The stick chairs that I make are on the contemporary side, with lots of chamfers, sharp angles and crisp facets. But the chairs I love – the ones that take my breath away – are the old ones, especially from Wales. These chairs are worn and polished from hundreds of hands and thousands of nights in front of the fire.
The materials the chairs are made from are nothing exotic – they are built from the hedges and woods surrounding the maker.
All of these things add up to a chair that I don’t have the materials or skills (especially finishing skills) to make.
But John Porritt does. You might remember John from a 2019 blog entry when I visited him in New York. Since then, we’ve tried to arrange for him to teach a class here, which was unfortunately cancelled by the pandemic.
Recently John finished up his latest batch of chairs and had a professional photographer, Lydia Curran of Monster Machine in Chatham, NY, take some photos. I have been staring at these photos for more than a week now. The chairs are gorgeous, like nothing I have seen from any modern maker.
John is one of those rare makers who understands how these chairs should look and feel. The forms are spot-on – like something that is 200 years old. The surfaces and finishes are truly extraordinary. Though John isn’t trying to make fakes, these chairs look like the chairs I’ve seen at St Fagans National Museum of History and Tim Bowen Antiques in Ferryside, Wales.
John has invited me and Megan to his workshop to learn more about his finishing techniques. And I am eager to take him up on his offer. “One of my finishing techniques,” John writes, “maybe the most important – is belligerence.”
These chairs are extremely special. And though this might sound weird coming from a guy who sells chairs: If you are at all interested in the real deal, talk to John about buying one of his chairs. In addition to his deep knowledge of chairs from the British Isles and finishing, John restores old tools for several prominent tool dealers. He’s a delight to talk to and one of the hidden gems in the United States.
Nancy Hiller’s swift-selling “Kitchen Think” is now back in stock in our warehouse and ready for ordering. We ordered lots of copies, so we should have plenty of stock for the coming year.
If you are on the fence about buying Nancy’s book, you might want to read a new review of it in Bloom magazine that states: “Furniture designer and builder Nancy Hiller works as deftly in ink as she does in wood.”
The first time I met Chris(topher) Williams was in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG). I can’t remember why I was dispatched to pick him up on his introductory visit to the States (maybe there was an author reading going on?), but I was, and I had no idea what he looked like. Arrivals at CVG come up a long escalator, so I hung out at the top, peering down for someone who looked Welsh. I don’t, however, have any preconceived notion of what a Welshman looks like – maybe a strong bow arm? But I spotted a tall man with curly hair in a polo shirt, pulling a large bag (he’d packed a chair in pieces, along with his tools), who looked slightly bewildered and awfully tired of traveling. “Chris?,” I asked, as he stepped off the escalator. Yep. (Must have been the adze arm, not the bow arm.)
On the drive back to the shop, he was fairly quiet. I chalk that up to exhaustion; that was the last quiet moment in his delightful company. Most of the time when I’m with him, he’s making me laugh…or I’m making fun of his penchant for claiming “the Welsh invented that” (the Welsh apparently invented everything).
And after three two-week (or so) long visits, I’ve now spent a fair amount of time in his company either shopping, drinking, driving to a “must-see” site or listening in on his Welsh stick chair classes. Chris is a great deal taller than the average man in Wales, so every time he’s here, I take him shopping at Carhartt’s so he can stock up on his favorite pants with 34″ inseams (apparently he can’t get his beloved long-length Carhartt’s overseas). And Chris loves his red wine; he decimated the supply of Revolution Red at Crafts & Vines, a delightful family owned wine bar that’s around the corner from our shop (I think we’ve ended up there every day it was open during his visits). The owners – and Philip – miss you, Chris!
And I miss Chris, too. He was scheduled to be here in early September to teach a Welsh stick chair class before we all drove out to Amana, Iowa, together for Handworks. I was looking forward to hearing “the Welsh invented basketball” as we rolled through Indiana. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to hang out together again soon.
John Brown had a vast tool collection – a whole chapter could be written about the tools that he amassed over the years, but I will concentrate on his core chairmaking tools. The majority of these tools were of a good vintage but, interestingly, several of his favourites were new. If a particular tool has an intriguing story, I’ll tell you about it.
No. 8 Jointer Plane For jointing boards for chair seats, his favourite was a Stanley No. 8, which had been “stuffed” like an infill plane. Not dissimilar to a Norris or Mathieson plane in appearance to the layman. In truth, he had two of these, one stuffed in mahogany, the other in yew. The one in yew was his favourite as it had been “stuffed” by his son Henry. John loved its huge mass for shooting “the perfect edge” whilst thinking “flat.”
Jack Plane This was used for roughing out chair parts and, in particular, for making chair sticks and legs into octagons.
Two Block Planes JB had a real affection for his Stanley No. 6-1/2 low-angle block plane – this was a vintage one fitted with a Hock blade. He’d use this plane for shaping sticks and in particular for creating the 5/8″ and 1/2″ tenons on the stick ends. I believe whilst teaching at Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops in North Carolina in 1995, the students pooled their money together and bought him a small bronze Lie-Nielsen block plane as a thank you. A few years later he was gifted a Lie-Nielsen No. 60-1/2 low-angle block plane by a friend. During my own time with JB it was these two planes that were never away on his bench. He particularly liked the weight of them in his hand, which he felt was always an advantage in a one-handed tool. Although the plane is typically one for use on end grain, that didn’t bother him, he used it without too much thought. Other makers now wax lyrical about having a spare blade honed at various degrees to eliminate tear-out on long grain. The minutiae of this subject would have no doubt infuriated JB. The tools’ function was to make beautiful chairs not to beautify the grain of the wood. His dumbscrape (more on that later) would sort any tear-out later.
Stanley No. 53 Spokeshave The No. 53 spokeshave was a definite favourite. JB couldn’t understand why modern tool manufacturers didn’t copy its simple design. He felt that the adjustable throat was a huge asset. You can close its throat up tight to take the slightest of shavings. Its raised handles were always a huge positive to him as the No. 53 was used after the scorp (aka inshave) as a surrogate travisher. I’ve talked elsewhere in the book about its use in seat stock preparation. John Brown had several of these and his favourite had been fettled for a Hock blade to fit. Travishers are now de rigueur and although he had a homemade one, I personally can’t recall him particularly using them as a matter of course. The No. 53 was the important tool here.
Braces His brace and bit collection was one of the first things that I noticed when I met him at his workshop. There were several hanging on a rack, each with a different auger bit. The reasons were tenfold, he would often glue up chair seats from two or three boards. The jointed edges required a dowel to strengthen the joint (in his opinion) this needed a 1/2″ dowel, so a brace was allocated for this, which included a Stanley depth stop permanently fitted to the 1/2″ Jennings bit.
Next was an oversized sweep Millers Falls (I believe) brace fitted with a 1″ auger for drilling the leg mortises. He liked the extra size of the sweep whilst drilling the leg mortises
Then a brace fitted with a 5/8″ bit for drilling both the mortises for the sticks that entered the seat and for the mortises in the doubler on the arm, this also included the mortises for the short sticks to enter the arm, and finally the mortises in the legs for the stretchers.
Next, a brace with another 1/2″ Jennings bit for drilling the mortises into the comb and medial stretcher.
Finally, an electrician’s brace with a small sweep. This was important because it allowed him to drill out the mortises for the short stick that is closest to the long sticks in the arm without the brace hitting the back sticks. You must bear in mind that the arm was at this point already fitted over the rear long sticks. The electrician’s brace was fitted with a large 5/8″ auger, which had been extended to reach down through the arm mortise, thus being able to drill the mortises for the short sticks.
This being JB, something had to be different, the bit being 5/8″ was in his words “a smidgen smaller,” which allowed it to penetrate the already-drilled mortises in the arm for the short sticks without enlarging the already-drilled mortises in the arm. There was method in his eccentricities…. I personally did the same for years, but as you can see in the chapter on building the chair, I now use an extended bit in a battery-powered drill. The augers he used were both Irwin and Jennings pattern.
Saws Saws were a subject close to JB’s heart. He realised early on his journey that a good saw was essential to master both in use and maintenance. He owned boxes of them, too many to discuss here, so I’ll tell you just about the relevant ones.
Gent’s Saw A 12″ gent’s saw was used for general workshop use. The tasks included crosscutting sticks to length, cutting the V-groove on the swan neck detail on an arm bow, but probably more importantly it was used to cut the kerfs in the legs’ tenons. The saw bottomed out on the brass back at approximately 1-3/4″, which is an ideal measurement for the length of the kerf.
Bowsaw or Turning Saw These he made himself from oak. Its blade was cut to length from a huge roll of band saw blade that was coiled up. Its use was to cut out arm bow stock. I witnessed this personally, which was a joy to watch. Later on he used the band saw for this grunt work so the bowsaw was used mostly to cut coves on the swan neck detail of his arm bows.
Crosscut and Rip Saws I’ll discuss JB’s favourite crosscut saw here for a few reasons of interest; he wrote an extensive article in Good Woodworking magazine about this saw. It was 26″ long with six teeth per inch. I watched him once crosscut an elm board. Firstly he placed his pocket watch on the board and started sawing. He had previously worked out that if he had correctly set and sharpened the saw and worked to 66 strokes per minute, it took 140 downward strokes to cut through the board. On several occasions I had to study the end grain of a board to witness the marvel of correct sawing.
Etched on its blade is Harley, Old Maymarket, Liverpool. Its fruitwood handle has a medallion which reads J. Tyzack and Son, Sheffield. It was a conundrum to John why the medallion and saw plate had different names. When JB retired he asked if I’d like to choose a saw from his box as a gift – I did and I’m now the custodian of this fine saw for another generation, my name along side J.H. Buchanan, M. Leigh and John Brown on the handle.
The saw intrigued me for some time, so I put a photo of it onto social media and asked for information. Shane Skelton of Skelton Saws contacted me to say it was made by John Harley of Liverpool between 1882 and 1902. John Harley would apparently later become a mechanic. Another person contacted me to ask if I realised what another mark on the saw demarked? I didn’t. It transpired that it was a “Daisy Wheel,” an apotropaic mark that comes from the Greek word for averting evil. The marks were meant to protect from witches and evil spirits. If only a saw could speak.
Adze, Scorp & Drawknife I’ve grouped these three tools together as they were made for JB by his son Matty Sears. John spoke highly of these tools and was proud to own them. Matty is a great craftsman and understands wood and metal in equal proportion. This benefited JB as these tools were immediately user friendly – so many tools are not.
I have seen lots of beautiful adzes that couldn’t chop a chair seat. An adze needs to be made intuitively and become intuitive to the user. This is where the maker’s skill and experience comes into play. The ergonomics of an adze are difficult to describe – the haft has to be the correct shape as does the head. Matty mastered this and he’s developed a technique of forging the head so it can be removed from the haft on a sliding dovetail. This makes maintenance easy, yet the clever part is that whilst being struck, the haft and head tighten. I coveted JB’s adze for years. Now, more than two decades later, I own one. Sentimental? Maybe, but it’s without doubt the best I’ll ever use. And its provenance? I couldn’t ask for more!
The drawknife and scorp I believe were also made by Matty from a leaf spring from an old Land Rover (an iconic British 4×4 vehicle, in case you’re not familiar). Again, both tools were an important part of JB’s arsenal.
Dumbscrape I never asked JB why he called his curved card scraper a dumbscrape. I’ll let John Brown explain it as he did in “Welsh Stick Chairs.”
“God forbid that I should ever have a fire in the workshop, but if I did, and had to get out in a hurry, I’d make sure my dumbscrape was in my pocket. This is a magical tool. Called a cabinet scraper in the tool catalogues, it is sharpened to have a wire edge with a burnisher of hard steel. It cuts like a plane – see the curly shavings on the seat. When they come from the shop they are oblong, four-sided. For this kind of work the edges need grinding to a gentle curve. It is a most pleasing business using a scraper.”
I can remember making one after reading this quote. Back in 1990s I bought a new Sandvik cabinet scraper from my ironmonger and fettled it to shape. There wasn’t a photo of it in WSC so I just made what JB describes. It is without any shadow of doubt a must-have tool for chairmaking and woodworking in general. Its uses are endless. I’m not suggesting that I’ve ever opened a tin of wax polish with one, mind you…woe betide anyone who was reckless with JB’s.
Hammer In “Welsh Stick Chairs” there’s an iconic photo of JB hammering a leg home into the seat. It’s a piece of real theatre, and although I wasn’t present to say for sure how hard he was hitting the leg with the mallet, I can honestly say that I never personally witnessed anything like that. In my experience he used a 16 oz. ball peen hammer to drive legs into seats and sticks into their mortises. Well, at least in retrospect it looked approximately 16 oz. to me. In my own personal experience with JB, the seat stock was thinner. So more of a close fit was needed whilst making tenons fit into their mortises. Particularly if anything other than elm was being used for seat stock.
Mechanic’s Vice The mechanic’s vice was instrumental to John Brown and in particular with how he developed its use for chairmaking. Its use was twofold. One, its being at a suitable work height for sculpting an arm bow (for example). And two, in holding stretcher stock up and away from the bench. Its metal jaws were lined with oak so as not to mar the work. I have described its use in the build section.
Folding Rule A boxwood folding rule was always used instead of a tape measure. It is large enough for the dimensions involved in chairmaking. I’ve discussed how JB disliked measuring things too much; the eye was the important tool for making chairs the John Brown way.
Workbenches John used a few varieties of benches through the years. He wrote some wonderful articles for Good Woodworking on the subject with detailed plans. I’ll briefly discuss two benches.
Workbench No. 1 John made the bench from pine which was readily available PAR (planed all round) from the local builders merchants. He’d dress the edges and laminate the leg stock to roughly 4″ x 4″. The top was glued up from three 9″ x 3″ boards. These were dowelled on the edges – the same way he joined chair seats. Tenons were worked on the ends of the legs, and these were mortised and pierced through the benchtop and wedged.
Stretchers were put around the circumference of the bench low down. He made several benches of this style, and my personal bench is exactly the same. I guess you could say it was more French than British in appearance, particularly in that it didn’t have the typical deep apron that appears on a British Nicholson-style bench.
John always used to make a tool rack that sat to the rear of the bench and ran its full length. This worked fine but it’s one thing I personally dislike; when chopping a chair seat the cacophony created by clanging tools infuriated me. Making chairs should be a peaceful pursuit.
For the purists, the bench measured approximately 6′ in length by 26-1/2″ wide. Lots of benches measure 24″ in width, which is fine for cabinet work but is slightly narrow for a full-blown Welsh chair with its eccentric leg splay. A quick-release vise was used as an end vise.
Workbench No. 2 JB also wrote a great article on his designated chairmaker’s bench. This measured approximately 4′ 6″ long by 27″ wide. It was made from various materials. The top was laminated from plywood, which was then sheathed with oak. Narrow dovetailed aprons then sheathed all of the edges of the ply and oak benchtop.
He made the undercarriage much the same way as mentioned on the first bench, but with much deeper stretchers – 8″ x 1-1/4″ wide rather than 4″ x 2″. This added mass and eliminated racking. The top sat on the legs with only stub tenons instead of the through-tenons of the previous bench. The aprons on the benchtop sat proud of the legs all the way around. A dowel located both through the apron and leg tenon secured the top to its undercarriage.
Three vices were built into this particular bench. One was a standard big Record quick-release. The second was a homemade leg vice, and the third a Veritas twin-screw vice, which ran on a chain. I believe that the bench was inspired after JB saw Drew Langsner’s chairmaker’s bench when he taught at Country Workshop back in the 1990s. And for the bench nerds, it measured 34-1/2″ in height. I used this bench extensively for a number of years and it worked incredibly well – yet with me being 6′ 4″ tall, it was too low. I raised it on 4″ x 4″ timbers to suit me. (Heaven forbid this book should start a debate on the subject of bench height; I mention it purely for posterity.)
Lastly, both of the workbenches’ undercarriages were decorated with paint in JB’s favourite drab green. There was no “Welsh Miserable” involved whatsoever.
Hand Grinder JB was a proponent of the hollow grind and honed his freshly ground edges with oilstones. He wrote quite a lot about its use and was even instrumental in helping to promote a grinder made in Eastern Europe. It was simply attached to what I would loosely describe in appearance as a bench hook. This was held in the mechanic’s vice and by being well up and away from the bench, the hand-cranked handle could be turned without encountering any part of the bench. JB made a simple oak tool rest, which was adjusted with a wedge to attain his 30° degree preferred grinding and honing angle.
A Favorite Chisel I’ll finish up with one chisel in particular – a 1-1/4″ bevel-edged paring chisel. This was never far from him. It was used broadly – and yes, it was struck at times. What more can I say? It’s just a chisel. As I said earlier I could have written a book on JB’s tools. He loved tools. We all must not forget: Tools are necessary to the making of something tangible, to get to the glory of the form, and to one of beauty that John Brown deemed to be “A Chair.”
The Ohio River’s water level is low enough this week (about 27 feet) to expose a swath of slimy garbage, an encrusted Lime scooter and thousands and thousands of branches and tree trunks.
This morning I walked the shore thinking about the book “Mudlarking” by Laura Mialkem and her fascinating form of archaeology along the foreshore of the Thames river. (She is definitely worth following on Instagram if you like history.)
While I didn’t spot any relics this morning on the Ohio, my eyes were drawn to the weathered branches that were piled up a foot high in places. Some of them were shaped like a chair leg. Others had enough bend to be the crest rail of an armchair.
If you’ve read Christopher Williams’ great book “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” then you know a bit about Chris’ “one square mile” approach to making chairs. Like many Welsh chairmakers before him, Chris regularly searches the woods and hedges of his surroundings for curved branches that could become chair components.
I picked up a few branches this morning to see how sound they were. Hmm, strong enough for a chair perhaps?
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.