Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why I hate the Amish

Oh shut up already.

I don't really hate the Amish - in fact I think that in general the Amish are a pretty cool bunch. They keep to themselves, don't get all evangelical, make excellent food, and are often the most outstanding craftsmen. Other than leaving horse manure all over the roads, I've really got nothing against them at all and wish more people were such good neighbors.

But, see, a couple of weeks ago I took on a woodworking job making Amish baskets for a wholesale customer in Anchorage.

What the hell is an Amish basket you ask?

Well, see you take a 5/8" thick oak plank, cut it to oval, and then very carefully cut a biased spiral into it using (in my case) a bandsaw (the Amish? I assume they use a hand-powered coping saw). You glue the rim back together and then push down on the middle to expand the spiral. Add a pivoting handle and base, and you have a collapsible wooden basket.

Like this:

From Stonekettle Station

The folded basket on the left is my spruce prototype. The one in the middle is the original that the wholesaler wanted me to use as a template. And the one on the right is the first production unit I completed (it still needs finish sanding and an application of Danish oil).

Here's the same batch with the production copy folded and flipped over so you can see the base:

From Stonekettle Station

These things are an enormous pain the ass.

First I had to find a source of reasonably priced red oak here in the MatSu. Oak is one of the most commonly used woods in North America - but red oak only grows in the eastern part of the US and lower Canada:


However, red oak is what the customer wanted, so red oak is what he gets. Fortunately I know most of the saw mill and lumber yard owners around here, and my favorite place, Poppert Milling in Wasilla, had recently imported some very nice planks in the right size and the owner gave me an excellent price (yes, for those of you paying attention, you can get red and white oak at Lowes and Home Depot - at about $12 a foot , not board foot, a foot per 8" wide x 1/2" thick plank - and I needed it at least 9" wide x 5/8", which is twice as much. And I needed a lot of it. Which would come to about twice as much for material alone as what I can reasonably charge per piece. Two words: Screw. That). Anyway, once I got the oak, I had to plane and cut it into 9"x18"x5/8" blanks.

Then I cut out the handle and basket portion on the vertical bandsaw. Then carefully freehand cut the spiral into the basket blank using the other bandsaw with the table set to angle cut, this is lengthy and nerve wracking process requiring continuous concentration. As you cut deeper into the blank the spiral becomes looser and looser, which means the blade tends to wander around unless you're paying attention. Additionally the cuts are on a bias, 5-7 degrees depending on the thickness of the wood and the saw blade. This is so that when you expand the basket the top of the outer part binds against the inner part, otherwise the whole thing would just pull apart like a big wooden spring. The bias has to be exactly right, too steep and the coil will pull through, too shallow and the coil will not expand far enough leaving a very shallow basket. Make one mistake, and the whole thing is scrap, you can't fix it - and that's a foot and a half of expensive wood I have to toss in the burn barrel.

Once that's done, you glue the rim back together, making a closed expandable spring. Then the whole thing has to be sanded, and the handle drilled and screwed into place. The screws are covered with wooden oak plugs and sanded smooth. And that was a pain, because when I tried to sand the plugs smooth on the disk sander - they burned, a common problem with oak and cherry. And so I had to sand them with a flap sanding wheel at low speed on the drill press, and that took about three times longer than I had budgeted for.

Next, the bases have to be glued and nailed on. And that's where I am at the moment. I've got to finish this pile today:

From Stonekettle Station

That's about 40 pieces there on the project cart. And once the bases are done, I'll do a quick powered finish sanding of the whole run, and then coat them all in Danish oil.

So, you know, if you don't see me for the rest of the day, I'm in the shop hating the Amish.


  1. My back yard is full of oak. You can have as much as you want. ;)

    And DANG that is some complicated bandsawing. I mean really. I think that's why robots were invented. (I suspect Amish are really androids anyway)

  2. The Amish are an interesting bunch. Last year I traveled to an Amish cabinet shop downstate to interview the owner for the article. They made these really nice gun cabinets. That's right, Amish making gun cabinets.

    They used power tools, hydrolic table saws, routers and whatnot, as well as some electric hand drills. How could they have electric you ask? They have a disel generator and as long as they were using that to supply the power for the battery chargers for their cordless drills and the pressure for their hydrolic machines it was ok. They also had flourescent lights in the finishing room for if it was too dark. They couldn't have the gas lights that they had everywhere else cause the finish could make the shop explode. Then the guy had a little shed off of the shop in which he had a copier, two phones with 800 numbers and a credit card verifier.

    I brought my camera to take pictures of the shop, but I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the people there. As soon as I brought the camera up, they would all take two steps back. The owner's 3-4 year old son was in the shop at one point, playing around, and looking at me like I was an alien. The guy asked that I not mention his son was in the shop in the article, for legal issues you know.

    And the company's marketing campaign, incredible! They send out their products to be displayed at hunting trade shows. They advertise in hunting/gun magazines. They have direct mail, professionally created brochures and post cards (I get one at the office every couple months now.) They wouldn't advertise online though.

    Indeed, he gave me a statement he had prepared and it included a line about the Internet being evil and they don't allow it in their homes or places of business. However, it's totally ok for someone to use the Internet for him, like when I needed to send him a proof I emailed it to a local business that printed it out for him.

    Then when I got back to the office the next day the guy started stalking me over the phone. He would call every day about eight minutes after I sat down at my desk for at least a week.

    They also had a school down the road that was using their CNC technology to route nameplates for the cabinets.

    Also, they advertise that the product is made in America. Each cabinet goes out with a little brass plaque that says the company's name and slogan and says "Made in U.S.A." However, the plaque is made in China. Hello? Irony?

    [/end rambling] *phew*

    Anyway, the Amish do amazing work, and are an interesting group.

    Good luck with those baskets. Any time I've seen something like that in the store they're pretty nice. Although now I'll have to question the authenticity of any "Amish" product I buy in the future.

  3. "So, you know, if you don't see me for the rest of the day, I'm in the shop hating the Amish."

    That's OK, they'll forgive you. ;)

  4. Matt, there's a difference between "Amish products" and "Amish Style." Same as minimalist furniture made "Shaker Style." But, I suspect you know that :)

    I lived surrounded by the Amish in Maryland, and they were excellent neighbors, once you got past the "bathe only on Saturday" thing. Weeoh! But my experience with them is that they are wonderful people, if more than a bit standoffish and peculiar in their own way. However, like I said they are excellent neighbors and upright people in general.

    I also found them to be quite savvy businessmen and pragmatic in their use of technology. Who can use what, and how, is up to the elders of each community - what I like about them is that they will use what they need, but no more, while keeping true their beliefs - and yet they never, ever, ever attempt to force those beliefs on anybody else, or expect us "English" to adhere to their ways. This I can respect and I wish more people were as pragmatic and practical.

  5. And Shawn? You send me a piece of that, and I'll make you something nice from it.

  6. The guy was a very gracious host. I was just amazed at the amount of marketing the company did. They had even sold a cabinet to Norman Schwartzkopf.

    The guy's son looked at me the whole time I was there like I was from Mars, which was pretty amusing. When I set down my digital recorder for the interview portion the little boy got his face real close to try and puzzel out what it was.

    At one point I was trying to take a photo of the outside of the shop and the little boy stuck his head out from behind a trailer. I almost took his picture, but caught it in time and waited for him to move away.

    I've been in another shop in Ohio that had mostly Amish employees (I think, it was Amish country, but they could have been Menonites or something). It was amusing to see them dressed in all Amish garb, excpet for their shoes, which were high-tops.

  7. Similarly, it's adorable to see Buddhist monks in saffron robes in the grocery store. I always forget to see what kind of footwear they are wearing.

    Ooh, that reminds me. I saw a nun at the grocery store too! Her habit was a bit more extravagant than I was expecting. I have only that impression and no details because I was trying very hard not to stare. She was buying a bouquet of flowers. :)

  8. I want to admit something here.

    Those baskets bother me on some deep visceral level.

    When I think of a basket I think of something Little Red Riding Hood would carry through the forest.

    If she'd been carrying something like that she could have taken out the wolf in the first act.

  9. Well, according to Thurber, the Red Riding Hood affair's been garbled.

    Apparently she pulled out an automatic and busted a cap in his ass. The rest was media sensationalism. I bet she was keeping the heater in an Amish basket, though. :D

    best quote:

    "for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge"

  10. Ah yes, the Little Miss Muffet Affair has also been, well, only half of the story has been widely reported:

    Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet

    Eating her curds and whey

    Along came a spider, and sat down beside her

    And frightened Miss Muffet away

    Miss Muffet went back to her gun rack

    And selected a .357

    Walked up to the spider and sat down beside her

    And blew that poor spider to heaven.


  11. John, considering the original tale was about pre-marital sex, I think she needed to have taken the wolf out in the woods for the tale to be effective.

  12. I don't know about that. Personally, I heard Red was a bit of a tart and liked her men a bit on the dangerous side. I heard she came on to the wolf.

    Just saying

  13. I have also done a brochure for an Amish cabinet maker. Yep, they have all the power tools they need (and cell phones). I remember an article in the PD about the Amish down in Sugar Creek, how their furniture was all hand made. The reporter asked the craftsman how he did the dove-tail joinery so well and he replied, "With a hand tool called a router." I nearly fell off the couch laughing.

    Yeah, it really is all up to the bishops. Even if their men's shirts have pockets or not.

  14. I've done dovetails by hand, with a dovetail saw and a chisel.

    And I've done them with a bandsaw, and a chisel.

    But nothing beats a Leigh dovetail jig and a FESTOOL router. Nothing. And that's how I do them now.

    The Amish, they know their shit.

  15. One time while visiting a Buddhist temple in LA, I saw three of the saffron-robe-clad monks get into a car. There was also a fourth one who didn't get into the car, but was just there to wave them off. He was dressed in jeans and a tshirt.

    Uh, and I didn't really check what shoes any of them were wearing. ;)

  16. If you want to debate relative evils and their contribution to the decline the decline and eventual fall of western civilization - I'd be hard pressed to choose between the Internet and the cell phone.

    It's interesting that one is permitted and the other is not in Amish culture, probably on a case by case basis depending on leadership.

  17. My understanding from my admittedly limited dealings with the Amish is that it is a matter of pride and convenience:

    I.e. technology is permitted providing that it is necessary for the community, technology is not permitted if it is only a matter of desire, convenience, or pride of ownership.

    And what an excellent model for those who borrowed money to invest in the stock market, or bought McMansions on Interest Only loans, or, well, you get where I'm going with this...

  18. That’s great! I just tried it out and already found a new domain. It’s a really quick search. Thanks!

  19. It’s a pretty interesting tool. I will definitely be using it once I get the chance. Thanks for sharing!

    Susan Graham


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