The quality and craftsmanship of the Amish worker is well known, especially by many local homeowners in the Ohio Valley who share the area as neighbors. The locals are their best customers.
Despite the fact that the Amish do not advertise or promote themselves or their products they enjoy a steady stream of business. The demand for fine quality furniture, cabinetry, doors and traditional crafts is becoming increasingly popular, especially in a day and age when machines are taking jobs where human hands came before.
Anything Amish can be just a Label
Today, many consumers will get into their cars and go out of their way to purchase Amish-made products. The usual stop is found somewhere along a road, sometimes a dusty rocky lane where one can hear the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages and watch as these omni-present vehicles draped entirely in black whisk the Amish passengers about. There one will usually find in or near the heart of the village a country a store with a sign “Amish Goods”.
At first sniff when steeping out of the car and taking a deep breath of farm-fresh air it can feel like you are at the right place, an inducement of sorts to walk on in and stock up on Amish-made goods. But as many people who came before and learned of this experience it may not necessarily be an authentic destination for ‘anything Amish’, even in light of the fact the shopkeeper may be a soft-spoken, bespectacled kind man with a white beard and a straw hat.
Getting the Goods to the Market is a Challenge
The mode of transportation for the Amish is a horse-drawn buggy. The buggy is not designed to transport trailer loads of products. Since they also do not employ Conestoga wagons of the sort that hauled their ancestors and everything they owned from points east to these fertile hills and valleys, plus the fact they don’t opt-in to the automobile let alone the electric grid.
When it comes to delivering their handmade goods to the marketplace they are at a disadvantage. The apparent dilemma is such that on the one hand they rely on one another for commerce, but more importantly they depend on the non-Amish customer, the ‘Yankee’, a term they use when referring to the outsiders. When it comes to the sale of their cabinets, doors and other merchandise the Yankees are the bread and butter of their enterprise.
Think and Look for Small
The typical Amish woodworking craftsman may specialize in one or two specific products -be it doors, windows, cabinets, furniture or arts and crafts. A small shop behind his house might consist of father and son or a couple of brothers who earn enough income to take care of their families, the community and the church. Their chief method of obtaining a sale is when a customer happens to stroll in the door, as long as it is not on Sunday mind you.
High Volume is not the Amish Way.
The individual craftsman and his shop are not large volume producers of wood products, it is not “their way” so to speak. Their primary goal is to produce and sell their wares in amounts sufficient enough to maintain a modest lifestyle, not necessarily to grow the business into a massive Sears catalog. Yet, any visitor to the area can usually find some retail stores that carry this locally made merchandise. The challenge for the retailer is to keep up with the demand and the small 2-man shop is not equipped to produce and deliver the merchandise fast enough.
On the other hand what is more commonly found in the retail stores is furniture and cabinets that come from large modern manufacturing facilities that may be located in or near an Amish community. The factories may employ scores of Amish workers from the nearby village and supply them with jobs -not to craft products by hand but but to push buttons, control levers and flick switches on modern CNC (computer numerical control) machinery. The Amish factory workers have a hand in the production of merchandise, but are not necessarily employed for the ability to hand-make anything. Nevertheless the finished factory product can be a fine piece of merchandise and usually is, the quality of which is limited only to the extent of the capabilities of the machines or lack thereof. The machine in a factory in the Amish village can spit out product in relatively the same manner whether it is found in an Amish community, Portland Oregon or based in China. Since there are no requirements that any Amish product be ‘authenticated’ in any manner it is only with asking the direct question to the shopkeeper for example, as to how the product was manufactured in the first place.
How to Find ‘Authentic’ Amish Products
It is one thing to finally find authentic Amish-made products as just about every Amishman makes something with his or her hands. It is another thing entirely to find a specific quality of goods as there are no rating agencies or a Better Business Bureau or Angie’s List (thank you) of which one can turn for assistance.
Just as the students of Picasso will not all become world class painters, the same holds true in the Amish community. Not all Amish craftsman are cut from the same mold and the level of quality can vary widely. If it were violins, for example that one sought to purchase from an Amish shop it is not enough to automatically assume that all violins found in an Amish shop are ‘Stradivarius-like’, more likely one will find the violin to be satisfactory for the string section of high school orchestra. However, that is not to say the exceptional product is not there, quite the contrary.
Exquisite Quality is Out There, Now go and Find it
The primary means that most Yankees acquire quality Amish merchandise is about as old-fashioned as the workshop itself -word of mouth. Word of mouth advertising in the Amish community is unlike anything that can be offered up in the high speed digital world of google and the internet. The Amish manage to sell millions of pieces year in and year out and not once rely on the internet, for the Amish do not build websites! Because of this anyone looking for ‘authentic’ Amish products must be wary of that which is found online (present company excepted of course.)
Today, one can find online all sorts of ‘Amish’ offerings but again the authenticity remains a question. Should it matter? The answer to that is really up to the consumer. The writer of this piece has had business dealings within the Amish community for over 25 years. Within the community one can find some of the finest craftsman skilled enough to carve meticulous Swiss watches out of wood. Then again there are some Amish who simply are better at farming than crafting, yet in lean times may hang up the yoke and take up a tool box to make ends meet.To find great quality shops is as much about research as it is for the archaeologist to unearth an ancient artifact- albeit a much easier task than unearthing a Ming Dynasty vase, yet as equally rewarding to the discoverer.
For anyone who has had the opportunity to acquire fine quality hand-crafted cabinetry or furniture from an Amish shop can appreciate a good find while at the same time simply smile to oneself that good fortune practically lives down the street or next door.