Great Designs in Wood: The Pennsylvania Dutch Box

By Chuck Ray | Posted: 06/19/2013 11:52AM


Watch Appraisal: Pennsylvania-German Box on PBS. See more from Antiques Roadshow.

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations I ran across this video while examining various wooden boxes online. Wooden boxes hold a double attraction to the woodite: they display various species of wood in both rough and fine application, and therefore show the broad range of utility and beauty of wood; and they tell us something about the culture of the times in which each box is made.

The Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and the artifacts that they left us, tell the story of fine woodworkers and artisans, who prize simple beauty in combination with functionality perhaps as much as any culture that ever existed on the face of the earth. Known today as the Amish and Mennonites, they still practice the same crafts today as their forebears of three hundred years ago. And the surviving older artifacts are prized by modern collectors...try to guess what the box in the video below is worth, and then wait to the very end of the video, where the 2012 appraised value is shown. You might be surprised.

Unfortunately, the appraiser in the video doesn't reveal what type of wood the box is made from, and it's hard to tell in the video, since the box is painted outside and we don't get a close-up of the inside. After looking at the video a few times, I'm guessing walnut, but it could easily be any of several other species, including cherry or hickory. It is interesting that the lumber used in the box is clear-grained, showing that the builder intentionally used fine wood for a fine box. Also interesting is the comment on the shrinkage of the boards, and how homespun cloth was used to cover the gaps caused by the shrinkage.

That's a box I would like to inspect more closely.

If you're interested in learning more about the culture of the Amish and Mennonites, I suggest you tour any of the several museums of the culture in various parts of the country. The breadth and quality of the products made by these simple, self-sufficient folk will amaze you more the longer you study it. Here in Pennsylvania, the Lancaster area is full of great stops. And here is another great website of introduction to these fine folk.

A postscript to this post...last week on the way to visit a lumber mill, I watched an Amish farmer as he trailed along behind his son on the horse-drawn plow. He was studying the soil in the furrow to see if it was ready to till. When I returned down the same road, the one long furrow was tilled, but they had stopped with that one pass. Patience in all things.

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About the Author

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations

Chuck Ray

Dr. Charles D. “Chuck” Ray is Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is in the area of operations research, specifically those operational issues that confront the majority of the wood products sector. He previously spent 15 years in research and quality management for two large building products corporations, Temple-Inland Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific. Ray is the sixth generation of his family to work in the sawmill industry, the Ray Brothers Lumber Company, established in East Texas before the turn of the last century. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @ChuckDRay. He maintains an Extension website for Penn State at and also writes a blog on all wood issues called Go Wood which can be found at

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