Home & Garden

Real Furniture, Made the Amish Way

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It’s beautiful, and sustainable, and it’s locally made, by craftsmen who pride themselves on quality. Find out why this furniture is made to last far longer than the big-box variety.

This “Justine” dining table set is crafted from high-quality, sustainable lumber by Amish craftsmen. Styles are both traditional and contemporary.

It’s too often said that, “They don’t build it like they used to.” But when it comes to durable, high-quality home furniture, a few craftsmen still follow the old-fashioned ways.

Amish craftsmen around the Midwest still employ time-tested traditions when building an impressive array of handmade furniture. At Simply Amish, 2684 Sandhutton Ave., Rockford, every bedroom set, bureau, table, entertainment center, bookcase and chair is made to order by Amish craftsmen. Like the furniture of our grandparents, these are heirloom-quality items are built to last.

“You can give it to your kids, and they can give it to their kids,” says John Reisenbigler, who co-owns the Rockford and Quad Cities locations with Arlyn Tegeler. “It’s timeless, it’s the real thing. It won’t wear out. You might get tired of looking at it, but you won’t wear it out. Your wife might want a new color, but you won’t wear it out.”

The quality difference is obvious. Reisenbigler points to a kitchen hutch as an example. He pulls out a drawer and shows off the inside. Full drawer boxes, with a separate piece for the face; dovetail construction; smooth drawer bottom; drawer glides with an under-mounted soft-cushion close. Then, he moves to the back of the hutch. No flimsy cardboard or laminates here. Solid panels of wood are screwed in for extra support. He gives the hutch a light slam with his shoulder, to show its sturdiness.

“A lot of Amish furniture is just not put together the same way as commercial furniture,” says Reisenbigler. “The backs of all of our case goods, like this one, are screwed in, not stapled in, and it’s mitered into the sides, so that it acts as part of the piece.”

It used to be that Amish furniture came in just a few traditional styles, such as Arts & Crafts, with its straight lines and grainy wood patterns, or Shaker style, with its traditional simplicity. Now, more contemporary looks also are among the 40-some styles presented in a catalog. Yes, this furniture is more costly than its big-box counterparts, but you get what you pay for, says Reisenbigler.

“These are real craftsmen, who really know how to make furniture. They still make it the way it should be made, rather than cheapening it up in order to produce it faster and less expensively,” he says. “It is costly, but when you figure that piece was made specifically for you, in whatever color and whatever wood, someone started from scratch on that piece. It’s yours, and that’s something that is unique even today.”

The options are completely customizable. Customers can choose from oaks, maples, cherries and hickories, stained to a variety of colors. Table legs come in many styles, as do knobs, tabletops and tabletop corners.

“We can do almost anything when it comes right down to it,” says Reisenbigler. “That tends to overwhelm some people, but if you just back up and start eliminating things you don’t like – ‘I don’t like that edge’ – then we just narrowed it down.”

As a starting point, though, some styles fit naturally with a certain kind of stain or wood grain. For example, the fine, grain pattern of quarter-sawn oak fits especially well with the Frank Lloyd Wright-era Arts & Crafts style.

“That’s the way they were meant to be,” says Reisenbigler. “We do them quite frequently in other woods, but then they take on another look.”

Oak is by far the most popular choice, because of its durability and tendency to show rich wood grain. Cherry is also popular for its rich grain patterns, in both dark and light stains. The softer maples, on the other hand, show a light, minimal grain that’s increasingly popular.

“Newer, more modern contemporary styles lend themselves to the smoothness and the simplicity of the soft maple,” says Reisenbigler. “When you start throwing grainy oak onto some of those, they take on an entirely different look.”

For an especially unusual look, Reisenbigler suggests the “character cherry,” a darkly stained, beautifully grainy, limited-edition run of furniture that puts knotty boards to use with stunning results.

“They have a stack of cherry that’s not being used, that might have a knothole, like that, or like that or that,” he says, pointing to the obvious imperfections. “So we take those and make a very simple style that’s called a Shenandoah, and this craftsman makes them 20 beds at a time, all in this style, in this color, this wood.”

Choosing the appropriate wood may also depend upon the wear and tear a surface is likely to take. Maple, for example, may be less durable than oak for the kitchen tabletop of a busy family.

“It’s still going to take wear and tear, but it’s a smooth finish and doesn’t have that coarse, open grain to diffuse everyday nicks and scratches,” he says. “Damage will show quicker on something smooth like the soft maple.”

The Craftsmen

The Amish live simple lives, devoid of many modern technologies, as part of their religious belief. They avoid electricity, wear simple clothing, and encourage humility and calmness, while discouraging arrogance. Many Amish communities flourish in rural areas across the Midwest and Northeast; the horse and buggy is still their main form of transportation.

“Electricity brings a lot of things that they don’t need, that they don’t believe in,” says Reisenbigler, who’s grown close to several Amish families through his work. “Electricity has its conveniences, but it powers the television and electrical goods. It’s as much the principle as the convenience. It just brings things in and exposes them to things that they don’t need.”

Most of the furniture that Reisenbigler sells is made by about 60 Amish families across central Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. Because all of these shops are part of the Simply Amish national brand, they work with the same designs, standards and stains, yet produce different wares. One family may specialize in bedroom sets, while another specializes in kitchen tables and chairs.

The Amish shops today are surprisingly modern facilities, for a group that doesn’t use electricity. Each piece of furniture is built one part at a time, using modern, hydraulic-powered equipment, powered by air compressors and a diesel generator outside. Men and women, many of whom are related, work together completing specific tasks.

“The process is very hands-on,” says Reisenbigler. “It’s just one thing at a time, compared to an assembly line just pushing things down. When the girls are done sanding, then it goes to the finish shop. Finish shop puts on a coat of hand-rubbed stain, then they spray the stain on, and pass it back to a gal who hand-rubs that stain into the finish.”

When the stain is dried, the piece is sanded, varnished a few times and inspected.

“When the craftsman is done building it, he signs it,” says Reisenbigler. “This is Marvin Miller. He signs off that he’s the shop owner. We can personalize it if I put a special code on the order. He’ll write on there, ‘Built for So-and-So.’ That’s fun to do.”

Over the 20 years that Reisenbigler has sold Amish furniture, he’s grown pretty close with the Millers and several other Amish families. Because of the cultural differences, it’s been a learning experience for both producer and customer. “The Amish families pretty much keep to themselves,” says Reisenbigler.

Back in 1993, when he opened the store, Reisenbigler was mystified by the craftsmen’s seemingly unfriendly attitude. Kevin Kauffman, one of the founders of Simply Amish, offered some advice on how to relate.

“[Kauffman] said, ‘They don’t know what to think of you – they’re not sure whether you’re working for them or against them,’” Reisenbigler recalls. “I thought, ‘What do you mean against them?’He told me they were going to be standoffish for a little while, that they don’t have to welcome you in. They’re going to build the stuff for you, and you’re going to pay them, and that’s all they care about for now.”

After 20 years of building relationships with these families, Reisenbigler finds they’re much friendlier now. Occasionally, the Amish visit his Rockford store and meet with customers. In return, one builder recently invited Reisenbigler to an Amish wedding.

“It was held in his shop,” Reisenbigler recalls. “He cleared out the saws and the planers and the joiners and set up benches. They must have had 200 Amish and probably another 60 outsiders there for the ceremony. That was very interesting.”

Make it Last a Lifetime

Amish furniture is built to be durable, but that doesn’t mean it’s indestructible.

“Wood’s real enemies are humidity and lack of humidity,” says Reisenbigler. “You really need a humidifier in the winter to keep your house at 30 or 35 percent humidity. It’s good for real wood and it’s good for people, too.”

When the drawers get sticky or gaps and cracks emerge, humidity has been at work. Simply Amish furniture is built from kiln-dried wood, which helps to guard against moisture damage. Even so, some simple habits can keep it in good shape. Always wipe away condensation and spills, using warm water and a little soap – harsh chemicals can hurt the varnish and void the warranty. Placemats and trivets protect the wood from heat and dishes, but if a table is exposed to lots of sunlight, it may begin to fade.

Expect this furniture to take some wear and tear, Reisenbigler says, but because it’s all-natural, it’s easily repaired.

“A tabletop is three quarters of an inch, so there’s still the option to sand it down someday and refinish it,” he says. “Any of these pieces, because they’re real wood, have that option.”

Every piece is designed to meet California’s strict emissions standards for formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve lumber. The few veneer products at Simply Amish contain a low-formaldehyde glue, and are covered with a layer of real wood.

“Marvin Miller and two of the other builders, and the folks at Simply Amish, several years ago got together with Georgia Pacific and they came up with a grade of plywood that is unique to our furniture,” says Reisenbigler. “I heard that, and I said, ‘You mean Georgia Pacific came in and catered to you, because you wanted something?’ That’s pretty cool, because the formaldehyde was a big issue.”

Sustainable living has always been part of Amish life, where fossil fuels and electricity have limited use. Neighbors swap wood scraps and use them for heating; some recycle sawdust into livestock bedding. The Simply Amish company now uses water-based stains, which use fewer volatile chemicals than oil-based stains. And the company maintains that nearly 70 percent of its furniture is made within 20 miles of its distribution center. Goodbye, packaging!

“The biggest thing is that it didn’t have to survive a shipping container crossing the ocean,” says Reisenbigler. “It was covered in a blanket, put on a truck, taken to our central warehouse, the blanket was taken off, and then it’s unloaded at our central warehouse, blanket’s put back on, it’s put on a truck and sent to me.”

Not everybody makes things the way they used to, but thanks to that Amish simplicity, high-quality, handmade furniture is still available.

“It’s the real deal, I tell people,” says Reisenbigler. “It’s good stuff, and even if you take away that it’s Amish craftsmen that we work with, most people would recognize that it’s good stuff, regardless of who makes it. Now throw in the Amish angle, and it puts a special touch on it. This has all kinds of possibilities.”

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