The following is excerpted from “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams – the first biography of one of the most influential chairmakers and writers of the 20th century: Welshman John Brown.
Author Chris Williams spent about a decade with John Brown in Wales, building Welsh chairs and pushing this vernacular form further and further. This book recounts their work together, from the first day that Chris nervously called John Brown until the day his mentor died in 2008.
Alongside that fascinating story of loyalty, hard work and eventually grief, “Good Work” offers essays from the people directly involved in John Brown’s life as a chairmaker. Nick Gibbs, his editor from Good Woodworking magazine; Anne Sears, John Brown’s second wife; David Sears, his nephew; and Matty Sears, one of his sons who is now a toolmaker, all offer their views of John Brown and his work. Then, Chris shows you how he and JB built chairs during the later years together (differently than what John Brown showed in his book “Welsh Stick Chairs”). And Chris goes into detail that hasn’t been published before.
Also included are 19 of John Brown’s best columns from Good Woodworking. Below is one of our favorites.
Stress seems to be a fashionable cause for much of the ills of modern society. Stress – it used to be called worry, or anxiety – seems to be constantly blamed for a myriad of conditions. We all aspire to a good standard of living, and the advertising industry has not been slow to tell us of the wonders of the modern market. So we reach out for new motor cars, household appliances, and an awful lot of expensive goods we don’t need. People talk of houses without central heating as though the occupants were living in abject squalor. The many billions of pounds owed to credit card companies reads to me like more stress. Evidently Father Christmas delivered 5 million mobile telephones this year, to add to the 35 million already in circulation.
My old pa in law, farmer Parker, used to say “A sheep’s worst enemy is another sheep,” the explanation being that if you put too many sheep in a field they will sour their own patch, and cause disease and parasitic infestation. Our population has not increased that much, but all this stuff we are encouraged to buy takes up a lot of room. The prime example is the motor car. Every house needs a garage, or roadspace for it to stand when not in use, then more roads to allow it to travel unhindered. More space is taken with single people living in large houses, a widow with three bedrooms. Many aspire to second homes in which to spend the odd week when on holiday. It’s wonderful to own all these things, but paying for them can be a hazard.
Jobs for life are a thing of the past. There is always the worry of not being offered a new contract when the present one expires. Companies “downsize” at the drop of a hat, it’s the easiest way of saving money. The rest of the staff have to carry the load, thereby causing more stress.
There is no one thing responsible for all ills, nor yet is one thing a cure. However, a large contributing factor in our own wild dissatisfaction is a feeling of powerlessness; we cannot do anything about it.
Everyone must now go to university. Why? Education, education, education! Is this so we can occupy our minds while waiting for the next Giro? Many of the degrees issued by village universities are not going to drop us straight into a well-paid job. Some have academic minds that can make good use of a course at a proper university. Now every one is encouraged to apply, and three years later, equipped with a Mickey Mouse degree, take an unskilled job and feel very resentful. More stress and hence the huge growth in head therapists and social workers.
A Return to Making
As I said, there is not one cure for all these problems, but I know one that will help. People should start making things again. We should open more technical schools, teaching in a practical manner all those skills, the crafts which we will always need, builders, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, toolmakers, electricians, all the myriad jobs that will never be replaced by computers.
We live in an age when the best machine is the one that leaves the operator less to do. Yet everybody seems to be in a rush. It is a mystery I haven’t solved. We were promised electricity that would be “too cheap to meter,” and that our biggest future problem would be to find things to do in our leisure time. Our industries have been destroyed, our railways first decimated, and then ruined by greedy tycoons. I no longer believe anyone, and more and more rely on my own experience.
This year, for the first time in over 30 years, I had a few days in the hospital. It was not a major problem, but it took me a while to recover. Once I was back at work I made one or two fairly ordinary chairs that did not excite me. I was a bit down, and always tired. Then I made a rather bigger chair, did one or two things differently, and built what I think is a fine chair. I was intoxicated with the joy of this job and overnight I felt so good. I am always chasing the perfect chair, and every now and then I nearly get there, and this big chair was better than any medicine, I was my own therapist. At the time something gloomy was in the news, but I was unaffected, and I thought if only, if only, I could impart some of my joy to others. This chair, like all my chairs, was made entirely with my two hands and some good tools. It is handmade. I have been a long time acquiring the skills to do this. No set of plans – just the picture in my head. Doctor Brown really recommends this treatment. The only side effects are a buzz each time you see it, and when I can bear to take it to the gallery I will have a cheque, and the knowledge that someone has a fine chair. I cannot think of any drug that would improve on this treatment. I think it is now proved that the head is important in combatting illness or depression. Like a little boy tying his shoelace for the first time, “I’ve done it!!!” That is the best medicine.
The Mendlesham Chair
It is pure coincidence that we have a reader’s enquiry from Mr George Smitton of Southport, Merseyside. He writes “As a retired DIY hobbyist the joint between armrest and back supports on a Mendlesham chair are causing a problem. I believe they were dovetailed to be authentic. Can you advise?”
Well Mr Smitton, I can answer that question easily – I don’t know. But, I know where you can find out. There are examples in the V&A, there are 15 in the Christchurch Museum at Ipswich (including a rare set of four side chairs without arms) and some in the Norwich Castle Museum. I have pictures and text on Mendlesham chairs in several books, but none of them mention construction details.
The Mendlesham chair, or “Dan Day” chairs as they are often called, comes from a small area of Suffolk. Dr Bernard Cotton in his book, “The English Regional Chair,” has done exhaustive research, including parish records, to find the members of the Day family who could have been the original builders of this style. Basically the chair is a hybrid, the seat and undercarriage being pure English Windsor, while the back arms and curved arm rest are in Sheraton, or cabinetmaker’s style. Such a mix could be unsatisfactory, but this is far from the case. The legs and leg angles are more delicate than the average Windsor of the time, and the joined back, with squared posts and distinctive pairs of cross rails, joined with three small turned balls at the top and two at the bottom, finished with six sticks and a splat, makes this a most inviting and elegant chair.
In the book there are 58 black and white portraits of these fine chairs, some looking identical and others with slight variations. Dr Cotton is asking whether all these chairs were made in the same workshop, and by different hands in that workshop, or by different hands in different workshops? There is a complicated “cluster analysis dendrogram” which probably has the answer!
Ivan Sparkes, one time curator of the Wycombe Chair Museum, is easier for me to understand. He mentions that one of the Day family worked in London, where he may have picked up the idea for the Sheraton part of the chair.
If you agree with me that the definition of a Windsor chair is that of a seat, into which are socketed the leg, the sticks, laths or pillars of the upperworks, then the Mendlesham chair is a true Windsor. But, in construction much more care must be taken. Firstly there are only four mortices into the top of the seat for the upperworks, that is the back and arms. In a normal stick Windsor there can be 20 or more. This means that the joints must be well made. The bottom of the curved arm pillar is usually cut into the side of the seat, and either screwed into the elm seat with a dowel to cover the screw head, or dowelled in. It can be dovetailed vertically into the seat edge. The arms, where they meet the squared upright pillars, are “birdsmouthed,” as they are shaped to protrude out wider than the seat. If I were making one of these chairs, I would house the birdsmouth into the pillar about 1/8″, making sure to have a snug fit. Then I would insert a dowel through the pillar and into the end grain of the arm, using good modern glue. The latter is something Dan Day didn’t have! One has to be careful not to weaken the upright post by cutting too much away.
When making a replica of an old chair I am not sure whether I would use the word authentic. If the chair looks authentic, and the joinery is a good fit, and the whole is strong enough, does it matter if it isn’t the same as the original? Remember, the craftsman of old had probably made hundreds of similar chairs, that is his advantage. Mr Smitten has the advantage of modern materials, I am thinking of glue. All these joints, including the horizontal cross pieces must be as perfect as you can make them. These are very handsome chairs, and I am sure you will get great pleasure from making them, and then having them in your home. Good luck.
– Johh Brown, The Woodworker, Issue 106, March 2001
“Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” by Christopher Williams, is currently at the printer and will ship in March 2020. If you order before then, you will receive a free pdf download of the book at checkout.