I am pleased to announce that Molly Brown, one of John Brown’s daughters, will be creating many of the key illustrations in the upcoming book “The Life & Work of John Brown” by Christopher Williams.
Molly specializes in linocut illustrations, a process that is particularly well-suited to show off the graphic forms of Welsh stick chairs. Linocuts are similar to woodblock printing in that the image is drawn on a piece of linoleum and the background is carved away. Then the image is inked and pressed into the paper.
This week, Molly showed us one of her initial prints. Chris and I are very pleased.
Our plan is to have Molly provide the construction illustrations for the book. That might sound odd if you are used to reading CAD-generated drawings. But computer-created illustrations with precise measurements are the exact opposite of what John Brown liked, as he explained clearly in “Welsh Stick Chairs.”
John Brown thought every chair should be an individual, and we wanted the illustrations in this new book to reflect that.
In addition to the technical drawings, Molly will create spot illustrations that will be used throughout the book, such as tools and details of the chair. Recently, she visited Chris in his workshop in Wales to see his chairs, look over columns written by her father and get acquainted with the project.
Molly plans to show more of the process of making the prints for her book on her Instagram feed. You can follow her here if you’d like to watch the process. If you’d like to see some of her delightful non-chair prints, you can visit her website here.
Chris is working on a new chair design these days, and if you haven’t followed him on Instagram, remedy that here.
We are fast closing in on the publication date of the classic book “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown. This compact book has had a profound effect on woodworkers and designers all over the world. It is the story of a chair that no one had a good name for. And how that chair changed the life of John Brown.
It’s impossible to capture the essence of the book in one blog entry – it’s part history lesson, part autobiography and part practical manual. But the following passage is one of my favorites.
“Welsh Stick Chairs” is available for pre-publication order now in our store. It’s $29, which includes domestic shipping. Full details on our quality edition can be found here.
— Christopher Schwarz
One day I saw a chair in the window of an antique shop in Lampeter. It was like a vision. I had never seen anything that had made so instant an impression on me. To my eyes this chair was beautiful. I had never had any interest in furniture or chairs. Like most people they were just the things you lived with. Now here was this lovely chair. I couldn’t afford to buy it, but I could make one like it. Well, that is what I did. I made one. It took a long time. Chairs of simple form like the stick chair are surprisingly tricky to make. When you’re building them you have to work from points in the air, angles of sticks, angles of legs; there are so many variables. Anyway, I was quite proud when I finished my chair. It looked alright. Of course, I wasn’t able to put a century or two of patina on it. Now, twelve-years-old, it begins to look right. Family “treatment” and a few thousand hours of bum polishing have done the trick!
At this stage I was interested enough to look for books on the subject. There are quite a few, both American and English. I still hadn’t realised that what I had seen in that Lampeter shop was something quite rare and unique – a Welsh chair. Then it was just a Windsor chair. I went to museums. I visited High Wycombe where there is a museum devoted entirely to Windsor chairs. They have a very comprehensive selection of Wycombe factory chairs and English regional chairs. I don’t think there were any Welsh chairs. The English chairs did not have the same spontaneity the same verve as their Welsh counterparts.
I enjoyed my youth. After the valleys I thought England was wonderful. The war started and we could not live in London, and through a series of events of which I have no knowledge, we ended up with a small-holding in the wilds of Kent. (There were wilds in Kent in those days!) We had no electricity, gas or sanitation, we grew much of our own food and kept chickens and a pig. We didn’t realise it then, but we were living the ‘Good Life’. We made few demands on the world’s resources, and I was happy. So, as the Lampeter chair was one step towards my rehabilitation, the building of a tin shed in a field I bought, and a change to the simple life, completed my return. I live very happily without electricity or any other services. I have a workshop, a wood stove and good health. There’s a saying applied to yachts, which applies equally to life, “Add lightness – and simplify.”
A neighbour asked me to build him a chair like mine. I tried to – but it came out different. It was alright, but it wasn’t the same chair. My neighbour was pleased. He has the chair now, he keeps it in the bookshop he owns. It then occurred to me that the reason for the diversity of pattern in the old Welsh chairs was that the makers did other things as well. They were not chair-makers as such, they were wheelwrights, coffin-makers, carpenters, even farmers. When there was need for a chair, somebody in the village made it, or they made their own. They didn’t have patterns and jigs for continuous production. They had no consistent supply of uniform material. They used their eyes and their experience. It was like a sculptor doing his work, they ‘thought’ the chair, then they built their ‘think’. Some of these chairs are a disaster to sit on, most uncomfortable, but they all have a kind of primitive beauty.
After five long days in the shop, Chris Williams has sent six new Welsh stick chairs into the wilds of America. My hope is that these chairs work like seeds, and an appreciation for this form will take root and flourish in the United States.
Like with many chairs, it’s difficult to capture its graciousness in photographs. And yet it was photographs that inspired most of the six students to take the class here.
One night after dinner this week, several of the students confessed that they knew little of John Brown when they signed up for the class. Instead, it was the photos of Chris’s chairs that inspired them to sign up (beating out 56 other students now on our waiting list) to be here.
That means we have a lot of work ahead with Chris’s upcoming book, tentatively titled “The Life & Work of John Brown.” John Brown, who died 10 years ago this June, was more than just a chair. He was a set of ideas and philosophies that both inspired and angered people in the United Kingdom, plus a few people in the States who caught wind of his writing.
I think the story of John Brown’s woodworking life plus Chris’s instructions on building his Welsh stick chair will inspire a new generation. It worked with the six students here this week, who were treated to hours of evening conversations about John Brown, woodworking and life in Wales. So let’s hope this approach works on several thousand more people as well.
As to future classes, Chris has agreed to come back to Covington, Ky., next year to teach another six students. We’ll post details on the class as soon as we settle on dates for the class.
When John Brown taught chair classes in the United States in the 1990s, he famously threw a student’s machinist calipers into a lake to make a point about how his chairs should be built.
Then, while teaching at John Wilson’s shop in Michigan, John Brown lost his temper with Wilson after class one evening. Wilson was hosting the class and was also making one of the chairs. In the evenings, Wilson had to work to keep up with the students because he was busy during the day.
John Brown caught Wilson using machines to quicken the work and lit into him.
Despite his outbursts of temper and strong opinion, every student of John Brown who I’ve met adored or revered him.
Chris Williams, who worked with John Brown for more than a decade, also has very strong opinions, much like John Brown. But Chris doesn’t have the temper. Every sermon on saddling the seat, building the armbow or rounding the sticks ends with this:
“That’s how I do it. You might do it differently. It doesn’t matter, really,” Chris says. (As I’m typing this, Chris is saying those exact words to his students sizing their tenons.)
Which approach is better – fury or flexibility? I can’t say. The students in Chris’s class seem to really like Chris’s gruff but gentle approach.
Me, I’m just glad Chris hasn’t (yet) thrown my dial calipers into the Ohio River.
With many woodworking classes, the goal is for every student to end up with identical chairs, tool chests or side tables.
But that approach is opposite to the spirit of a Welsh stick chair.
Welsh stick chairs weren’t manufactured (and I hope they never are). Instead, they were usually built as a side business for the undertaker, farmer or wheelwright. Or they were made by the person who wanted a chair to sit on.
As a result, no two chairs are ever alike. Add to that the fact that many of these chairs are made using branches from the local forest, and it’s impossible for two chairs to be alike.
During Chris Williams’s class this week, every demonstration begins and ends with the admonition: Do it this way, but if you don’t end up doing it this way that’s OK because it’s your chair.
Additionally, Chris repeats some of the Zen-like phrases John Brown used as he worked. When making the front edge of the saddled seat, one should “think flat” over and over to avoid scooping it out too much. To make the tenons, “think round, think round, think round” as you make the tenon with a block plane.
There aren’t a lot of jigs to save you with this chair. And the toolkit is the smallest I’ve ever seen in a chair class.
So the chair isn’t in the jigs. It’s not in the tools. It’s in your head. Your job is to push those thoughts through your fingers and into the wood.