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.
And it will be something.
— Christopher Schwarz
15 thoughts on “How I ‘Met’ John Brown”
I cannot wait to read this book.
haven’t contacted the former editor of livingwoods magazine?
I’ve known Nick for years. I always assumed he would do this book. But he is very busy.
This is great news.
As always we wait with bated breath….
Your postings are inspiring.
I’m headed down to take a class with Elia Bizzarri next week in North Carolina to learn to make Windsor chairs.
I am a psychotherapist by trade, and so am quite attuned to the inspiration and guidance you give to the woodworking community. No kidding.
Elliott Driscoll 609 647 6779
I reminisce about starting off woodworking in the early ’70s and likewise soon making Windsor chairs, shaping saddles with an inshave. I knew no one else who did this then and eventually mentored some ohers as they started making them. They were clunky by my standards now and I was determined to make my own instead of copy, which I should have done to really incorporate the history of their evolution. I went off homesteading in ’81 to still here in Thunder Bay area and sadly lost my supportive clientelle. Though I headed a cabinetmaking program here at a college and supervised a battalion of historic artisans at one of Canada’s largest heritage sites, I miss the chairmaking. I only occasionally get an order for one now. My personal pinnacle was reproducing a gem of a continuous arm chair in Fort William’s” collection. “Thank you” is because as I’ve just turned 65, I want to develope chair-making again now that my income is assisted by various plans. You are helping my motivation, along with like-minded friends that say “Do It” emphatically!
Take every extra moment, day, week, month or year to make it and make it great! It deserves that. I know it will be worth the wait!
Your first Welsh stick chair may not be much like John Brown’s but it is quite a looker. First I have seen this image and I think yours may have inspired me to try making chairs as much as his first inspired you. Now to find a class and time to take it …
so when is your projected publishing date, and can I pre-purchase it now? 😉 I have asked for the Hayward books for x-mass. it will be a good addition to all of my Gottshall books. I re read John Brown’s book on making welsh stick chairs whenever I feel less than confident in the shop.
Thank you, Chris, for this story. Keep sharing the journey wherever it takes you. Cheers.
I see the Schwartz effect is alive and well , I was looking for a copy of Mr.Browns books they are astronomical , so get to it, Chris 😉 BTW Love the chairs .
Public libraries are a great place to find rare books. And Inter-library loan is awesome. We use it all the time for research.
I was wondering if the old WoodWork magazine ever did an article on John Brown.
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