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10 Secrets of Amish Furniture Makers

Amish woodworkers take their craft seriously, and the heirloom furniture they produce is coveted for its impeccable quality, craftsmanship and durability. Here's what the Amish do differently.

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Amish furniture makers will only use solid wood—never a wood substitute

Amish woodworkers don’t just set out to build furniture; they aim to build heirlooms that will stand the test of time and survive through generations. That’s why you’ll never find a piece of authentic Amish-crafted furniture constructed with flimsy materials like particleboard or MDF. These artisans stick to locally sourced wood, exclusively. Some of the most common woods in their workshops are super-durable red and white oak, cherry, hickory and brown maple. Are you a woodworking newbie? Wood 101 is the place to start.

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amish Flickr user Nonsensebird via Creative Commons

The Amish use a different kind of power tool—one that doesn’t require electricity

The Amish, as a culture, are well-known for eschewing modern conveniences like electricity, mainly to remain off the public grid. But that does not necessarily mean Amish woodworkers are limited to hand tools. Although hand planes, saws, hammers and chisels are commonplace, the Amish also use their own version of power tools, called pneumatic tools. Instead of electricity, pneumatic tools run on compressed air, and are, in this case, fueled by a diesel engine. Miter saws, sanders and buffers are common pneumatic tools in an Amish furniture maker’s tool collection.

Refreshing your tool stash? Here are the best power tools you can find under $100 (yes, they use real electricity!).

Photo: Flickr user Nonsensebird via Creative Commons

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Amish-made furniture is often built with hidden compartments

One of the coolest secrets of Amish furniture makers is the actual secret compartments some build into their furniture. These hidden spaces allow for some pretty stealth storage options. The top of an Amish-made coffee table, for instance, might flip up to reveal a hollow space deep enough for books and magazines. A wooden bookcase might conceal a hidden drawer. Some Amish furniture, ironically, even comes with built-in power outlets. Check out 10 of our favorite pieces of furniture with secret compartments..

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Amish carpenters don’t use nails or screws!

Part of the allure of Amish craftsmanship is the painstaking attention to detail, and the fastener-free joinery is a prime example. Amish woodworkers tend to forgo nails and opt for techniques like dovetails, rabbets, and mortise-and- tenon joinery instead. Done properly, and reinforced with wood glue, these types of joints can be even more durable than regular nailed joints. And, some people prefer seamless look of a fastener-free piece of furniture, which truly is a piece of art. Here’s how to harness the power of strong wood glue to keep your joints together.

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The Amish use some of the most eco-friendly practices and supplies possible in furniture making

You won’t find Amish carpenters importing exotic woods from overseas—or even from the opposite coast. These craftsmen stock up on sustainably harvested, locally sourced woods, and use low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) varnishes to finish their furniture in the healthiest possible way, while still maintaining durability. Even the heirloom approach is environmentally sound—an armoire used by three generations doesn’t make its way into a landfill for many years.

If you haven’t gotten on the sustainability train, what are you waiting for? Here are 10 inexpensive ways to start.

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Amish carpenters start learning woodworking early—usually as children

In Amish country, practical skills and trades are taught from a young age. Everything from cooking to—you guessed it— woodworking is passed down through generations. That’s part of why so much pride and integrity goes into Amish furniture making: it’s often a family affair, and the art of furniture making is part of the culture’s heritage. It’s hard not to produce top-notch work when the process hits so close to home. We’ve gathered some of our best carpentry tips and advice right here.

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sanding Simone Madeo/Shutterstock

Amish furniture makers sand and finish each piece of furniture by hand in a painstaking, labor-intensive process

Mass-produced furniture is the antithesis of what Amish woodworkers stand for. These artisans take a much more personal approach, which involves a multi-step process of sanding, staining and sealing repeatedly until the product is in presentation condition. In fact, these perfectionists won’t even work with wood that’s too flawed (see below). A low-VOC (low-toxicity) varnish is applied to all Amish furniture to make it impenetrable to water, stains and scratches. These are our best tips for putting TLC into your own wood-finishing projects.

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Amish furniture makers do all of their intricate detail work by hand

Though Amish furniture makers may use their own version of “power” tools for the heavy lifting, the fine embellishments are always done by hand using chisels and other appropriate apparatus. In fact, because the art of furniture making is so cherished in their culture, Amish artisans and their families will often become known for their individual aesthetics. These designs are as authentic as it gets. Inspired? Here’s how to properly use a wood chisel.

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The Amish refuse to use wood with flaws

Amish woodworkers and Amish carpenters are extremely particular about the materials they use. They’ve been known to inspect each piece of wood individually for flaws, and to reject lumber that does not meet their standards. Wood with few flaws will be carefully sanded until it’s considered suitable for construction. Consideration will also be given to how each piece of wood will work together as a whole piece of furniture—even the wood’s grain is taken into consideration.

In a hurry? Sand wood faster by following these tips.

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drawingpatrimonio designs ltd/Shutterstock

Amish furniture is almost always completely customizable

Because furniture making is a heritage tradition for the Amish, they are often more than happy to tailor the design and construction of each piece of furniture to client’s preferences. The woodworkers will factor in a client’s choice of wood, style, dimensions, finish—pretty much every detail—when building a made-to-order product. And we’re not just talking about pointing to pages in a catalog. Amish furniture makers are known to talk through the process with clients until both parties are on the same page. Find the beginner’s guide to DIY furniture here.