Swimming Into Focus — The John Brown Book


I spent yesterday in Hay-On-Wye for the first of many field trips for the John Brown book. Picturesque Hay, home to the renowned book festival and equally renowned (if somewhat more niche) spoon festival, is halfway between the village where Chris Williams’ (my co-author for the project) lives and Birmingham, so it makes for an ideal location to meet up and formulate a plan of attack for the book.

And we are very much at the planning stage currently. To do this book properly (which is the only way we want to do it) it’s going to be a huge endeavour, with a significant number of interviews with John’s friends, family and woodworkers, not to mention field trips to locations significant either to John or to Welsh stick chairs, and of course the chairmaking itself. With so many moving parts, having a clear roadmap from here to publication is the best way to stay focused on the key threads, and to make sure that nothing important falls by the wayside.

So over the past couple of months we have been engaged in a constant dialogue about what we want to achieve, and how best to go about it: Who to interview, what to make, where to visit and what to read. Yesterday was the culmination of that dialogue, not to mention an excellent opportunity to spend a day talking woodwork with someone who has spent more than 30 years working in the woodcrafts, and who personally worked with John for many years.

Slowly “The Life & Work of John Brown” is swimming into focus. What has become very clear over the time that Chris Williams and I have been discussing the book, and even more so yesterday, is that, for both of us, it is important that we honour and embody John’s ethos as a chairmaker. What that means is that the chairmaking section of the book must make building these fascinating chairs accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on the minimal use of specialist tools or hard-to-find timber. That is not only consistent with John’s “Anarchist Woodworker” philosophy, but will also hopefully contribute to the longevity of a relatively uncommon chair form.


A drawing from John Brown’s book, “Welsh Stick Chairs.”

This is all very well and good, but how will we achieve this? Well, one of the ideas currently being kicked around is starting the chairmaking section not at the workbench, but at the timber yard. Timber selection can be a truly daunting experience for the inexperienced woodworker — I still remember my first trip to the timber yard, and how the choice was almost crippling. Many woodwork books tend to assume that you already have material and are standing at your workbench ready to start work, but to our minds the timber yard is where every build starts, and to start anywhere else would be omitting a key step. By having Chris Williams guide the reader through timber selection for a stick chair, we hope to remove one of the greatest hurdles to chairmaking.

We are also considering building chairs with pieced and carved arm bows rather than steam-bent bows. While English and American Windsor chairmaking traditions use steam bending for arm bows, Chris Williams tells me that due to the social function of stick chairs there was little or no tradition of steam bending in Wales. The pieced arm bow is very striking, and relies on techniques and tools common to most woodworkers. So it’s accessible and historically accurate — perfect.

These snapshots are really exciting to us, and I hope that by sharing some of the processes behind the book we can encourage more dialogue about John and his chairs, and also share our enthusiasm for the project. This is just the start of the process, and plenty is likely to change as we continue to work. But as the framework for the book starts to fall into place I can see how it will hang together, and what an important contribution this could be. There’s a lot of hard work to do over the next couple of years, and I hope that you will all join us for the ride.

— Kieran Binnie

This post originally appeared on Kieran Binnie’s blog, Over the Wireless, here.

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