On Friday I finished teaching my first chair class, 16 years after taking my first one in Canada from David Fleming. That class – plus John Brown’s “Welsh Stick Chairs” – set me on a long journey of building and researching chairs in an effort to find my own designs and techniques.
It was a personal struggle, which I didn’t document here on the blog or in my books except for the stray breadcrumb. And it was a lonely one until I met Chris Williams, a Welsh chairmaker who worked with John Brown for many years.
Finally, I had someone to talk to about chairs who spoke the same design language. Who had read the same books. Who looked at these gorgeous and eccentric chairs with similar eyes. (Side note: I like Windsor chairs, but they are different enough from Welsh ones that when I talk to Windsor makers I feel like the awkward stepchild.)
Meeting Chris about four years ago inspired me to finish work on my designs and push the structure of the chair a lot harder than I had been for the previous 12 years. There have been struggles and failures – cracked armbows, dead-end designs and a bad batch of glue. It was like walking in a fog for years. Now that seems to be lifting, and I think I can see a long distance ahead.
But I still remember my first chair class with a perfect clarity. I also remember the sheer frustration I experienced when I returned home and began building my second Welsh stick chair within days of stepping off the plane from Ottawa.
I didn’t have any patterns. I didn’t have the jigs I needed. I didn’t have any wood appropriate for chairmaking. And I was missing several important tools. But I plowed forward and made a chair anyway. And then at least 50 more.
When teaching my first chair class, I wanted to remove the barriers to making a second chair. So all the students made copies of my patterns in Masonite. I gave them all a set of the weird jigs I use, including the rig for drilling the sticks, the block for locating the stretchers, Zee Hinder Pluggen (don’t ask) and a handmade half-pencil.
And I offered them a kit of chair parts, just like the kit they received to make their first chair with me. I hope it works.
I don’t know how many chair classes I’m ever going to teach – certainly no more than two a year. They are exhausting to prepare for and execute. Plus, we have Chris Williams coming here in May to fly the Welsh flag and teach another batch of students using his methods.
That, and Chris’s upcoming book on John Brown, is probably enough to infect the next generation of Welsh chairmakers. I hope.
— Christopher Schwarz