When Welsh chairmaker John Brown put down roots in Pembrokeshire, Wales, he and his wife, Anne, lived in two railway cars – Fyffes Banana wagons – that had transported fruit around the U.K. up until the 1950s.
The railway cars were used as living spaces for many years, until the 1990s when they fell into disrepair. But now Anne and David Sears have fixed them up and turned them into a lovely place to stay on their grounds that is near Newport, a nice seaside town, and Carningli mountain, Tycanol woods and Bluestone Brewery.
I’ve spent a few days at Pantry Fields while working with Chris Williams on his book “Good Work,” and can attest that the plot of land is gorgeous. A serene and green spot of great beauty.
It also is an important landmark for those who appreciate Welsh stick chairs. John Brown wrote his book “Welsh Stick Chairs” there and built his chairs inside an addition to the original house. (Which is now Anne’s studio.)
The grounds also include David’s workshop (he is JB’s nephew), where he makes furniture, bread, beer and other good things. They also have a showroom of the articles they produce at Pantry Fields, including Anne’s pottery, David’s furniture and the illustrations of Sally Seymour (Anne’s mother).
The price is very reasonable for the space in the railway cars. Details are here.
Even if you have no interest in stick chairs, Pantry Fields is a lovely place to visit. And if you want to plan the ultimate trip to Wales, with stops at St Fagans National Museum of History and Tim Bowen Antiques, then staying at Pantry Fields is a must and a privilege.
As always, I have no affiliation. I just love the people and the place.
If you or a woodworking friend are wondering what the heck a stick chair is, we’ve made a page that is a quick but complete introduction to the form. It also explains how all our stick chair products relate to the form. So you can better decide if you should go Old School (“Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown) or American (“The Stick Chair Book“) or historical (“The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Guide“). So yes, the page is a bit commercial. Selling books keeps the lights on here at the blog.
“I do not get your weird chairs,” exclaim about a dozen messages or comments every year.
I understand your bewilderment.
I remember being a prospective student at Northwestern University in 1985 where I had been paired up with freshmen journalism students. We were supposed to sleep in their dorm rooms and see what university life was like.
My two hosts sat me down on a bed and thrust a Budweiser in my hands.
“Drink it,” they said. “And you’re drinking 10 more. You are getting drunk. Maybe we’ll drag you outside naked.”
Up until that point in my life I had taken one sip of beer. It had been my dad’s Coors Light, which had been poured over ice at the beach during a vacation. It was memorably disgusting.
I took a sip of the Budweiser, and I can still remember the metallic and bitter liquid spreading through my mouth and snaking down my gullet.
Beer is objectively nasty stuff. It’s basically watery bread. Fermented starch. And flavored with a bitter plant (hops) or worse.
I did not “get” this weird drink, and I took about four sips of it that night, each one warmer and worse than the previous. I did not end up naked and drunk in the quad.
Now 37 years after that fall evening, I have changed my mind about beer. I am endlessly curious about the different forms of the drink and enjoy learning about its role in our culture and history. After listening to a podcast about beer in Biblical times, I was struck by the parallels between the history of the beverage and of the vernacular stick chairs I have been studying and building for many years.
I suppose these parallels shouldn’t have been a surprise. The stories of many good things in our world have a similar arc. And the turning point in the story’s third act is always the Industrial Revolution.
But it’s a good story, and it helps explain my love for both hops and these funky chairs that are “a smidgen off being ugly,” according to chairmaker Chris Williams.
For most of human history, beer was something you made at home. Everyone was a brewer. Beer was a source of nutrition and hydration. But ancient beer was unlikely to taste like the stuff you buy today. For a long time the role of yeast wasn’t understood. And hops – the most common added flavor today – weren’t always used. Honey and other spices were common.
Commercial production of beer might have been an innovation of the Ancient Egyptians (you can read a history of beer and business here, which is where much of the following business data comes from). But up until the mid-19th century, most brewers were local businesses. There were no national or international brands of beer.
The rapid industrialization of the West allowed beer to be produced on a large scale and homogenized. Prohibition wiped out most of the local and regional brewers. And by the 1970s, 75 percent of all the beer in the United States was produced by only four monster corporations.
The product also kind of sucked. Coors Light over ice?
And while those macro brewers still exist (and are still growing through acquisition and consolidation), there has been a remarkable renaissance in small- and mid-sized brewers. In 1980, there were only 92 breweries in the U.S. As of 2021, there were 9,247 breweries. A hundredfold increase.
Plus beer as a beverage is far more interesting and diverse these days.
The history of stick chairs is not as long as the history of brewing (as far as we know). But it also has some wild twists and turns.
The first image of a stick chair that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws from the 12th or 13th century called “Laws of Hywel Dda.” There are two images of stick chairs shown in this particular Latin translation. My favorite one shows a judge in the stick chair, and he’s pointing with one hand. His other hand holds what is likely a book (but which I prefer to think of as a cup of beer for the purposes of this story).
Stick chairs have been around for hundreds of years before mass manufacturing. We suspect that most were made by farmers in the off-season, so it was a household enterprise, much like making beer. Judging from the surviving examples, they were made by crafty individuals who likely made the chairs for their nuclear or extended family. Or for people in their village.
Because each stick chair is unique – I’ve never seen two that are identical – we can conclude that they were likely made one-by-one. Or in small sets at most. There are variations in the chairs that can place them in certain time periods or in certain regions. But there’s little to no evidence that these chairs were even a highly organized commercial endeavor. (Irish Gibson chairs might be the exception.)
These vernacular chairs show up in many countries throughout Scandinavia and the UK. And stick chairs could be the ancient ancestor of Forest chairs (aka Windsor chairs).
Regardless of the shape or strength of that family tree, Windsor chairs appeared in the early 18th century and rapidly became a commercial enterprise that employed hundreds and then thousands of people. The city of High Wycombe became Britain’s primary chairmaking region. But the chairs were manufactured all over the UK and were a major export for the country.
The Windsor chair became so successful that today it is widely regarded as the most common form of chair.
“It’s been said that half of all wooden chairs on the planet are either Windsors or are directly descended from the style,” according to the Magazine Antiques.
While there are exceptions, most mass-produced Windsor chairs are unremarkable firewood and share little or nothing with their ancient ancestors – except for a name.
Evidence: All of the broken chairs that have been dragged across my doorstep have been factory-made Windsors. (I decline all chair-repair requests from customers – not because I am a jerk, but because chair repair could easily consume all of my waking hours.)
These factory-made Windsors are the Coors Light of the woodworking world.
Just like with the world of beer, however, things began to improve for the world of handmade chairs in the 1970s and 80s. Mike Dunbar and Dave Sawyer began exploring Windsor forms, and both began teaching others, planting the seeds for thousands of other chairmakers. John Brown self-published his “Welsh Stick Chairs” book, which began to sketch in the early history of chairs from his part of the world.
And now we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to chairmaking instruction and tools. Well-made Windsor chairs and stick chairs are much easier to find. And the chairs are available at a variety of price points.
Plus there are now a lot of talented chairmakers out there that I have never heard of – and I try to keep up.
I get the same feeling when I visit my local beer store. The shelves are brimming with interesting beers from all over the country. I’ve heard of maybe 10 percent of them. There is so much good stuff out there to try.
It’s quite amazing, really. Well, that is until I look across the aisle of the store and see the mountains and mountains of Coors Light there, too.
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.)