The following is an excerpt from Christopher Williams’ book “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown.”
I was 16 when I started my apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner in 1986. I had an early passion for woodwork – or at least I enjoyed woodwork at school (it was probably the only subject I enjoyed). I was fortunate in that my employer had a joiner’s workshop as well as a team of both bench joiners and site carpenters. My foreman took an instant liking to me, which was fortunate. He had done his apprenticeship just after World War II with a local village carpenter. His master had also been the undertaker and wheelwright in his village. I can remember looking into his wooden toolbox with awe. His tools were nothing like the tools I had been given by my employer. A Stanley No. 8 was like a giant compared to my No. 4. Boxwood-handled chisels; mine were blue plastic. Various handsaws all with wooden handles. I was curious about all of these hand tools and eager to learn how to sharpen and set them proficiently.
The workshop was fully mechanised but, on reflection, quite basic. The bulk of the work was the construction of box sash windows in the Georgian style – and always made to match the existing ones. On reflection it was an interesting mix of power and hand tools, which was definitely unusual for the time. It was a good grounding for the future.
During one of my terms at the local technical college, I took out a book from the library on furniture making by Aldren A. Watson. The book stirred something inside me, and I started to get interested in furniture making. But I was unsure what I wanted to make. I remember well buying my first lathe at 17 and teaching myself how to turn in the garden shed. Peter Child’s book “The Craftsman Woodturner” was a godsend to me at the time because I didn’t know anyone who turned.
Nearing the completion of my apprenticeship, I also had a possible promising rugby career ahead of me. But then I told my father that I didn’t want to play rugby anymore. As punishment, the garden shed was locked so I couldn’t do any turning. My solution: I unscrewed the shed roof and climbed in. My father shook his head, and he later left me and my mum for good. This, in turn, had a profound negative effect on me and, for various personal reasons, I left my employer. Anxiety was to be a constant shadow from that point on.
I spent a few years doing various carpentry jobs, but I was somewhat lost and depressed. It was at this point whilst at a local sawmill I was told of a man in Pembrokeshire who made chairs by hand and had no electricity. He went on to tell me about how the chairmaker ran a band saw off an old tractor and was a real character. I was intrigued, but my life carried on as normal, going from job to job as an itinerant tradesman – totally uninspired with the work.
I started to tinker with cabinetwork while using my mother’s kitchen as my workshop. My bench was the kitchen table, along with a Black & Decker Workmate as a vice. I decided to build a chair, but as to what type I had no idea. I knew that elm was a chair timber, so I rang the sawmill to see if they had any. I soon found myself in familiar territory in Pembrokeshire, humping large planks of timber around and rejecting lots of it. My few years in the workshop told me that planks come in 9″ x 2″ etc. and were mostly flat and sound. I quickly learned that local native hardwoods were anything but, and they were difficult to find and process.
During that visit, the sawmill owner told me over a cup of tea about “John Brown,” the mythical wild man and chairmaker. At last I had a name! John Brown was a customer of the mill owner and had recently bought a large amount of elm. I was told that he had written a book about chairs, plus where in Pembrokeshire he lived and sold his chairs. I learned of his Fordson Major tractor that ran his band saw and about how difficult he could be.
This time I was hooked! On my journey home from the mill, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could learn more about John Brown and his chairs, and possibly get to meet him. It would, alas, be several years before that happened.
The Book ‘Welsh Stick Chairs’
I decided to head west again to North Pembrokeshire, where I was told that a gallery in Fishguard sold John Brown’s chairs and copies of his book, “Welsh Stick Chairs.” I was in my early 20s by then. I still didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was Welsh, insecure and awkward in speaking to people (particularly intelligent ones). But I knew that I had a calling, and I needed to make this trip.
I entered Workshop Wales gallery in Fishguard and felt completely out of my depth with all of the artwork on show. Fortunately, I was the only customer. I shuffled around the gallery nervously, but could see neither a chair nor a book. I heard footsteps and then a voice: “Can I help?”
I mumbled that I had come to buy a book on chairs. I was told they had sold out of both the book and the chairs. The voice was John Cleal, the owner and resident artist. Cleal picked up the telephone and rang John Brown – sometimes we call him “JB” – to ask him if I could call at his home to pick up a copy of his book. I almost ran from the gallery in horror. I couldn’t possibly meet this guy. I wouldn’t know what to say.
I stuck it out and was told that the bookshop in Newport would have the book. I thanked John Cleal and left. It’s a short journey between the towns, yet a spectacular one. The sea is visible for large parts of the journey, with the formidable Dinas mountain on the other side. I reached Newport, parked the car and went for a cup of tea in the cafe. I found the bookshop on the main street and headed in. I held the door for someone, and because I was nervous, didn’t pay much attention to the person.
I was greeted by the owners, who were very welcoming, and asked how could they help. I asked for a copy of “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown. I was shocked when they replied, “That was John Brown who had just left.” He had just dropped off a box of books. I was slightly taken aback, yet relieved not to have met him.
Tony and Eiry at the bookstore started telling me about JB and that they had a bought a chair from him. Did I want to see it? I was ushered into a side room where this chair sat, like a vision to me. I was in awe of it and of the whole situation. I forget how long I was in the bookshop, but I ended up going home with my copy of “Welsh Stick Chairs” safely in the car and a head full of enlightenment. It’s strange how one chair, a man and some woodwork can help find a happy place in your brain, and that it’s somewhere you can go to visit when times are difficult. These three things in no doubt changed the course of my life.
I read the book over and over, trawled through the photos again and again. I started to purchase Good Woodworking magazine, where JB wrote monthly columns. It was nail-biting stuff, waiting to see what he would get up to each month. His writing was like a monthly fix, but more like a healing rather than a high.