It’s hard to find a segment of the US economy that isn’t crippled in one way or another by the international supply chain impasse. High fuel costs, ship backlogs in ports and labor shortages have conspired to drive up prices for essential manufacturing inputs, i.e. if supplies can be obtained.
Even the small but hardy Amish furniture makers of Indiana were not spared.
“You may have to wait for some American-made items, but the real supply chain issues come from overseas,” said Clayton Schrock, owner of Schrock’s Furniture in Goshen and president of the Northern Indiana Woodcrafters Association.
At first glance, it seems that Amish furniture makers would be more or less immune to such challenges. For the most part, the small shops that dot Indiana’s northern third are family-run businesses employing a handful to a few dozen craftspeople who create custom, made-to-order furniture for retailers nationwide. The workforce is local. The wood comes mainly from domestic sources, sometimes from a forest or from a mill just down the road.
But metal hardware has been in short supply in recent years, and one item in particular has plagued Schrock and associates: drawer slides.
“There’s a company in Michigan that makes a type of slide here,” Schrock said. “But for the rest, I’m not aware of any being made in America. They are all made overseas. Some by American companies that have exported their production abroad.
For the record, a drawer slide is the long, thin thing screwed to the sides of dresser and cabinet drawers that allows them to open and close smoothly. If you’ve ever assembled an Ikea chest of drawers, you’ve handled them. Amish furniture makers go through a lot. Although maybe not as much these days as they would like.
For a very long time, it was cheaper to import drawer slides from who knows where, instead of manufacturing them locally. For years and years this saved pennies and seemed like a good idea. Until suddenly – around the time COVID threw a spanner in the works – it wasn’t.
“People were like, ‘Well, it’s here in the country, but it’s still sitting in port for a few months,'” Schrock said. “Today is better than before, but it’s still not back to normal.”
Could a future normal include more domestic production? Hard to say.
For decades, the American furniture manufacturing industry has integrated itself ever more deeply into the global supply chain. Many big “domestic” brands have, at the very least, sourced many of their inputs overseas. Most went much, much further. In 2002, less than half of the wood furniture sold in the United States was imported. In 2020, 86% was imported.
Nevertheless, according to the American Home Furnishings Alliance, or AHFA, there are still 50,000 American workers involved in furniture production.
“I couldn’t comment on the labor situation in Indiana, but I’m hearing a lot of stories from around the country about the need for additional labor,” Jackie said. Hirschhaut, vice president of public relations and marketing for the AHFA. .
The domestic (outside of hardware) nature of Amish sourcing and construction was a boon to these makers.
“Most of the wood we use comes from within 500 miles,” said Kevin Kauffman, owner of Simply Amish, which makes furniture at its own factory in Illinois and contracts out work to workshops in the Midwest. “The more local you are, the better off you have been for the past two years.”
Even domestic timber supplies have sometimes been difficult to access and prices have drastically changed. The cost of maple, cherry, and other North American staples has swung back and forth, with cherry rising about 25% during the pandemic and maple up to 70%. And, of course, no one can get enough of those elusive drawer slides.
But the price of imported furniture has also risen, and sharply. Amish furniture has traditionally been more expensive than imports, but not so much now. And delivery times for Amish products are usually shorter because the manufacturer is, for example, in Shipshewana rather than China or Vietnam.
Not to mention the fact that, in Kauffman’s opinion (and that of many woodworking aficionados), the quality of Amish workmanship is far superior to the typical import.
It got everyone from restaurants looking for chairs and tables to homeowners looking for cool kitchen cabinets to consider becoming Amish.
“Over the past two years, our sales have increased,” Kauffman said. “At least partly because we can deliver in a halfway decent time. So even if something took, say, 20 weeks to be custom built, two weeks later it can be at the customer, because it doesn’t go that far.
Jerry Miller, owner of J&R Woodworking in LaGrange County, said his store was so busy that the time between ordering one of his bespoke products and receiving it had dropped from six weeks to about 35.
Although Miller faced the same hardware shortage as everyone else, as well as the difficulty of finding a particular type of imported plywood, his customers still generally get faster delivery than imported furniture.
But will these large order books persist if international supply chains open up? Miller, for his part, isn’t sure. Right now, he sees men formerly employed by the many RV manufacturers in the area stopping by his store asking for work. While the early days of the pandemic sparked a huge surge of interest in recreational vehicles, current gas prices (and the fact that more conventional travel opportunities are once again available) have burst that bubble.
“Right now a lot of local RV businesses are experiencing major downturns,” Miller said.
Whether Amish craftsmen will hold on to their gains in the marketplace is as much of a mystery as whether a national company will start making drawer slides. It would be nice if that happened, but no one who has seen the flock of black swans descend on the world for the past two and a half years wants to make a prediction.
“Is it going to last? said Miller. “That’s a good question. I ask myself the question.” •