An Uncertain Element


It’s funny how words don’t change but the reader does. About 18 years ago, I can distinctly recall reading John Brown’s column titled “An Uncertain Element of Success” in Good Woodworking (April 2001, issue 107) and being blown away.

The column opens with a poem by D.H. Lawrence (who the heck begins a woodworking column with a poem?) and delves into a discussion of handwork and mistakes of the hand. Because the poem is about as good a chairmaking poem as you’ll find, here it is:

What is He?

What is he?
– A man, of course.
Yes, but what does he do?
– He lives and is a man.
Oh quite! But he must work. He must have a job of some sort
– Why?
Because obviously he’s not one of the leisured classes.
– I don’t know. He has lots of leisure. And he makes quite beautiful chairs.
There you are then! He’s a cabinet maker.
– No, no
Anyhow a carpenter and a joiner.
– Not at all.
But you said so
– What did I say?
That he made chairs and was a joiner and carpenter
– I said he made chairs, but I did not say he was a carpenter.
All right then he is just an amateur?
– Perhaps! Would you say a thrush was a professional flautist, or just an amateur?
I’d say it was just a bird
– And I say he is just a man.
All right! You always did quibble.

John Brown opened this particular column with: “A good friend told me about this poem.” And at the time I thought nothing of it. As it turns out, the “good friend” was Chris Williams, who is writing the book “The Life & Work of John Brown,” which we hope to release early next year.

Chris was more than just a good friend to JB, and he is a chairmaker who is both attached to John Brown through long history and is apart from him in a lot of ways. When we set out to publish this book about John Brown, the early discussions were to provide a woodworking biography of John Brown and show how his work had progressed incredibly since the publication of “Welsh Stick Chairs” in 1990.

What has transpired since is difficult to explain in words. Chris Williams is forever tethered to John Brown, and his forthcoming book will be true to the spirit and memory of this great man.

But what I have learned during the last four years of knowing Chris is that he is more than just an observer of the John Brown story. He is today a very different chairmaker than John Brown. Here’s my best explanation. I’m sure I’ll get it wrong.

Chris is forever indebted to JB. Every sentence he speaks about chairmaking is suffused with the foundation that JB laid. But Chris’s work travels in a different arc than his teacher’s. And this is at the absolute insistence of JB himself. You’ll see all this in Chris’s book.

In the meantime, read the poem a few more times. Scrawl it on the wall of your shop. And wait patiently for Chris’s book.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to An Uncertain Element

  1. Joe says:

    The Thrush hates being pigeon-holed.

  2. I’m a little surprised to see paint on the bottom of that chair seat… is that typical?

  3. Justin says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Chris and listening to his stories about JB and other things Welsh (sheep, orangutans, etc). I hope to see him again!

    Chris W. if you read this, please remember settee!

  4. Charlie says:

    And I was a carpenter for 40 years. But certainly not a joiner or cabinetmaker.
    And now…I’m a apprentice all over again…woodturning and woodworking this time around.

    • Charlie says:

      If you’re interested in poetry about carpentry…by a carpenter, I’d suggest ‘Journeyman’s Wages’ by Clemens Starck.

  5. Kevin Adams says:

    I wish I had asked you to take a pic of Chris and me with that chair after he finished it, but I think I like this one even better. Thanks for posting the poem, too, it will go on the wall next to the FWW article on JB that started it all for me in 1997.

  6. george walker says:

    Here’s a url to a Wood Thrush playing its flute

  7. Kyle Barton says:

    Well stated, and somehow it comes as no surprise Chris W. shared that poem with JB.

  8. I would start a woodworking article with a poem. Maybe Megan Fitzpatrick would. Other than that, I don’t know.

    But thanks so much for sharing that poem. I’d never read it before. And now I’ll probably never forget it.

  9. stevel227 says:

    Of all places, I was watching a golf tournament on television today, and saw a Travelers Insurance ad that reminded me of this posting about Chris Williams and chairs, John Brown and chairs, and Chris Schwarz and chairs. And chairs. Chris S, you might enjoy the chair endurance storyline … how chairs weave into life.


  10. My god, that poem hit me hard!

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