Ever wonder what goes on in an Amish furniture business? In this article, Dennis, an Amish wood craftsman from Indiana, takes you inside an Amish furniture shop.
How Amish Furniture is Made
Come, let us take a look at one Amish shop. As we step through the overhead doors we enter the lumber storage room. The man on the forklift handling the wood bundles smiles at us and motions us over. He’s the manager. You wouldn’t have noticed he was the manager by his attire, but it becomes obvious he knows what is going on. He’s not the owner, but his father is. Currently, the owner is in the office, shuffling papers and running to the phone every so often to place some phone calls.
First, the son gives the general history of the shop. Twenty-five years ago there was a hog facility right here. His dad set it up and in his after-factory hours began craftmaking for stores, graduating to more and bigger items until they hit on beds as a niche for this shop. The bed lines grew as we hooked up with some other Amish woodworkers, the son explains, to make the beds for their bedroom suites.
Eventually, they outgrew the hog facility and ended up adding on to it, all the way to the barn and ended up using the shed part underneath. About eight years ago, they demolished the hog facility and put up this larger steel frame building and two years ago added this lumber storage room.
As this business grew, they had to get creative with work space. Two people now work up in what used to be the barn haymow. Currently there are about fifteen people working in here. Four of them are the man’s siblings.
Where does the power come from?
He leads us through the shop. The tools are what you might expect in any non-Amish shop—a lathe, planer-sander, about five shapers, edge sander, table saws, cutoff saws, dovetail machine, and boring machines, but no computers. Everything seems to click as workers work at downdraft sanding benches and the various other machines. Some cut, some assemble, some sand, and they all work!
They have about two dozen styles of beds they produce, from Mission to Sleigh to other contemporary styles. They produce many in groups of five or more to increase efficiency.
The power to run the equipment comes from a several-hundred-horsepower diesel engine located outside in the “motor shanty”. The diesel engine powers the hydraulic system for most of their tools and a generator for lighting and some of the electronic tools, like the planer-sander. It also powers an air compressor for the small hand tools and other needs.
Amish furniture shops are not all the same
You may ask me, “Is this a typical Amish shop?” Good question. Let me explain why. Another shop ten miles from here might be run totally with a generator, and contain a computerized CNC machine to work with cutsheets drawn up on a word processor.
And a third shop, the same distance away, might not have one bit of electrical equipment anywhere, down to the portable gas lamps. In some other communities, even hydraulic power is prohibited and all machinery is powered with belts and pulleys on a line shaft underneath the floor connected directly with the motor. Hand tools might be powered with flex shafts instead of air.
Not only does this depend on the local congregation’s direction on these items, but it is often a reflection of the owner’s convictions. Some shop owners have been drawn to more high-tech tools, but many learn you also must increase production enormously to pay off the investments. Increasing production can lead to more headaches (paperwork, employees, etc).
Is it worth the hassle to have the busiest and the most top-notch facility if I don’t have time to spend with my family? This question not only affects the Amish, but likely you too.
Most of our shops don’t employ fifteen people. Most have less than five. Not very many shops incorporate, with the exception of LLCs. The workman’s comp and liability issues are done on an aid plan. Basically, if one shop has workman’s comp or liability issues, they contact the aid managers and they help with expenses with funds from area shops and businesses.
Cooperating, and “outsourcing” furniture work
Did you notice there was no sign of any finishing equipment in the above shop? The woodworking businesses in our community are interlinked in many cases. Drawer box shops, door and raised panel shops, glued panel shops, moulding and trim shops, and finishing shops all offer their specialized expertise to help each other meet deadlines and produce high quality products.
Some shops do practically everything in-house to stay in control over quality and ability to reduce their backlog. They don’t want to wait two weeks for the drawers.
But some others utilize those shops heavily. For example, let’s say I had an order for a large kitchen. I will either have to hire help to work on this project to get it done in a timely manner, or I can outsource the work.
I would order glued up solid tops at one shop, drawers at another shop, doors and drawer fronts at another, and all the trim and moulding at another shop. I would cut and assemble the remaining cabinet parts and as the items come in I check over all of them to ensure the high quality the customer and I expect.
Here is another thing we Amish outsource—the transportation of furniture and cabinets to local finishing shops. There are people making a living hauling the many crafts produced in our area to stores, finishing shops and customers.
The specialized shops can often produce their items as cheap as we can. For example, the door shop has to invest in quite a few shapers and routers, but is then set up to cut a few pieces of wood, run them through the correct profile shapers, sand, assemble, finish sand, and they have a beautiful raised panel door.
The cabinet shop may not have the space or money to invest in each and every shaper and cutterhead needed. Some cutterhead sets cost $500, and people do not all want the same profile on their doors, no matter how persuasively you may talk!
I hope you enjoyed this slight peek into the businesses in our community. We are blessed indeed. There is an oft-used proverb in our circles. The English translation is, “On the blessings of God, rests everything.”
Amishman photo: wcn247/flickr