Turning natural resources into a diverse range of products
From tree to finished product, Amish process wood all along the journey from forest to furniture. Amish sawmills, for instance, convert raw timber into lumber and other wood products for other industries. Other Amish do high-skill custom furniture and home carpentry work.
Amish furniture makers typically work in conjunction with other Amish, in some cases purchasing raw materials or furniture parts from other Amish dealers, which are then crafted into “heirloom-quality” furniture pieces.
Amish are involved in a wide range of wood-related businesses, including:
Logging, sawmills and carpentry
A number of Amish businesses process wood on the front end of the chain. Amish loggers harvest hardwoods for furniture producers and other end-destinations. Some Amish deal in hard-to-find varieties of timber.
Sawmills are common among Amish, especially popular with groups which don’t permit the highest levels of technology. Sawmill work is simpler compared to custom-crafting furniture, thus is often seen in more conservative Amish communities. In recent years growing overseas demand has seen Amish sawmills sending product to China and other Asian destinations.
Lumber products also find their way to Amish pallet shops or truss makers, where they are turned into raw materials used in the construction industry. Some Amish create and sell wood flooring, molding and related products.
Another important Amish industry is that of home construction and carpentry. Carpentry crews are common in some Amish communities, offering young men an opportunity to earn a living without the capital demands of purchasing a dairy farm.
Like Amish furniture, Amish carpentry and construction has achieved a high reputation in the field. Some Amish do remodeling or specialize in restoration work, such as Amish in Lancaster County who do work on historic barns prevalent in the area.
Among Amish wood businesses, furniture makers and cabinet shops are most prevalent. Amish woodworking shops run the gamut from businesses producing wood parts to custom-design craftsman tailoring furniture and kitchen installations to individual homeowners’ needs.
Amish wood shops run on a variety of power sources. “Lower”, or more conservative Amish, such as those found at Ethridge, Tennessee, or parts of Holmes County, Ohio, run their machinery with the assistance of a drive shaft and pulley system.
A diesel generator powers the shaft which runs under the floor, often spanning the length of the shop. A system of belts and pulleys emerge from the floor along the length of the shaft, driving saws, sanders, and other equipment lined up along the axis of the shaft.
“Higher”, or more progressive Amish typically employ either pneumatic or hydraulic power to drive their equipment. Again, diesel generators are used to run equipment fitted to operate on air power, or the even more power-efficient hydraulic power.
Some Amish even generate electricity using the same diesel generators, for tasks such as welding, or to power electric lights (when permitted) in areas of a shop where an open flame gas light would prove hazardous (such as the finishing area of a furniture business where flammable coats of finish are applied).
Amish woodworking shops are typically located in a separate building on the owner’s property near the home. Amish woodworkers employ both other Amish and sometimes non-Amish employees. Amish wood shops may range from the solo sideline business to a shop run by a handful of neighbor men from the local church district all the way to the larger facilities employing 30 or more workers, sometimes including non-Amish workers (who often serve as drivers).
Some Amish shops specialize in a certain type of product, such as bedroom sets, tables, or chairs. Some businesses produce parts which are then purchased by other Amish businesses and assembled into the final product. Examples are spindle makers, used in staircases, or businesses producing components for Amish cabinet shops.
The Amish furniture market
Though Amish are associated with simple living and limited technology, Amish furniture makers market their products to a wide-ranging clientele, including buyers from upscale urban areas. Amish woodworkers promote their businesses through a range of media.
Some advertise in trade catalogs, or business directories featuring Plain companies. Others promote their wares online via third-party internet venues. Some may even operate a web site through a similar arrangement, with a non-Amish individual maintaining the Amish web presence.
Non-Amish retailers are also an important outlet in the Amish furniture industry. A whole host of businesses selling Amish products has arisen across the nation. The vast majority of US states are home to an Amish furniture seller, as well as many Canadian provinces.
Amish partner with non-Amish to distribute their products in non-Amish areas. Though Amish also operate their own retail furniture shops, due to their geographical limitations, their range is rather limited. However in larger Amish settlements in particular, a number of Amish-run retail shops can often be found.
Learn more on how to find Amish woodwork in the Amish Furniture Guide.
Looking for more good reading on the Amish? Check out our list of best Amish books.