There is a reason Amish woodworking traditions continue to withstand the test of time.  From the carefully selected materials to the close attention to detail, each handmade piece of Amish furniture showcases a quality like no other.  Upon completed construction, Amish woodworkers perfect each piece by employing very specific furniture finishing techniques.  These techniques enhance the beauty of their craftsmanship, bring out the natural beauty of the wood, and add to the durability of each piece.  

In this article, we’ll discuss how selecting the right wood, furniture surface treatment, furniture finishing techniques and maintenance all come together in the artistry of Amish furniture making.

Are traditional finishing methods still employed by Amish craftsmen?

The meticulous craftsmanship of Amish furniture making involves great skill and time-honored traditions that have been passed down through the generations.  Traditional finishing methods are no exception, as this step plays an integral role in both enhancing and adding to the life of each piece.  Finishing is not only the final step in the process, but can also be considered one of the most important.  From choosing the best hardwoods and ensuring each is perfectly seasoned to hand-finishing with natural products to bring out the beauty of the wood, Amish craftsmen have perfected a craft that cannot be completed by large, mass producing furniture companies.  

How do Amish artisans achieve stunning stained finishes on their furniture?

Many factors come into play in order to achieve the stunning stained finishes you see on Amish furniture.  Amish craftsmen begin by selecting from a variety of American hardwoods such as walnut, oak, maple, and cherry, each having a distinct color and unique grain patterns that can be enhanced during the final stages.  Once constructed, furniture surface treatment is the next important step in finalizing and personalizing each piece.  

The wood is sanded to remove any imperfections, creating a smooth and even surface to ready the piece for the next step, staining.  Staining involves changing the overall color of the wood, typically to a darker tone than it is naturally found.  Even though shade can be affected by both the wood selection as well as how it is milled, customers can choose from both natural wood tones and colored stains that are available.  Although not as common, bleaching is also done to lighten the tone of the wood,  A mixture of pigment and mineral spirits, oil-based stains are most commonly used in Amish furniture making.  Stains are then rubbed into the wood until the desired tone is reached.  Stain can also be applied to the outer edges of the piece during this phase as an added decorative touch and create a worn, antique look.      

How do furniture finishes enhance the beauty of Amish creations?

One of the most important steps in enhancing furniture beauty involves selecting quality, long-lasting furniture finishes for each piece.  Finishes not only add shine and durability to a piece, they also bring both water and environmental resistance, making the piece easier to clean and maintain.  Finishes intensify the beauty in the stained wood, showcasing both the craftsmanship and design.  

What are the most popular finishes used in Amish furniture?

Adding a protective coat to the wood, or finishing, is the final stage in making Amish furniture.  Not only does the finish bring out the natural grain and enhance any applied stain, it also adds to the durability of the piece, preventing moisture, oils, and other environmental elements from causing damage to the piece.  There are a variety of finishes available, each with its own benefits and added beauty.  Here are the most popular finishes used in Amish furniture making: 

  • Oil-Based Finishes: Around for hundreds of years, oil-based finishes bring out the natural beauty of the wood, penetrating deeper, leaving a natural, rich finish as it nourishes the wood.  These finishes, such as linseed oil or tung oil, allow for some protection against moisture if topped with a wax finish.  Oil finishes are easy to maintain and refresh, when needed, but may be more susceptible to every day wear and tear if placed in high trafficked areas.
  • Catalyzed Finishes: Catalyzed Finishes, also known as Catalyzed Conversion Varnish, is a mixture of resin, pigment and solvent widely used due to its ease of maintenance.  It provides an added level of protection, utilizing heat and moisture resistant characteristics to create a durable finish while enhancing the appearance of stained wood.
  • Varnishes: Naturally water, heat and ultraviolet resistant, varnishes are a mixture of resin, oil and solvent.  They remain flexible and attentive to the natural movement of wood, which expands and contracts when temperature and humidity levels fluctuate.  Varnish tends to appear closer to a hand-rubbed look and is available in a variety of sheens from matte to gloss.
  • Shellac: Derived from the resin secreted by the lac beetle combined with an alcohol solvent, shellac adds a warm color to the wood while providing a glossy, hard top coat.  Shellac will make the piece both durable and water resistant but is subject to damage from certain heat and alcohol based liquids.  
  • Wax: Wax, if applied alone, is best used for finishing a piece that will not be exposed to excessive wear and tear. While adding a protective coating on top of the wood, wax only lends a brief moment in which to clean up spills and does not protect furniture from heat, scratches and dents.  It is, however, the best choice in finish to help enhance the natural grain and pores of the wood while preserving its natural color without oxidation. Wax is often used in conjunction with other durable finishes, such as shellac, making it easier to clean and reducing possible damage.

What factors should be considered when selecting a finish for Amish furniture?

Location! Location! Location!  Choosing the best finishes for Amish furniture involves a clear understanding of just what you’re expecting from your piece and, in this case, location does matter.  Will your piece be in a high trafficked area? Will it be susceptible to spills and/or weather?  When choosing a finish, consider location among a few other things such as: 

  • Wood: What type of wood was used to make the piece?
  • Appearance: Is the piece stained? Finishing should enhance the stained piece.
  • Durability: Does water and environmental resistance make a difference?  
  • Convenience: Are you committed to the maintenance of your piece or does maintenance free interest you most? 

When determining your finish, it’s important to consider how easy it will be to clean and maintain your piece.  While oil finishes may be the easiest to clean and maintain, they are not the most durable. 

What sets hand-rubbed oil finishes apart from other types of finishes?

Hand-rubbed oil finishes are perhaps considered the best way to showcase the natural beauty of the wood.  Penetrating deeper into the wood, this type of finish brings to surface rich dimension seen in the grain of the American hardwoods such as maple, oak, cherry and walnut used in Amish furniture making.  Although hand-rubbed oil finishes are a little more susceptible to damage, scratches and other everyday wear and tear, they can easily be repaired with a light sanding and fresh coat of oil whenever necessary.  These oil finishes are water and spill resistant, while allowing the wood to breathe as it would naturally.   Hand-rubbed oil finishes can be reapplied anytime to freshen the furniture piece and to build up the finish to a more beautiful shine.

What are some environmentally-friendly finishing options used by Amish craftsmen?

Amish craftsmen take great care when choosing the products they use to construct their handcrafted pieces.  They start by selecting sustainably sourced, locally harvested hardwoods to help maintain healthy forest and ecosystems while reducing the carbon footprint that often comes from shipping materials long-distance.  These eco-conscious builders pay just as much attention to the finishing products utilized during the final stages of construction as they do the wood with which they build their furniture.  Natural, water-based stains and oils that are low VOC (volatile organic compounds) replace synthetic varnishes and paints that can emit harmful VOCs into the home and environment.  Additionally, Amish craftsmen will choose eco-friendly recyclable materials and formaldehyde-free finishes to ensure safer and healthier air quality, reducing the use of hazardous chemicals often found in mass produced furniture pieces.  

Can Amish furniture finishes be customized to suit individual preferences?

There are a number of finishing options for customizing solid wood furniture but most importantly, it goes back to where it first began.   Amish craftsmen always start by selecting the hardwood, which will have a greater impact on your final design than you might imagine so be sure you address this when discussing your customized piece.  Each American hardwood has their own unique, distinct grain patterns and colors.  Oak, walnut, cherry and maple are the most common hardwoods used in Amish furniture making.

Once you decide on the hardwood, you’ll want to discuss a stain color.  Although most hardwoods can be stained in a variety of colors, the species of wood will play a role in how much stain will need to be applied.  Finishes can then be combined or layered to achieve your desired results, adding to both the beauty and durability of your piece.  You’ll be able to decide if you’d like a matte or glossy finish, or more natural, if you prefer.  Amish craftsmen are able to accommodate just about any desired finish including painted, two-tone, burnished edges, as well as two or three step finishes to add an antique or vintage appearance.  

Don’t be afraid to discuss your preferences with your craftsman and explore various finishes, sheens to find the perfect match for your taste, style and space.  One of the greatest advantages to choosing Amish furniture is that each piece is handmade and even designed to order.

How can you protect Amish furniture finishes from wear and damage?

The best way to honor the sheer artistry and craftsmanship behind creating your Amish furniture is by preventing damage before it can even happen.  A key benefit to purchasing these hand-crafted pieces is their beauty and durability, but they are not immune from damage.  Protecting Amish furniture can be as simple as:

  • avoiding direct sunlight, heat and humidity
  • using silicone free products
  • dusting regularly 
  • cleaning up spills immediately  

Be sure to always use coasters, placemats, cutting boards, etc. to avoid placing hot, wet or sharp objects directly on your piece.  Preventative care is often the best in ensuring your piece is both well-maintained and beautiful for years to come.

How can you maintain and care for Amish furniture finishes to ensure longevity?

Caring for and maintaining your Amish furniture isn’t a difficult task but it is an important one in honoring the beauty and craftsmanship of your piece.  

  • Be quick.  When spills happen, which they always do, be sure you wipe them up immediately to avoid staining your furniture.  If anything cuts into the finish, be sure you take care of it as quickly as possible utilizing natural waxes and oils to restore the finish and protect from moisture causing further damage in the cut.
  • Be gentle. How you handle cleaning your furniture, paying careful attention to the products you use is of utmost importance.  To effectively remove dirt and stains, natural remedies such as vinegar or lemon juice, tend to work best, without causing damage.  You may also use a mild dish soap and warm water to gently wipe the surface.  Be sure you dry it immediately with a clean, lint-free cloth.  Wood-specific cleaners are also okay to use but be sure to apply to a small area first to test the cleaner.  

Be intentional.  Upon bringing your piece home, it is recommended that you season it with high-quality furniture oil or wax if it hasn’t been done already. Then, dust weekly with a damp rag to keep your furniture looking its best.  Reapply an oiled finish at least once a year to protect the wood and maintain its luster.