Monday, January 31, 2011

Made in the USA

These days people are trying to buy American and keep it local to support local economies. I try to do my part by buying eggs from a friend here in town, shopping the farmer’s market in the summer and this year I bought all of my Christmas gifts here in town. It is amazing to think that in a town of about 1,700 people I can find such a variety of things that are made right here. Here in Amana we produce refrigerators, woolens, food, art and furniture, just to name a few.

The other day I went down to one of the places here in town where they make furniture, the Amana Furniture Shop. In the Furniture Shop’s show room I met up with the shop’s manager, Bruce. Bruce gave me the nickel tour of the shop and shared with me what they do.

Amana has always been known for fine handcrafted furniture, there are even books written about it. In the early days of Amana the cabinet makers brought designs and techniques from Germany, but eventually evolved their own style influenced by their new life in America. The Amana Furniture Shop is an extension of that tradition. Today they are housed in the old calico factory, where Amana people used to print the famous blue Amana calicos. Here there are show rooms filled with handcrafted Amana furniture and clocks. As I look through the showroom I like to think about how some of the pieces of furniture are made from trees that Larry and Tim cut down. And, as I learned on the tour, a few of the clocks are even made from wood recycled from Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes!

My tour started out in the wood prep area. This is where they store the lumber that is used to make all of the furniture. The craftsmen in the shop use Walnut, Cherry, Oak and Maple. Poplar is also used in the millwork operation where they make trims. All of the lumber is already kiln dried and ready to use. 

 It is also here that raw lumber is cut down to specific sizes for certain projects. Gregory was running a big machine that cuts down the pieces of lumber in their proper sizes. He worked quickly and precisely, but was tricky to photograph with all his moving around. I also met Karolee here. She seems to be the renaissance woman of the shop, running around doing all kinds of different tasks, from dealing with lumber to screwing doors on to a cabinet.

As I travel through the operation there are a lot of pipes on the ceiling. Bruce tells me that these pipes are taking wood chips and wood dust that is created in the shop outside into a bin where it is collected and then given to the Amana Society farm to use. It’s full circle at the furniture shop.  I also notice that hanging in the wood prep area are pattern pieces. All pattern pieces that are used are cataloged and stored. Some of these patterns go back to the 1950s.

From wood prep we head into the area where the wood is fitted together and glued so it will make nicely patterned large piece of wood. After the wood is dry and the glue is sanded off the top it goes into the shop area. This is the area that has that yummy cut wood smell that reminds me of high school shop.  It is here that each craftsman has his own area to work in with his own tools. I was able to snap a few photos as the guys worked. David, Gary, Rudy and Ron were all on hand and were nice enough to let me take their picture. They worked busily away and tried to ignore me. I thought about letting them know about my new expertise with saws and asking if they would let me use one in the shop, but they seemed very busy and I didn’t want to slow them down.   

Each piece of furniture is made totally by one craftsman, no assembly lines here! They are even still using old world methods like double mortise and tenon joints. About half of what is made here is custom work for people around the country and around the world. The other day a clock was shipped off to Tasmania.

After the craftsmen are finished with a piece it goes off to be finished. Layers of finish are put on by Debbie. It seems to be quite the process. All pieces getting multiple coats with sanding and drying in between. After that they are all done and go to the customer, the show room or into the stock room.

Of course all tours end at the gift shop, and for me so did this one. Back in the showroom the furniture took on a different glint for me. Running a hand across a traditional walnut drop leaf table I am reminded of Amana heritage. Of pioneers seeking freedom in the American dream and how that dream still continues. With most manufacturing going off to other countries and small towns becoming ghost towns as the jobs leave, we are lucky here in Amana to still be vibrant. To be able to enjoy the benefits of living in a small town where you know who brews your beer, who grows your lettuce, and who makes your kitchen table.

Buying local in My Town: Amana Colonies


  1. I love my Amana grandfather clock. It is 30 years old this year. My father was working in the sales room in his retirement at that time and selected each piece of wood that went into it. It has traveled the USA several times, but still keeps perfect time. Susan Kippenhan Sevig

  2. Love the stories! Keep 'em coming. Keep writing!