In this sketch I did of a Masonic “Past-Master’s Jewels” medal, notice the representation of the pythagorean theorem. It is reported that its presence on the owner’s medal indicates that person was what we would likely now call a crew foreman. One of his many responsibilities was to ensure that all the layout tools were true – a clue as to why there’s the homage to Pythagoras. This theorem, codified later by Euclid into his “Proposition 47,” offers a logic proof that the area of the squares erected on the legs of a right triangle would equal the area of the square erected on its hypotenuse. That’s all well and good, but why would that particular equation be of vital interest to the foreman of a joiner’s or mason’s crew? To try to find out, I decided to construct an exact-as-possible, large-scale drawing of the graphic upon which I could explore with a pair of dividers.
The first thing I discovered was that the vertical line CL, which is fixed by the inherent baseline’s intersection points C and D, forms a right angle with the hypotenuse. Even though this result is likely nothing more than symbolic (there are a lot easier ways to generate a right angle with a compass and a straightedge), I believe this right angle – hidden in plain sight – is probably as important to the medal (and its wearer) as the theorem itself. The right angle (“recto” in Greek) is simply the right way to set a vertical post. (Wood’s superb resistance to compression happens when, and only when, the post is set at a right angle to level – an orientation that aligns the grain parallel to the force of gravity). It’s also the right angle to create symmetry to a baseline in common rectilinear structures (think cathedrals).
No reason to stop there, though. Exploring further revealed other attributes of this graphic that offer additional symbolic (and real) representations of the truths inherent in Geometry (note the traditional capital G). Print out the template (you’ll find it offered for free on the shopping page of www.byhandandeye.com) and take a look around on it for yourself. You’ll discover triangles with perfect 2:3 base-to-height proportions (one of the fundamental harmonics in music and architecture of the Medieval era); you’ll find sequences of the infamous triplet (the 3-4-5 triangle) revealed in the hypotenuse and even in the circumference of the circle that started it all; and you may find the module upon which the entire construction revolves. Have fun with this – I sure did!
In 1996 I was hired as the managing editor at Popular Woodworking, a struggling second-tier woodworking magazine that focused on publishing project plans (17 Must-build Plans Inside! Build an Alien on a Swing!). At the time I was hired, I was a nascent hand-tool woodworker (not by choice, really) with my grandfather’s hand tools plus a Craftsman table saw that seemed determined to eat me.
Before being hired by the magazine, I’d been building tables, chests, benches and bookshelves, but what I really wanted to build was chairs. Chairs are, to me, functional sculpture. Building a chair in 1996, however, seemed impossible. It involved wet wood, compound angles, foreign joinery and weird tools.
Plus, I wasn’t sure what kind of chair I wanted to build. Windsor chairs are beautiful, but they are too feminine and ornate (in general) for my taste. And while I have always loved modern chairs from the Scandinavian countries, the joinery and materials in those chairs seemed even more daunting.
One day I picked up a copy of Good Woodworking magazine in our magazine’s office mail. It had a UK postmark. And opening it was like being struck by lightning. For the most part, Good Woodworking was like the magazine I worked for. It was project-focused (Chopsticks! Build Something for Your Toast!) and was aimed at the not-Fine Woodworking crowd.
But inside that issue was a John Brown column that featured a chair so beautiful and hound-like that I thought it would bound off the page. I wolfed that column down. Then I scurried to our magazine’s “morgue,” where we kept back issues of all our competitors’ magazines. I read everything that had John Brown’s name on it.
That, I decided, was the chair I would build.
It took me six or seven years to build that chair. And it involved a trip to Cobden, Ontario, during an icy March. It was a trip north with a guy (John Hoffman) who would eventually help me found Lost Art Press. But despite the delay and challenges, I built that chair, and it changed the course of my woodworking.
My Monthly Visitor
Good Woodworking was published monthly, which is an insane pace for a woodworking magazine. But I waited impatiently every month for it to arrive. I photocopied the John Brown articles (which I still have) and read them several times over.
My affection for Brown was three-fold. First, it was about the Welsh stick chair. He introduced me to the form that has guided my taste in chairs since 1996. Second, it was about hand tools. I’d been using hand tools almost exclusively since age 11, and it was shocking that someone else I admired did the same thing. I didn’t do it by choice (my parents wouldn’t let me use power tools), but thanks to Brown I decided that I was OK. And third was how he declared “I am an anarchist” in one of his columns. (In fact, his column was labeled “The Anarchist Woodworker” for a period of time.)
I’d been introduced to anarchism my by my cousin Jessamyn West in the early 1990s when she explained how it wasn’t always about the violent overthrow of all government to create chaos. It opened my mind, and during graduate school in 1993 I became a fan of Noam Chomsky and his views on media, hegemony and anarchism.
When Lucy and I moved to the Cincinnati area, I discovered Josiah Warren, the father of American Anarchism and an amazing Cincinnatian. When I walked into the doors of Popular Woodworking magazine in 1996 I was a closeted American Aesthetic Anarchist. Believe me, it’s not something you should list on your resume or even talk about over lunch.
John Brown was the first person to put “woodworking” and “anarchism” together, and it was pure genius. Though I doubt his ideas and mine about anarchism were similar, I am forever in debt to him for making that connection. That is why I dedicated “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to him and Roy Underhill (another political subversive).
How Did We Get Here?
When Brown died in 2008, I hoped that someone from Good Woodworking would write the definitive book on Brown and include all of his columns from the magazine. It seemed a natural salute to one of our generation’s most influential woodworkers.
That didn’t happen. Friends of Brown asked me why Lost Art Press didn’t publish that book. Here’s the short answer: I didn’t know Brown personally, and so I left that task to friends who did.
A few years ago, Chris Williams sent me an email out of the blue. Chris worked with Brown for many years (though I’ll leave that story to his pen). He convinced me that Lost Art Press might be the best publisher for this important project.
So please know that I enter this arena reluctantly. While Brown is my woodworking hero, I’ve always thought I was unqualified to publish a book on him. I never met him. I’m an American. And etc.
But I am dedicated to do a good job. Lost Art Press is, at times, about lost causes or lost ideas. Our goal since 2007 has been to re-establish the balance between power tools and hand tools in the modern workshop. Exploring the ideas and influence of Brown will definitely tip those scales.
I am not sure when our book on Brown will be complete. In our world, a book is done when it’s done. But we will finish it, as sure as we finished a nine-year project on Charles Hayward or a seven-year project (at least) on A.J. Roubo.