Both Mennonite and Amish communities in the US and Canada have long histories of quality furniture building, emphasizing handcrafted details, tools that don’t require electricity, real-wood construction, and traditional joinery techniques. The result is heirloom-quality furniture that doesn’t look like it came flat-packed from a box with Swedish writing on it.
Amish furniture comes in a variety of styles, the most common of which are the simple, elegant Shaker style and the slightly more decorative Mission style.
Some types of traditional Amish furniture, including pieces from the Jonestown School and the Soap Hollow School, are highly sought after by collectors, and have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
Here are some of the woodworking basics associated with traditional Amish furniture construction.
Dovetails, including the through, half-blind, and blind types, are classic woodworking joints, created when two pieces of wood are interlocked using a series of pins on one board and a series of “tails” on the other. Dovetails, commonly seen on drawers and cabinets, are strong, solid joints that are challenging to cut without a dovetailing jig or router, but provide great stability to a piece.
Tongue and groove joints
Tongue and groove construction is used to fit two similar pieces together edge to edge, and is most often used in flooring, panelling and parquetry. To create the joint, a protruding “tongue” is cut in one piece of wood, while a corresponding slot (the groove) is cut in another piece. This joint is not usually glued, allowing for shrinkage. A variation on tongue and groove is the tongue in the groove, in which a loose piece of wood acts as the tongue fitting in between two grooves.
Rabbet joints involve a recess or groove cut along the edge of a piece of wood, and are suitable for joining top and bottom ends of furniture. A stopped rabbet joint doesn’t extend the groove the whole way along the edge of the wood, thus hiding the joint. Rabbet joints are commonly used in door and casement construction.
Mortise and tenon joints
A joint used for centuries of building, the mortise and tenon isn’t easy to create, but its strength makes up for its difficulty. Joining two pieces of wood, usually at a 90-degree angle, the joint consists of a hole—the mortise—fitted with a precisely fit tongue, called the tenon. The tenon fits completely into the mortise, forming an extremely strong joint. Mortise and tenon joints are most often used in furniture construction and in heavy doors or gates, as well as load-bearing beams.
Dado—also known as housing or trench—joints are slots cut across the grain on the surface of a piece of wood (distinguished from a groove, which is cut with the grain). An adjoining piece of wood is fit into the dado with a tongue. Dados can be combined with rabbet joints to form a rabbet and dado joint.
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