Planet Money
12:46 am
Fri February 22, 2013

At A Trade Show, Power Tools Fit For The Amish

Originally published on Fri February 22, 2013 6:59 pm

The Buckeye Tool Expo in Dalton, Ohio, is held in a massive hall filled with bearded men in black hats and women in white bonnets. A few horses and buggies are tied up outside.

The Amish have chosen to forgo many of the delights of the modern world, but they still need to drill, sand and cut wood. This trade expo shows off all the loopholes that let the Amish get their hands on power tools.

One table has the kind of loud, candy-colored machines you might drool over at Home Depot. But instead of running off of electricity (which many Amish people don't use), the tools are powered by compressed air.

"It's almost unlimited the tools you can convert to air," the guy behind the counter tells me. "Drills, impact wrenches, saws, table saws."

There are more than a hundred vendors at the show, all selling some Amish twist on technology.

The Amish were traditionally farmers, but in recent years, more young Amish men have started working in trades, like making furniture and cabinets — the kind of work where a power tool can bring in a lot more money.

But the more technology the Amish adopt, the more technology they need. So, for instance, as some of the Amish built bigger workshops and factories, they found out that gas lamps just weren't working.

So Elva Otto, an Amish man, launched a company called Day Star to sell industrial skylights — special reflective tubes that funnel sunlight from the roof down into the workshop. It's a way to get more light without using electricity.

"Most people can take something and plug it into the wall," Otto says. "We can't use electricity for this, so then we get creative and figure out how to make something work."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Amish are known for living simply. Most of them don't drive. Their homes are not wired for electricity. But somehow Amish men still want power tools.

Robert Smith, from our Planet Money team, visited an Amish trade show that specializes in adapting modern drills and saws to operate in the old way.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Here's one easy way to tell you are at trade show for the Amish. A guy tries to sell you a diesel engine speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

Slaughties(ph) a 5.7 liter (unintelligible) about 75 horsepower.

In other words, welcome to the Buckeye Tool Expo in Dalton, Ohio. It is held in a massive hall, filled with bearded men in black hats, women in white bonnets, a few horses and buggies tied outside.

The Amish have chosen to forgo much of the delights of the modern world. But they still need to drill, still need to sand and cut wood. And this trade expo shows off every loophole by which the Amish can get their hands on power tools - for example, this booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SMITH: At first glance it seems to offer the kind of loud, candy-colored, macho pieces of equipment that you might drool over at Home Depot. But these babies don't plug into a wall.

Skyler Ferria and Don Christner show me a sander than runs on compressed air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SKYLER FERRIA: Almost unlimited the tools you can convert to air.

SMITH: Drills, impact wrenches.

DON CHRISTNER: Saws, your table saws.

SMITH: So I can take a saw that has an electric motor and you can just put a different motor on it? Like a little windmill?

CHRISTNER: That's right, it's an air motor. It's not an easy switch but it is doable and we do it all the time.

SMITH: There are 127 venders here like this one, selling some Amish twist on technology. So how did it happen that a group that vowed to be simple has all of this at their fingertips? Well, anyone here at the tool expo could probably tell me the story, but the Amish don't like to be recorded. So I asked Sandy Miller who runs the show. She says what happened was simple demographics. The Amish have large families. And although they've traditionally been farmers, buying more land has become terribly expensive.

SANDY MILLER: There isn't enough farmland now to support all the families like they used to have. Now they have to figure out another trade.

SMITH: And so many young Amish left the fields, started small manufacturing businesses. Woodworking. Building furniture. Cabinets. The kind of businesses where a power tool can bring in a lot more money. The problem is that the more technology they add, the more technology they need.

So, for instance, as some of the Amish were building bigger workshops and factories, they found out that using little gas lamps wasn't cutting it.

ELVA OTTO: They're kind of dark. You just can't see too well. You, know, you got to have things down in the bottom shelf you couldn't see or anything like that.

SMITH: So it's hard to sell products...

OTTO: When you can't see it.

SMITH: Elva Otto is Amish. In fact, he's the only Amish guy I met who consented to do a recorded interview.

OTTO: 'Cause I don't know how to keep my mouth shut.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: So Otto was telling me about this problem of the dim Amish workshops. About how his company, Day Star, came up with a electricity-free solution. They developed industrial skylights. Special reflective light tubes that you install on the roof of your workshop and it funnels the sunlight into the space. It's kind of amazing. Sure, you could call it a loophole. But Otto prefers to call all of this stuff ingenuity.

OTTO: I have had a guy made the remark that it takes more technology to be Amish than it doesn't. Because most people can take something and plug it into the wall. Well, we've got to figure out OK, we can't use electricity for this so then we get creative and figure out how to make something work.

SMITH: Sometimes that's means a new invention. But often it's simply finding a new use for an old tool.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

SMITH: Down the road, in a big tent, Amish buyers are bidding on piles of used tools. The sellers often come from a different world. They're non-Amish guys in baseball caps who've trucked in old equipment.

STEVE ANDREWS: There's sawmills. There's planers. There's joiners. There's woodworking tools that are specialized tools that do a certain job.

SMITH: That's Steve Andrews, who helps run the auction. He says stuff that might seem out of date in a modern factory is perfect for the needs of the Amish.

And there's something here for everyone. Each Amish community has slightly different rules. So some groups allows generators and batteries. Then there's the old order Amish, who might be searching for belts and pullies to run woodworking machines.

But regardless of where they stand on the technological divide, there is an entertainment value to this show. There's a universal thrill in watching a machine do something that a human can't. There's this nice moment outside the tent where guys in baseball caps rush down and all these other guys in the Amish hats came over to watch a giant diesel-powered log splitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

SMITH: And with each log it gets split, you can see how the Amish are moving down well-trodden path of the industrial revolution - just using different power sources.

And you can see where this is all heading. One booth at the show offered an Amish computer. Battery powered. No audio. No video. Certainly no Internet. Just an old-fashioned spread-sheet and word processor for business. Thirty-year-old technology with a brand new market.

Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.