Editor’s Note: Publishing books that are simultaneously technical and personal can put you through the ringer. After months (sometimes years) of work, the result is boiled down to a brick of wood pulp, fiber tape and cotton cloth. When I wrote my first book in 2007 I thought that holding it in my hands would be akin to seeing a child being born. For me, it’s the opposite. I feel only dull relief that the project is done. I feel nothing for the book.
Usually, after a few months, I can pick up the book and look at it with fresh eyes. Eventually I make peace with it. I’m in that process with “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” one of the more emotional projects I’ve worked on. Today I opened the book to some of John Brown’s essays in Good Woodworking. I came across this one and smiled.
— Christopher Schwarz
Parallel to this abject disposal of hand skills is the rise of the purveyors of plans. Design is a subject that frightens many woodworkers. There are certain rules which can be quickly picked up: proportions, shapes, colour, finishes, etc. Anyone can design. Look at a child make something from a cornflake box. Some design will function, but look ugly, or it might look good and not work well. The next time it will be better.
The secret is to recognise beauty. Look at furniture. Some will cause you to be excited, so try to identify what it is that excites you. Sometimes the need comes before the inspiration. Don’t hurry! A picture will come in your head and you will be fired to get started. Sometimes the inspiration will come before the need. But, unless you can see the finished article in your head before you start, it is better to wait.
Another good thing is to copy a successful design that you like. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Remember, it is always polite, and you will be respected for it, to say where your inspiration came from.
My inspiration comes from all sorts of places. The opening of a book and experiencing that moment of delight when you turn a page and see a fine colour plate which causes you to catch your breath. I am fired by the impeccable hang of well-cut clothes, the style and grace of freshly washed hair over a lace collar, the sweet curve at the nape of a neck, a novel that paints pictures in my head, fine linen or cotton lawn which man-made fibres cannot copy, great architecture, and of course views of the countryside, trees, flowers and weeds, fresh under recently fallen rain.
I am not ashamed to talk about the minute things that fire my imagination. Most of them are totally unconnected with woodwork. They are to do with curves, shapes and texture. These joys, sometimes only momentarily glimpsed, set me off thinking about the next chair. There is no connection with the wonders of my eyes’ memory, but one excitement begets another. If someone says: “Are you a woodworker?” say: “No, I am an artist, I think things with my imagination, then I create them with my hands.” Do it!
— John Brown, in Issue 85, August 1999, of Good Woodworking. Reprinted in “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams