“I am a Welshman, and I am influenced in the chairs I make, or some of them, by old Welsh chairs. Irish chairs are as different as is possible, so are Scottish chairs. Brittany is Celtic. The people of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales speak a language which has little relation to the Irish or Scots Gaelic. Celtic (with a hard C) is difficult to define, but it is a fashionable ‘buzz’ word, as was heritage a year or two back…. I would forbid the word Celtic to be applied to my work, it is Welsh. Welsh.”
It’s a good day when I find three new images of stick chairs. Researcher Suzanne Ellison sent me the September 2015 issue of Antique Collecting recently, and I devoured it this morning while juggling some technical publishing problems.
Inside the issue were three stick chairs – two likely Welsh and one labeled as Irish. All are notable for one reason or another. Let’s take a look.
The chair above was listed for sale by Suffolk House Antiques and has a burr ash seat that is 2-1/2” thick. There are several things I like about this chair. Its spindle layout and armbow are similar to the chairs I’ve been building recently, but the crest rail and back spindles are quite eye-catching. I like the way the crest rail is curved along its top edge – very graceful.
The three back spindles look delicate and fragile, though I doubt they are. I really like how the maker bent the two outside spindles outward. It’s a nice contrast with the density and verticality of the lower spindles and seat.
The second chair was featured in an article on auction results. Though it’s not specifically called out as Welsh, it looks it to me. This chair has a charming lightness to it, despite its 14 spindles. Also, take a look at the “hands” of the armbow. They end in a nice semi-circle. Finally, the ogee on the ends of the crest rail is a nice classical surprise on a folk chair. Who knows if this detail is original to this chair. But it works.
The third chair is listed as an Irish fruitwood chair from the 18th century. I’m charmed by the low seat and the overall boxiness of the thing. Also, if you look close at the seat you can see there is a hole that is plugged at the rear of the seat (it could be a knot but I think that’s unlikely). This chair might have started off as a 3- or 5-legged chair.
Finally, a fascinating pig bench from Suffolk House antiques that might be from the Middle Ages according to the magazine. This bench proves that sometimes warped wood can be your friend.
I spent yesterday in Hay-On-Wye for the first of many field trips for the John Brown book. Picturesque Hay, home to the renowned book festival and equally renowned (if somewhat more niche) spoon festival, is halfway between the village where Chris Williams’ (my co-author for the project) lives and Birmingham, so it makes for an ideal location to meet up and formulate a plan of attack for the book.
And we are very much at the planning stage currently. To do this book properly (which is the only way we want to do it) it’s going to be a huge endeavour, with a significant number of interviews with John’s friends, family and woodworkers, not to mention field trips to locations significant either to John or to Welsh stick chairs, and of course the chairmaking itself. With so many moving parts, having a clear roadmap from here to publication is the best way to stay focused on the key threads, and to make sure that nothing important falls by the wayside.
So over the past couple of months we have been engaged in a constant dialogue about what we want to achieve, and how best to go about it: Who to interview, what to make, where to visit and what to read. Yesterday was the culmination of that dialogue, not to mention an excellent opportunity to spend a day talking woodwork with someone who has spent more than 30 years working in the woodcrafts, and who personally worked with John for many years.
Slowly “The Life & Work of John Brown” is swimming into focus. What has become very clear over the time that Chris Williams and I have been discussing the book, and even more so yesterday, is that, for both of us, it is important that we honour and embody John’s ethos as a chairmaker. What that means is that the chairmaking section of the book must make building these fascinating chairs accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on the minimal use of specialist tools or hard-to-find timber. That is not only consistent with John’s “Anarchist Woodworker” philosophy, but will also hopefully contribute to the longevity of a relatively uncommon chair form.
This is all very well and good, but how will we achieve this? Well, one of the ideas currently being kicked around is starting the chairmaking section not at the workbench, but at the timber yard. Timber selection can be a truly daunting experience for the inexperienced woodworker — I still remember my first trip to the timber yard, and how the choice was almost crippling. Many woodwork books tend to assume that you already have material and are standing at your workbench ready to start work, but to our minds the timber yard is where every build starts, and to start anywhere else would be omitting a key step. By having Chris Williams guide the reader through timber selection for a stick chair, we hope to remove one of the greatest hurdles to chairmaking.
We are also considering building chairs with pieced and carved arm bows rather than steam-bent bows. While English and American Windsor chairmaking traditions use steam bending for arm bows, Chris Williams tells me that due to the social function of stick chairs there was little or no tradition of steam bending in Wales. The pieced arm bow is very striking, and relies on techniques and tools common to most woodworkers. So it’s accessible and historically accurate — perfect.
These snapshots are really exciting to us, and I hope that by sharing some of the processes behind the book we can encourage more dialogue about John and his chairs, and also share our enthusiasm for the project. This is just the start of the process, and plenty is likely to change as we continue to work. But as the framework for the book starts to fall into place I can see how it will hang together, and what an important contribution this could be. There’s a lot of hard work to do over the next couple of years, and I hope that you will all join us for the ride.
Editor’s note: As we revealed yesterday, we’re excited to announce that Lost Art Press will publish a book on the life and work of the late Welsh chairmaker, John Brown. Here, the author, Chris Williams, shares how he met John Brown in the late 1990s.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
I never knew his name at the time, other than there was a mythical chairmaker from the western seaboard side of my native homeland of Wales. He made chairs by hand without the aid of electricity and lived in his workshop. In the early 1990s, with some research, I found out that he had written a book called “Welsh Stick Chairs.” It was being sold in a bookshop less than an hour’s drive from me.
I drove to Newport Pembrokeshire to buy a copy of the book. I later learned that the man I had held the door for on entering the bookshop was John Brown. He had just dropped off a box of books for them to sell. The owners were very enthusiastic at my interest in the book, and I was ushered into a side room where they showed me a chair that John had made them.
The book was a revelation to me. It was so informative on this little-known subject and included a photographic chapter that was truly inspiring. I was hooked on the chairs and the author. I read John’s monthly articles in Good Woodworking magazine fervently. His writing was great — nothing of the anorak in his articles. And I thought his take on life was so different than the norm.
My day job as a carpenter and joiner was a varied one, but the chairs were deep in my psyche by now, and I dabbled somewhat with them for a few years. Looking back they were poor. I hadn’t yet been fueled by the Zen-like teachings which were to come.
Several years later my partner, Claire, and I were in Australia and New Zealand on a gap year/working holiday. I enjoyed the change of scenery and meeting new people but something was missing. There is a word in the Welsh language, “Hiraeth,” which loosely translates to a longing, with a sadness, for an absent something — not homesick. By chance I picked up a copy of Fine Woodworking (the Nov./Dec. 1997 issue) in Melbourne in which there was an article on John Brown — a great article. It was at this point that I realized it was time for me to head home to make chairs, and to meet John Brown in person.
It was with some trepidation that I telephoned him. To my surprise, his number was in the phone book. The conversation was a blur — lots of nerves on my side. But it must have gone OK because a few days later I head west to John’s home. I was given clear instructions on the whereabouts of the workshop, but alas I got lost in the wilds of North Pembrokeshire. I eventually found the workshop down a long narrow lane under the shadow of Carn Ingli, which translates to “mountain of the angels.” It was a truly beautiful landscape of small fields with stone-walled boundaries and small wooded valleys meandering down to the Celtic sea — a landscape that obviously inspired John. The undersides of John’s chair seats were embellished with a simple Celtic cross for which the area is famous for.
I was greeted politely but hurriedly by John as he was in the process of gluing up a chair. I watched him work but also took in the hand tools that were everywhere, neatly placed in various racks and shelves. Photos, paintings and poems also adorned the walls of the workshop. I had truly come across a different type of life, at least one in contrast to my conservative Welsh upbringing. It felt more like a home than the cold and soulless workshops that I had spent years in. I felt at home when I was offered a cup of tea. Two pots later, it was it time to leave. I left buzzing after the experience and little did I know then what adventures the next 10 years would bring for both of us. It was far from a happy-ever-after story but one that would change my life profoundly forever.
In 1996 I was hired as the managing editor at Popular Woodworking, a struggling second-tier woodworking magazine that focused on publishing project plans (17 Must-build Plans Inside! Build an Alien on a Swing!). At the time I was hired, I was a nascent hand-tool woodworker (not by choice, really) with my grandfather’s hand tools plus a Craftsman table saw that seemed determined to eat me.
Before being hired by the magazine, I’d been building tables, chests, benches and bookshelves, but what I really wanted to build was chairs. Chairs are, to me, functional sculpture. Building a chair in 1996, however, seemed impossible. It involved wet wood, compound angles, foreign joinery and weird tools.
Plus, I wasn’t sure what kind of chair I wanted to build. Windsor chairs are beautiful, but they are too feminine and ornate (in general) for my taste. And while I have always loved modern chairs from the Scandinavian countries, the joinery and materials in those chairs seemed even more daunting.
One day I picked up a copy of Good Woodworking magazine in our magazine’s office mail. It had a UK postmark. And opening it was like being struck by lightning. For the most part, Good Woodworking was like the magazine I worked for. It was project-focused (Chopsticks! Build Something for Your Toast!) and was aimed at the not-Fine Woodworking crowd.
But inside that issue was a John Brown column that featured a chair so beautiful and hound-like that I thought it would bound off the page. I wolfed that column down. Then I scurried to our magazine’s “morgue,” where we kept back issues of all our competitors’ magazines. I read everything that had John Brown’s name on it.
That, I decided, was the chair I would build.
It took me six or seven years to build that chair. And it involved a trip to Cobden, Ontario, during an icy March. It was a trip north with a guy (John Hoffman) who would eventually help me found Lost Art Press. But despite the delay and challenges, I built that chair, and it changed the course of my woodworking.
My Monthly Visitor
Good Woodworking was published monthly, which is an insane pace for a woodworking magazine. But I waited impatiently every month for it to arrive. I photocopied the John Brown articles (which I still have) and read them several times over.
My affection for Brown was three-fold. First, it was about the Welsh stick chair. He introduced me to the form that has guided my taste in chairs since 1996. Second, it was about hand tools. I’d been using hand tools almost exclusively since age 11, and it was shocking that someone else I admired did the same thing. I didn’t do it by choice (my parents wouldn’t let me use power tools), but thanks to Brown I decided that I was OK. And third was how he declared “I am an anarchist” in one of his columns. (In fact, his column was labeled “The Anarchist Woodworker” for a period of time.)
I’d been introduced to anarchism my by my cousin Jessamyn West in the early 1990s when she explained how it wasn’t always about the violent overthrow of all government to create chaos. It opened my mind, and during graduate school in 1993 I became a fan of Noam Chomsky and his views on media, hegemony and anarchism.
When Lucy and I moved to the Cincinnati area, I discovered Josiah Warren, the father of American Anarchism and an amazing Cincinnatian. When I walked into the doors of Popular Woodworking magazine in 1996 I was a closeted American Aesthetic Anarchist. Believe me, it’s not something you should list on your resume or even talk about over lunch.
John Brown was the first person to put “woodworking” and “anarchism” together, and it was pure genius. Though I doubt his ideas and mine about anarchism were similar, I am forever in debt to him for making that connection. That is why I dedicated “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to him and Roy Underhill (another political subversive).
How Did We Get Here?
When Brown died in 2008, I hoped that someone from Good Woodworking would write the definitive book on Brown and include all of his columns from the magazine. It seemed a natural salute to one of our generation’s most influential woodworkers.
That didn’t happen. Friends of Brown asked me why Lost Art Press didn’t publish that book. Here’s the short answer: I didn’t know Brown personally, and so I left that task to friends who did.
A few years ago, Chris Williams sent me an email out of the blue. Chris worked with Brown for many years (though I’ll leave that story to his pen). He convinced me that Lost Art Press might be the best publisher for this important project.
So please know that I enter this arena reluctantly. While Brown is my woodworking hero, I’ve always thought I was unqualified to publish a book on him. I never met him. I’m an American. And etc.
But I am dedicated to do a good job. Lost Art Press is, at times, about lost causes or lost ideas. Our goal since 2007 has been to re-establish the balance between power tools and hand tools in the modern workshop. Exploring the ideas and influence of Brown will definitely tip those scales.
I am not sure when our book on Brown will be complete. In our world, a book is done when it’s done. But we will finish it, as sure as we finished a nine-year project on Charles Hayward or a seven-year project (at least) on A.J. Roubo.