Amish Furniture Building
One of the driving values that motivates an Amish community is maintaining their style of life and allowing their children the same option as they grow old enough to start their own families. In the past most Amish families made their living off the land through farming and dairying. It has been their heritage to help their children buy farms as they got old enough to enable them to continue the lifestyle and practice of their beliefs.
But the success of the Amish communities has worked against these very values. As the communities have grown and the quality of life has been spread throughout the community the land prices have gone up. As the land has risen in value, the ability to buy a farm for each of the children has grown almost impossible. This has moved the Amish communities to look for cottage industries where they can earn a living, employ their children and maintain close family ties.
Being rooted to the land, they also consider their work with the land and its resources as an extension of their worship of the Creator. They are stewards of the land because there isn't any more being made. It needs to be preserved. Wood is a great resource to work with. It is renewable, takes carbon dioxide from the air and only needs sun to grow.
The wood industry has always employed persons in the Amish community. In the past the majority of these persons were loggers or sawmill operators. The sawmill was an easy business to set up and it could employ several of the children. There are many sawmills in the area processing oak, walnut and other hardwoods. Most of this wood is air dried although some are also kiln-drying woods. The predominate wood is oak. See the accompanying article on an Amish Family Business.
To enhance their business many of these sawmills began making pallets for the manufacturing industry as an end use for their wood. Pallet repair shops also popped up. Some of the more conservative Amish groups, build pallets by hand nailing rather than automated nailers.
Other businesses popped up to dry the lumber being cut at the mills. These were typically outside the Amish community because of the need for utilities to control the drying process for the lumber. Lumber used in the manufacture of furniture in most cases needs to be kiln dried to insure the moisture content is at the right level.
Many Amish men have been cabinet makers for generations. Several small cabinet shops dotted the area, making custom kitchens for homes being built in the area. These craftsmen have often made furniture for their own homes, homes of other family members and particularly for their children when they got married as a wedding gift. As early tourists to the area ventured out they found these shops and asked the owners to make their cabinets. There are local cabinet makers who have been shipping kitchens as far away as Cleveland and other parts of OH.
Other persons supplied the handmade caskets for the plain community. It is common for a community to have a few persons who make caskets, often keeping several on hand rather than building them on demand.
Amish men have also found employment in their communities making wheels, surrey poles and the completed buggies. There are shops in the area that employ several men just making buggy wheels which are shipped to many other Amish communities across the country. See the article in the Amish Knowledgebase on Amish transportation for more information on this industry.
Most of the furniture shops started small, making items by hand with limited power tools. Some shops still function this way but they are unable to manufacture furniture fast enough to meet the demand. It also becomes a matter of economics similar to home building. There have long been Amish carpenter builders who built the entire home from the ground up. They could do about 4-6 homes in a year. Now they have moved to contracting with other Amish, Mennonite and English subcontractors to help build the homes enabling them to build more homes in a year.
Some enterprising Amish men began to manufacture furniture on a larger scale, employing their family members and others from their community. As the industry developed component manufacturers popped up. Someone planes the rough cut dried lumber to finished, smooth dimensions. Another cuts the pieces for a particular manufacturer they work with. Another shop may just manufacture chair seats or the turned spindles. The final assembler may put everything together from several component shops. Some of the shops finish their own furniture. Others again utilize another Amish business somewhere to just do the finishing.
The work ethic and the quality ethic create the foundation that the furniture industry is built on. One of the local shops has a sign hanging in the owner's office. It reads: "Quality-countless, unseen details are often the only difference between mediocre and magnificent." The Amish will receive a compliment for their work but their desire to do it well isn't driven by the outside comments. It comes from within rooted in a sense that it is important to do their best. The whole idea of hand crafted furniture differs from robotic manufactured furniture in that there is a person looking at the fit of the pieces and saying "I don't like the way that fits."
Another local manufacturer and retailer got their start at home in a garage in 1983. Their family ancestry was in the Amish faith and work ethic. They moved to a public retail facility in 1985 and did craft shows to supplement their retail sales. In 1988 they relocated again and built a new store in 1991. They soon gave up the craft shows and just geared up to handle their retail business. All of this was fueled by the acceptance of the visiting public for their offerings first of pine wood products and later oak furniture and furnishings.
Over the last 20 plus years the manufacture and sale of locally handcrafted furniture has exploded in the area. As visitors came into the area they discovered the solid, handcrafted furniture for sale in local retail and wholesale operations. It was high quality and reasonably priced. One visitor to the area discovered they could buy 2 solid oak end tables for the price of one veneer oak end table in the area where they lived.
To date the industry has grown to some 450 wholesale operations that feed the 30 plus retail operations and other dealers throughout the country. Some of the smaller manufacturers also retail their creations.
As the industry has matured the manufacturers are branching out from their traditional woods, stains and finishes to painting, antiquing and distressing furniture to keep up with the changing trends. While many shops have standard pieces they manufacture, many are willing to custom build any piece of furniture you can design. While oak has traditionally been the wood of choice, most shops are working in cherry, maple, hickory and other woods. Change is the word of the day both in offerings, styles and woods. While the quality remains the same, the methods are changing, improving and refining.
Furniture made in the local area is being shipped around the country. On any given day you can see trucks picking up locally made furniture and carrying it back to their retail locations throughout OH and the rest of the country. One local trucker takes a load of locally made furniture to Alaska twice a year for resale.
At one point, High Point, NC was known as the furniture capital of the US. The local Chamber and other business groups are trying to verify what appears to have happened here locally. This area has apparently overtaken High Point and become the largest area of US furniture production. But that isn't the motivation of the local Amish family involved in the industry. They are seeking to preserve their faith and their families for many generations to come.