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.
When I came to “A Vampire Chair,” while copy editing Issue No. 1 of The Stick Chair Journal, I side-eyed my own stick chair in my house. Without even reading the first sentence, I thought, There’s more than one?
Turns out the story in The Stick Chair Journal is about a fabled chair in Tennessee that was broken apart to murder its owner and, once repaired, begins acting odd. Although my chair was never broken apart to murder anyone, my entire family insists it’s hell-bent on trying. And I’m to blame.
In late 2004, I was an editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine, and in between copy editing, they’d throw me into woodworking classes. Given that this was almost 20 years ago, the details are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember I got married in October 2004, and soon after I returned from my honeymoon I was building a Welsh stick chair with Don Weber and several other editors at the magazine in a week-long class. I remember Chris being particularly excited about this opportunity, and I knew it was a big deal.
So I tried to soak in everything Don said. And not just about building chairs. I was going to start doing yoga every morning on a beautiful rug in a stream of sunlight! I was going to start making my own lemon curd! I even considered wearing vests.
I was also a nervous wreck. I was 25 years old, had majored in magazine journalism, and was finally getting used to rabbets being spelled with an “e.” But everyone was more than kind; I had a lot of help, and I built a stick chair.
I’m pretty sure I was behind everyone else in the class because I think Chris was done and helping me finish my chair when he told me I might want to break my edges a bit.
“No,” I said.
Why? I don’t know. I was a stupid stubborn 25-year-old. Or maybe it was because he had presented it as a choice instead of an order. Still, Chris was my boss, and to break up the awkwardness, I think I said something along the lines of, “I want it to look crisp,” as if I knew what that even meant/how Welsh stick chair edges were supposed to look/what I was even talking about.
Chris just let me be, which he always graciously does.
So I brought the chair home, which, looking at, y’all will probably criticize, but I was (quietly) proud of this chair. Crafting letters into sentences came naturally to me. Crafting wood into something sturdy and useful did not. And as young, broke newlyweds, this chair was, by far, one of the nicest, and most useful, pieces of furniture we owned. Even if it looked a little wonky.
My husband, Andy, and I painted the chair. (If you ever want to test a marriage early on, take two very different personality types, add a can of milk paint and paint a stick chair together. We are still married. I’ll leave it at that.)
Beforepainting, Andy asked if I wanted to break the edges a bit.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I asked/yelled. “They look so good sharp! I want them crisp!”
I’m pretty sure I let out an exasperated sigh, as one does in your mid-20s, thinking no one understood me or my good taste.
My chair listened to my mulishness and responded in kind. It had no mercy.
It cut everyone it encountered.
Friends would come over and, looking at it, a bit perplexed, Andy would say, “Kara made that!” which was very kind and loving. And I swear the chair, in response, would magically beckon them over because the next thing I know, they would be touching it/sitting in it and then there would be blood and then I would be apologizing and getting them a Band-Aid.
But I was stubborn.
“You could still break the edges,” Andy said.
“Everyone is just sitting in it wrong,” I said.
Then we had kids.
First Sophie. Then two years later, twins, James and Owen. Once they were old enough to walk and talk, they didn’t call it The Vampire Chair. They called it The Evil Chair. Anytime they bumped into (or, as they claimed, the chair reached out and bit them), they carried on about how this chair was trying to kill them.
For a while, the Vampire/Evil Chair lived in our attic.
There are benefits to accidentally building a Vampire Chair:
1) If you ever find yourself parenting a 4-year-old and two 2-year-olds in a small home, and you are tired, and they are (always) not tired, you will eventually learn the only way you can keep them from (literally) swinging from the dining room chandelier is to put all the dining room chairs up on the dining room table when not in use. We did this for over a year. Because our kids refused to engage with my Vampire Chair, if all our dining room chairs had been Vampire Chairs, we wouldn’t have had to go to this trouble.
2) We like to have people over and especially when you’re young and broke, seating is limited. We’d bring out everything we had – the random rusty folding chair in the garage, plastic outdoor chairs, pillows on the floor for cushions. Sometimes my Vampire Chair, which had gotten a bad rap, would sit empty. This would annoy me to no end and I’d usually sit in it to gently prove a point. (No garlic, I simply had a whole move down I made so I could sit without drawing any blood.) But every once in a while a friend or family member would visit and despite a still very-present scar on their skin they would, unafraid, make way for the Vampire Chair and settle in. Respect.
3) If no one is sitting in a Vampire Chair, you always have a place to put things – your coat, your bag, the mail etc.
If I’ve learned anything since accidentally building a Vampire Chair 20-plus years ago it’s that if something you love keeps biting, it’s easy to place blame. “The edges are fine – everyone just needs to be more careful. What were you thinking, wearing shorts?” But love doesn’t have to (nor should it mean) perfection. You can love something you created and admit you made (sometimes many) mistakes.
Also, does this mean I think you should always listen to what others tell you should do?
But I do believe we’re all stupid stubborn 20-somethings and stupid stubborn 70-somethings. Real growth happens when we learn when to ignore advice and when to listen. Now in my 40s, I think that’s a lifelong thing.
(For what it’s worth, our Vampire Chair is no longer in the attic and it has stopped biting! Or, the edges have been broken finally. On flesh.)
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.”