John Brown: ‘One Day I Saw a Chair…’

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Photo by J. Havard. Used with permission.

We are fast closing in on the publication date of the classic book “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown. This compact book has had a profound effect on woodworkers and designers all over the world. It is the story of a chair that no one had a good name for. And how that chair changed the life of John Brown.

It’s impossible to capture the essence of the book in one blog entry – it’s part history lesson, part autobiography and part practical manual. But the following passage is one of my favorites.

“Welsh Stick Chairs” is available for pre-publication order now in our store. It’s $29, which includes domestic shipping. Full details on our quality edition can be found here.

— Christopher Schwarz

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One day I saw a chair in the window of an antique shop in Lampeter. It was like a vision. I had never seen anything that had made so instant an impression on me. To my eyes this chair was beautiful. I had never had any interest in furniture or chairs. Like most people they were just the things you lived with. Now here was this lovely chair. I couldn’t afford to buy it, but I could make one like it. Well, that is what I did. I made one. It took a long time. Chairs of simple form like the stick chair are surprisingly tricky to make. When you’re building them you have to work from points in the air, angles of sticks, angles of legs; there are so many variables. Anyway, I was quite proud when I finished my chair. It looked alright. Of course, I wasn’t able to put a century or two of patina on it. Now, twelve-years-old, it begins to look right. Family “treatment” and a few thousand hours of bum polishing have done the trick!

At this stage I was interested enough to look for books on the subject. There are quite a few, both American and English. I still hadn’t realised that what I had seen in that Lampeter shop was something quite rare and unique – a Welsh chair. Then it was just a Windsor chair. I went to museums. I visited High Wycombe where there is a museum devoted entirely to Windsor chairs. They have a very comprehensive selection of Wycombe factory chairs and English regional chairs. I don’t think there were any Welsh chairs. The English chairs did not have the same spontaneity the same verve as their Welsh counterparts.

I enjoyed my youth. After the valleys I thought England was wonderful. The war started and we could not live in London, and through a series of events of which I have no knowledge, we ended up with a small-holding in the wilds of Kent. (There were wilds in Kent in those days!) We had no electricity, gas or sanitation, we grew much of our own food and kept chickens and a pig. We didn’t realise it then, but we were living the ‘Good Life’. We made few demands on the world’s resources, and I was happy. So, as the Lampeter chair was one step towards my rehabilitation, the building of a tin shed in a field I bought, and a change to the simple life, completed my return. I live very happily without electricity or any other services. I have a workshop, a wood­ stove and good health. There’s a saying applied to yachts, which applies equally to life, “Add lightness – and simplify.”

A neighbour asked me to build him a chair like mine. I tried to – but it came out different. It was alright, but it wasn’t the same chair. My neighbour was pleased. He has the chair now, he keeps it in the bookshop he owns. It then occurred to me that the reason for the diversity of pattern in the old Welsh chairs was that the makers did other things as well. They were not chair­-makers as such, they were wheelwrights, coffin-makers, carpenters, even farmers. When there was need for a chair, somebody in the village made it, or they made their own. They didn’t have patterns and jigs for continuous production. They had no consistent supply of uniform material. They used their eyes and their experience. It was like a sculptor doing his work, they ‘thought’ the chair, then they built their ‘think’. Some of these chairs are a disaster to sit on, most uncomfortable, but they all have a kind of primitive beauty.

— John Brown

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to John Brown: ‘One Day I Saw a Chair…’

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    What a photograph: a man of genial self-possession, a chair of great style that seems to exist because it should, a chunky cat who like all cats is absolutely certain it has a right to be sitting there! This viewer has a lot to study and cannot decide which subject he likes best.

  2. Dan says:

    “Some of these chairs are a disaster to sit on, most uncomfortable, but they all have a kind of primitive beauty.”

    That is such a relief to read. I’ve been reading all your updates about this book, and I really have wanted to want it. But I just can’t get over how strange those chairs look to my eye. I get the skill they take, I get the artistic expression they require, I get how satisfying it would be to have the skill to turn green wood into something so unique…but my god, they just look dreadfully uncomfortable to me. A curvy base with a stiff, straight back, but with gaps to make it awkward, a blocky crown to bonk your head on, and a bar running perpendicular to your spine, just where you want to lean back! And to my eye, the chairs look like pubescent furniture, just at that godawfully awkward precipice between a cute child and recognizable adult, wanting nothing more than to not be seen. They look as if an angry witch cast a spell to turn a giraffe into wood. They look like a hug from Miss Havisham. I am just so confused.

    To be clear, I’m in awe of the skill it would take to carve that seat, let alone assemble the whole chair. I don’t think I would be capable of turning a spindle on that chair. Brown’s book sounds amazing, and if he’d written about making boxes or spoons or tools or tables or stools, or even windsor chairs (which I’d never have any interest in learning to make, but at least can understand the formal appeal of) I’d be so excited. From this, he seems like someone I’d have admired, I trust you completely that he’s a great writer and his book is an inspiration, and he obviously has great taste in cats. But man…my eye just revolts.

    Not that I think any of this matters. That’s one book you won’t sell to this customer, and there are a couple others I haven’t bought, too. Don’t mean to denigrate the company, Brown, or anyone else. It was just such a relief to read that sentence, and get this off my chest.

  3. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    I guess it’s the eye of the beholder , I did like Syroder after reading Dan’s comments , but unlike Syroder I still loved that hand made piece

  4. Matt says:

    “A curvy base with a stiff, straight back, but with gaps to make it awkward, a blocky crown to bonk your head on, and a bar running perpendicular to your spine, just where you want to lean back!”

    Just like many extremely comfortable American Windsor chairs.
    Hope this comparison diminishes concerns about comfort.

  5. John says:

    I can appreciate Dan’s point of view, I can even say I agree with some of his points. I have never sat in a true welsh chair that I know of. I’m sure I have plopped down in a copy of one in some point in my 43 years.

    But this is my amateur professional opinion, I want to learn to make chairs. Hopefully quality chairs. To me the Welsh chair design is a basic design much like furniture for necessity. A great starter project that can be used and improved upon. With different curves. Spacing, splay, rake, and who knows what else.

    • Daniel Williamson says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more, John. That’s why I ordered my copy of the book. As a great resource for understanding the fundamentals of chair making that can only be learned by doing. To me, the welsh stick is a great way to get into that aspect of the craft, and the skills will translate. Plus, I do appreciate the design on its own merits. Win win

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