Friday, March 17, 2023

The Amish come for furniture, and how to age a dovetail joint

Last summer, I went to northern New York, to work on a construction project on a family property and blog about genealogy and family history when I could. Here is an anecdote that relates to antique furniture and a visit from an Amish family.

We are demolishing an old structure. There are lots of items to give away, as well as a smaller number of special things we want to keep for the new cabin that will be built on the site.

We have already given a wood-burning stove made of iron and several beds to a local Amish family, whose two middle sons, aged 18 and 19, loaded it up on the biggest horse-drawn wagon I have ever seen:

Amish taking furniture
I was about to give away a chest of drawers to them. It's a piece of so-called "brown furniture" that is well made but not very popular nowadays.  

“Don’t give it away," my parents said. "It’s a nice piece of walnut furniture with dovetail joints.”

That interested me. Dovetail joints are an old-fashioned method of manufacture. It went out of style 150 years ago, but furniture made this way is renowned for quality construction.

I looked on the outside of the chest and couldn’t see any dovetail joints.

My father took out one of the drawers and showed me. I couldn't believe how small and fragile they looked, but they had held together this chest of drawers since sometime in the 1800s!

dovetail joint antique furniture
“The smaller the dovetail, the older the piece,” my father said. They are indeed tiny, a testament to the skill of the artisan who made it.

We are keeping the chest. But I also took a lesson to heart: Important details are easily missed. Sometimes, you need to look twice. 

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