The latest issue of Quercus Magazine is an important one. In the March/April 2022 issue, Editor Nick Gibbs pays tribute to chairmaker John Brown. It’s a heartfelt, first-person account of his work and friendship with JB, and it fills in a lot of interesting details about their working relationship.
Most importantly, it is an unromantic account, much like Chris Williams’s outstanding book, “Good Work.” As JB’s life recedes into the past, I have watched a lot of mythology get built up around his name, his words and his work.
I never met John Brown, but the people whose stories I trust come from his family, his close friends and his working associates, such as Gibbs and Williams.
As Gibbs writes, JB was a complex character. Occasionally contradictory at times in words and deeds. So Gibbs’s account is very much worth reading. As a bonus, it is beautifully written and is accompanied by essays from Williams, myself and Kenneth Kortemeier.
I won’t spoil it for you. If you are interested, please do pick up a copy.
In addition to the John Brown tribute, the issue is filled with a lot of practical hand-tool information. Some of it quirky, some of it fun. One of the things I like about Quercus is the variety of points of view, both geographically and skill-wise. Oh, and Gibbs likes the written word, so the balance between images and words is my speed.
No, Gibbs didn’t pay me to write this. Nor did he ask. In fact, I’m a little salty with him right now because he is putting me on a future cover. As many of you know, I would rather do naked somersaults down the middle of Main Strasse in Covington with lit sparklers in my butt than have my face appear in print. But I don’t want to be all like “Stop. Don’t. Come Back.”
Because I have written books on workbenches and chairs, I am regularly asked what sort of workbench is best for making chairs.
Here’s my answer: the same bench you use to make cabinets, boxes and snake toys.
Unless you are a professional chairmaker who makes chairs and only chairs in a tiny space, there is no need to make a dedicated bench for chairs. I build my chairs on whatever workbench is handy, and I’ve never felt constrained by them. Nor have I ever wished for a bench dedicated to my chairmaking.
Instead, this blog post is an effort to remove one of the artificial barriers we all erect in our minds when it comes to tackling new kinds of projects.
“I can’t build a chair until I own a steambox, shaving horse, drawknife, froe, chiarmaker’s workbench….”
Use what you have on hand, and you’ll find a way to make it work. Then, after you’ve built 20 chairs and decide it’s your life’s work, you can think about what specific equipment you will need for your journey.
A few of you who have followed my work might say: “Ah yes, but what about your Roman workbench? Isn’t that dedicated to chairmaking?”
No, it’s not. That workbench gets used for everything, including as an occasional buffet table when we buy lunch for students.
OK, last question from an imaginary voice: “But if you did build a bench for chairmaking, what would it look like?”
I’ve given that a lot of thought. Here’s the answer. (You can download the plans for free.)
This wasn’t by design, I promise you. Heck we don’t have financial forecasts or a strategic long-range map for the editorial future of Lost Art Press. (Except this: We are going to bring back turned ashtrays.)
Stick chairs have been a long-running obsession of mine since 1997 or so when I first began reading John Brown’s column in Good Woodworking magazine. I started making these chairs in 2003, and I haven’t stopped since.
If you think these chairs are ugly (a common reaction – until you see enough of them), then here is a short explanation as to why I always seem to have one in progress on my workbench.
I love stick chairs because they are deeply rooted in traditional culture, and yet there are almost no hard rules about what they should look like or how they should be made.
In contrast, for years I built American Arts & Crafts furniture, which has a hierarchy of makers, techniques, finishes and forms. Yes, there are some outliers (Limbert, for one), but otherwise there are well-defined rules about what makes a “good” piece from a “blah” one. And those rules aren’t entirely about aesthetics.
With stick chairs, almost anything goes. Want to make a chair that has five legs, 11 sticks made from branches in your yard and a piece of carved driftwood for the comb? OK! And hey, you wouldn’t be the first person to do that. For me, these chairs represent almost complete design freedom – freedom to explore different materials, angles and dimensions, and even to create new forms (see the “Sticktionary” chapter in my book for a sample).
With this freedom comes responsibility. Though you can build whatever you like, your chair can also be ridiculed for poor proportions or its lack of a cohesive vision. And again, you wouldn’t be the first to make an awkward chair. A fair number of old stick chairs are butt-ugly. (Though many of the surviving chairs are beautiful.)
We all have a few ugly chairs inside of our hands, so it’s important to get those shambling thickets out through our fingers so we can develop chairs that offer grace, movement and comfort. The good news here is that stick chairs are insanely quick and easy to build compared to most other forms of chairs. So your journey won’t be long.
The joinery is made with drill bits for the most part (I use mostly cheap spade bits). You don’t need a lot of specialty tools to build them (mostly a jack plane and a block plane), and you can use whatever wood that’s on hand. Yes, kiln-dried wood from the lumberyard is fine – you just have to be a little picky about choosing straight grain.
And once you’ve made one chair, you’ll find the next one will come easier and faster. In the early days it took me a couple weeks to build a chair. Now it’s less than three days. Because they are so fast to build, I can explore lots of new forms and details. I have yet to build the same chair twice (though I have tried a couple times).
As a result, the work is never boring or repetitive, even after almost 19 years of building these teenage swans.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the last little benefit of building these chairs. Making them will open up a huge world of staked furniture for you. The skills for making stick chairs directly translate to making staked tables, stools, workbenches or really anything with angled legs.
So how do you get started?
I’d begin with John Brown’s classic “Welsh Stick Chairs.” It’s a short book, filled with fire and brimstone, history and handwork. You can read it in one sitting. It will give you a taste for the different chair forms, those both funky and sublime. And you’ll get a full dose of John Brown’s cranky and iconoclastic way of working. His writing led me to the realization that I could build these chairs out of any damn wood that I pleased.
The second book I’d read is “The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Record” by Tim and Betsan Bowen. This is the only book we sell that we do not publish – that’s how important it is to me. This gorgeous book will show you what the stick chair form is capable of achieving in terms of beauty. The Bowens are highly knowledgeable dealers who have seen more of these chairs than anyone I know. The text is brief and fascinating. If you aren’t in love with these chairs by the end of this book, you probably shouldn’t delve any further.
And the third book? Well that depends on how you like to learn. “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams is a deep dive into JB’s life as a chairmaker. It is one part biography – Chris worked with John Brown for about a decade building these chairs; he knows them inside and out. It is one part philosophy – the book contains John Brown’s best writing on chairmaking, none of which has been published in the U.S. And it is one part how-to. Chris demonstrates how John Brown built a stick chair, but he teaches it the way that Chris was taught. No plans. No exact dimensions or angles. Instead, each chair is a voyage of discovery, combining the wood on hand with a set of well-explained skills so you can build a chair of your own making.
If you are a woodworker who prefers explicit plans, then “The Stick Chair Book” might be a better choice. The book has complete plans for five stick chairs (two Irish, two Welsh and one Scottish). Plus detailed chapters on how to perform all the operations with a basic set of hand tools and a band saw. And chapters on finishing, wood selection, design and the like. Of all the books above, it’s most like a traditional woodworking text (with animal jokes).
After that, you are good to build a chair. Honestly. If I can build a stick chair, then dang-near anybody can build a good stick chair. Heck, you might even be able to build a great one.
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.”