And Now With Even More Dedication

It’s almost impossible not to mention the name “John Brown” when you discuss anarchism and woodworking.

And yet, somehow I managed to do this.

John was the author of a column in the British magazine Good Woodworking in the 1990s that was titled “The John Brown Column” and later “The Anarchist Woodworker.”

When I was managing editor at Popular Woodworking in the late 1990s, I read John’s columns every month. The logo of the column – a guy holding a lit bomb – was arresting. John himself was intent on sticking it to the woodworking establishment, and he shunned machinery in favor of hand tools at every turn, which is how he built his bench, shop and the Welsh Stick chairs he sold.

When I first read John’s columns, I was still deeply in love with my table saw, planer, jointer and router. But his Welsh Stick chairs absolutely blew my mind. Since the moment I saw them, I became obsessed with building chairs that looked as masculine and animalistic as his.

In the late 1990s, John wasn’t teaching classes in the United States anymore, so I sought out David Fleming in Cobden, Ontario, to teach me about the Welsh Stick form during a week-long class. Then I took a second week-long class with Don Weber to refine my skills and learn new techniques in building the Welsh Stick form.

John’s book, “Welsh Stick Chairs,” is one of my prize possessions, and I hope someday to have his eye for form when it comes to building Welsh Stick chairs. “Chairman Brown,” as his fans called him, is part of every chairmaking operation I know.

But there was more to John Brown than just a chairmaker.

His column in Good Woodworking was a diary at times. He sought to rebuild a new life as a hand craftsman in a machine-based society. He built and outfitted his shop, and the entire process was covered in the pages of Good Woodworking. He advocated using fewer tools and both eschewed and ridiculed machinery (and turners, by the by).

The last time I read John’s columns was in 2004 and 2006 as I was assembling a data base of quotations for Woodworking Magazine, which I was editing. After 2006, I stowed my photocopies of his columns in my shop cabinet, where they sit until today.

Why? When I’m writing any book, I refuse to read books by other authors, famous or obscure. It’s a painful choice because I love to read (I’m not writing right now so I’ve got three novels on my Kindle). But I know how easy it is to be influenced by clever writers. So I try to sequester my brain as much as possible.

So here’s the painful part.

This week, Brown’s editor, Nick Gibbs, mentioned that he was surprised that I didn’t mention John Brown anywhere in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” To be honest, I’m surprised as well. John was the first person I know of who married the word “anarchist” with “woodworking.” And that stroke of genius either planted seeds in my brain or fertilized them when I wrote my book.

But I can honestly say that I have no idea if John Brown’s version of anarchy matches mine. I kinda doubt it – anarchists are a fractious bunch – and I haven’t looked at his columns for five years now. But I can say this: I am amending the dedication to the next printing of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to acknowledge my debt to the path that he blazed in the 1990s.

I don’t know if he would have liked my book – I rather doubt it – but he’s a part of it now.

Thanks to Nick –  now the the editor of British Woodworking and Living Woods magazines – for pointing out my oversight. And I’d like to cast my vote for a reprinting of Chairman Brown’s columns in the coming years, whether I’m involved or not.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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34 Responses to And Now With Even More Dedication

  1. nickgibbs says:

    Thank you Chris. Better late than never. I don’t know what John would have thought. He could be colourful with the truth, but most of the time he liked to give credit where it was due. As he approached death he seemed to want to cause less trouble than he had in the prime of his writing, so he might have been more forgiving than we’d expect, and he liked to encourage anyone enthusiastic about hand tools. However, I’m sure he’d have said you’re going to have to be a bloody good anarchist to live up the title of your book.

    • lostartpress says:

      Nick,

      I’m trying. I think quitting a comfortable and well-paying job is a good start.

      We shall see. My next book might be “The French Fry Machine Anarchist.”

      Chris

  2. John Cashman says:

    Is there any chance you could post an image of his column’s logo? The fellow holding the lit bomb sounds interesting.

    • nickgibbs says:

      I’ll post one now on my blog (britishwoodworking.com/ngblog). It may take me a few minutes to scan it in.

  3. nickgibbs says:

    The logo can now be found on my blog (britishwoodworking.com/ngblog).

  4. Dennis Heyza says:

    > I’d like to cast my vote for a reprinting of Chairman Brown’s columns

    I second that vote. My copies, received some years back, are great but a bound version would be so much better.

  5. matthew says:

    Yes someone please reprint those columns. Having never read it would be a great treat. (by the way anywhere to read them on line?)

  6. I am in favor of all the above comments. Does that remove me from the anarchists movement?

  7. Reprinting John’s Good Woodworking columns would be awesome. I have a few of these but not all. Is there anyone up to the challenge of producing a biography on Chairman Brown?
    John Brown focussed on the Welsh chair as distinct from the English windsor,and this approach tied in neatly I think with his version of anarchy-the unconventional. He seemed to bring clarity to woodworking and favored a return to to hand-tool use long before it became in vogue again.
    He is one of my woodworking heroes and should be held in the same regard as James Krenov in that he had a different,fresh way of looking at the world and woodworking in general.
    Here’s hoping!

    • nickgibbs says:

      I am currently typing in all John’s columns, one a day. There are 84 of them. I want to produce a book of them all, or at least the best bits (which is most of it). There is some excellent stuff there. But I don’t just want to do a Taunton compendium: I’d like to include a bit of biography, geographical context, and talk to some of the people he mentioned in his columns. And we’d probably have to rework some of the projects he made (though there weren’t that many). My guess is that it might only be an electronic publication, though I’d love to see it in print. Actually I was hoping for it to be the same size (but more pages) as his original Welsh Stick Chairs. It is, I fear, a labour of love, but he asked me to help me produce something close to death, and I feel obligated to do something. As I mentioned at a celebration of his life shortly after his death, asking him to write for Good Woodworking was possibly the best publishing decision of my life, despite having subsequently launched various magazines for publishers and of my own (notably British Woodworking and Living Woods). It gave Good Woodworking a gravitas and meaning it hadn’t quite found in its first year. To that end I have to thank my publisher at the time, Kevin Cox, for suggesting the magazine needed ‘a hoary old craftsman’ in the pages. From the back of my addled brain I recalled Welsh Stick Chairs, a book we’d reviewed in my last few issues editing The Woodworker, and went down to see John and ask him to write for GW. We hit it off immmediately, he said later because I’d arrived in a battered pick-up when he’d expected an executive BMW. So began years of inspiration, friendship and occasional arguments. He was like a second dad to me. Watch out at britishwoodworking.com/nickgibbsblog for updates (apologies for incorrect tag last night: what sort of editor doesn’t know his own blog address?????).

  8. Al Frampton says:

    Guess, unlike Nick, I was too subtle, Chris – but I’m glad you’ve rectified the oversight now :)

    I’d love to see a bound version of JB’s columns; particularly with a good index. It’d be fascinating to include some of the furore his column used to kick up amongst the letters to the editor too, but I imagine rights issues would preclude that.

  9. Swanz says:

    I’ve been mentioning John Brown on this or the other blog since you hinted about the upcoming book that uses the anarchist title. I was fascinated with his articles in Good woodworking magazine and his teaser about writing a book with an anarchist title. I kick myself for not buying his Welsh Stick Chairs book when it was available at my local woodcraft store. Hopefully another reprinting will be in the works.

    • lostartpress says:

      His book is still available new at a reasonable price.

    • nickgibbs says:

      I think the latest edition of Welsh Stick Chairs includes an introduction, with a bit of a biography, by myself (for no financial gain, sadly!!). I’m even more surprised to learn that John had been mentioned here and ‘nearby’ regarding the title of books, and yet still didn’t get a credit. Can’t say that I’m very impressed, if I understand what you’re saying correctly, Swanz. John never quite got is book together, so I applaud Chris for doing so. In fact the columns spluttered out in the end, because he reached the end of his woodworking career, and went back to university instead, to study Fine Art. I fear he was a bit disillusioned by woodwork by the end. The great shame is that his influence could not have been felt wider, as he stood up for important principles and had a spirit that shone in a world of arguably increasing mediocrity. John wanted his Anarchist Woodworker book to include simple projects, because he didn’t care much for tool obsessives. He wanted to encourage people to make things first and foremost.

  10. Swanz says:

    James Krenov didn’t use the word anarchist , but his book “The Amateur Cabinetmaker” had the same romantic notion.

  11. Have John’s book, and have enjoyed reading it a couple of times. It’s been interesting how often I’ve been coming across John Brown’s name lately. I found a great article he wrote for Fine Woodworking, awhile back. I would love to learn more about John Brown, and a reprint of his articles would be a great start!

    Here’s a link to that article, but it is on their paid site.
    http://www.finewoodworking.com/SkillsAndTechniques/SkillsAndTechniquesArticle.aspx?id=31035

    Mike

    • nickgibbs says:

      Fortunately I have that bound version of Good Work here at my desk, and I hope it can be added to a book of John’s writing. Better get typing!!!!!

  12. The most recent (& posthumous) printing of John Brown’s book in the Stobart & Davies version is still available from Amazon. It features a new introduction from Nick, as he mentions above; a memorial poem from Gillian Clarke, the national poet of Wales and a eulogy by Rhodri Morgan, then First Minister of Wales. Sadly, the quality of paper and photographic reproduction leaves something to be desired. If you want the book with these new additions, it is well worth buying but if you want the book as JB would have had it be, search out the earlier editions. The downside is that they often fetch ten times the original cover price. It is heartening that so many people are still inspired by my father’s work. Thank you and best wishes. Ieuan Goch ab Einion, Bégard, France.

  13. Great news,I hope that Nick can fulfill his debt to John Brown and produce a book that apart from reproducing John’s written work also expands on what we already know. As to simple furniture projects then i’m sure that John would be pleased to see more Welsh furniture such as one of the settle designs? I for another will gladly subscribe to a new book but please make it worthy of him,it would be interesting to learn if there are any legacies,for example I am under the impression that he trained at least one person,and is anyone carrying his workshop on? Maybe Ieuan might feel inclined to add further to this discussion? No pressure then,but can’t wait for this!!

    • nickgibbs says:

      Ieuan and I are in discussion about all of this. There is legacy, and I certainly want to produce something bigger than just reproducing the original columns, which is tricky anyway because we may not have the images. So I hope it will be something much more valuable than that. John would not have just wanted that. He asked me to try to produce something that brought the important people in his life together within one bound volume. It was very vague, and may not be possible, but it is critical I think that we produce a book of value (and not just curiosity) to people who did or did not read John’s original articles or book. I’m going to try to keep a blog of what it’s like typing in his columns, one a day if I can, at britishwoodworking.com/nickgibbsblog.

  14. Fantastic,glad to hear Nick’s thoughts on this project Also pleased to learn that Ieuan will also input to the book as John seemed very proud of his Welsh roots and adding to that perspective is important. It’s been a long time coming,so to wait some more for quality content is no hardship. Will also look forward to Nick’s blog entries.

  15. Tim Henriksen says:

    I learned about John Brown and his writing through recommendations from Chris Schwarz. I wouldn’t have stumbled upon him so soon if not for Mr. Schwarz. I fell in love with his simplistic writing style and ruminated over his words much as I’ve done with Thoreau, Salinger and Schwarz. I appreciate any reprinting of his work but sincerely hope a hardbound version will be available. I travel with my books and Welch Sticks Chairs in paperback is now falling apart. Every computer I’ve owned has crashed and lost data at some point. Yet the hardbound versions of my favorite writings, while showing some wear, have held fast through decades and will be passed on to my children with the same affection as my tools and better woodworking creations. I hope Lost Art Press can either be involved or serve as inspiration for a quality bound version worthy of dedicated library space. I’ve yet to see anyone pass along a .pdf file as a heirloom.

    • Scott S. says:

      I do not believe I have ever read J. Brown. This blog is my first conscious introduction to his existence.

      So, now I’m thinking I missed something. Practical no-nonsense people are usually my type.

    • nickgibbs says:

      You’re right: we have a lot to thank Chris for in keeping John’s memory alive, and for raising interest in his work for people who may well have missed the original columns, and I’m sorry if I’ve sounded ungrateful. I love the idea of your battered old Welsh Stick Chairs. Only yesterday I read the best evocation of the physicality of books over ebooks by Umberto Eco: “not just Peter Pan but my Peter Pan”.

  16. I agree with what people say about ebooks/pdfs etc. I have just handed down to my grandson, Arthur, a copy of “Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race” – awarded to his great-great-grandfather as a prize in 1911. Books are not just repositories of knowledge, wit, fascination, emotion, magic and know-how: they are also artefacts, just as the Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, Stonehenge or a well-made Persian rug are. Eco’s “Name of the Rose” and Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red” are largely concerned with this grip that beautiful books have on us. Nick and I have only just begun our discussions but I think we are committed to a book in the image of John Brown; i.e. without compromise but with love, quality and dedication. Whether it will be possible to make it a hardback I do not know. With regard to JB’s apprentices/disciples: he had many from humble backwoodsmen in New England and Wales to rich businessmen, academics, policemen and building labourers (and not least, his children). I will try to tempt them all to contribute to this endeavour.

    • nickgibbs says:

      I don’t think it will take much temptation. When I emailed around after his death for thoughts I was inundated with messages. I too think hardback might be unrealistic, and actually if anything I suspect we’ll want to reflect John’s original book as much as is possible. I’m up to Column 06 of 84 so far (find out how I’m going at britishwoodworking.com/nickgibbsblog), and it’s really good stuff with so much legacy. I suspect we’ll get to about 30 and pause for thought.

  17. Just a thought-if you are finding the thought of producing a hardback version daunting,how many would be interested in subscribing to a limited print run of hardback versions? That way there would be some security in producing a fitting tribute and a lasting one, I know this has been done with some success-perhaps there should be some input from the Welsh Arts council or some similar body?
    I have to say I’m excited about this,and I’m sure many others who were inspired by John feel the same.

    • nickgibbs says:

      I’m not sure the hardback element is the most important part. John Brown’s original book was softback, but very classy. We’ll try to recreate that, if we can. But it might be difficult if we also want to bring his columns up to date with other voices. I don’t want to put lots of effort into something that is just a very pretty reproduction. I want to produce something new, as well as respectful to John, so that people who read all his columns years ago will find something they haven’t read before. And others will find practical advice to help them get into chairmaking.

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