawer fronts will also cost more as larger boards are required and smaller scrap wood cannot not be utilized.
3. Fit and finish
Run your hands over the dovetails and drawer sides (inside and out) checking for smoothness. Feel the underneath side of dining tables as well as dresser tops that overhang the case and the inside of the drawer fronts. Has the builder sanded and finished them as smooth as the top? In the best Amish furniture, these hidden areas will be as silky smooth as the table or dresser top, then stained and sealed with a lacquer finish. Unsealed or poorly finished surfaces on the reverse side of a dining table are particularly problematic. This promotes uneven moisture absorption between the two surfaces, potentially stressing the wood and causing cracks.
Flush, fitted drawers and doors vs. overlapped construction. Cabinet doors and drawers that are flush with the cabinet tend to look more sophisticated and visually pleasing than ones that overlap. They also require much more accuracy, labor and craftsmanship. There is nothing to hide a slightly “out of square” opening in the cabinet – everything must be exact. Expect to pay more for flush fronts.
4. Will the hardware stand up to years of use?
Drawer Glides: Check the ease of drawer operation when you open and close them and examine the placement and material of the glides. Are they mounted out-of-sight, underneath the drawer, or are they visible along the side? Do the glides provide full access to the the drawer or is the back of the drawer partially covered by the case opening? Do the drawers close themselves softly with a gentle push or “slam” against the dresser? Are the drawer glides epoxy-coated metal, steel, or have a rust proof titanium finish? Can they be adjusted?
One of the best drawer glide systems is the Blum Smart Slides which are made in North Carolina. They are mounted underneath the drawer, completely hidden, 4-way adjustable, have full extension and feature a soft-close system. Side glides are less attractive and are more likely to “catch” clothing and gather dust, foreign particles or obstructions that may interfere with smooth operation over time. Avoid epoxy-coated metal as they will not stand up well over the long term.
Hinges: How thick and heavy duty are the hinges on cabinet doors? Are the hinges visible or hidden? Hidden hinges look clean, modern and more sophisticated while visible hinges look more “country” and have an 80’s retro feel. Do the hinges close softly with a gentle push or do the doors “bang” against the cabinet when closed? Are the hinges adjustable? Smaller, lighter hinges will not stand up to everyday use. More features and rugged construction translate into more expense.
Bed assembly: How are the side rails mounted to the headboard and foot board? Can the construction withstand multiple moves? Interlocking systems that use dowels with a threaded bolt are sturdier and will out perform “L” brackets with screws that bore directly into the wood. This is particularly true if repeated assembly and disassembly has occurred. The dowel and bolt system is more costly but is easier to “keep square” when installing.