Last Wednesday Chris Williams and I took a trip to Whitney Sawmills in search of air dried ash, oak, and elm, for a Welsh Stick Chair building session we’ll be undertaking for the John Brown book. Although this trip was ostensibly for the purpose of buying timber to build our Welsh Stick Chairs, really it was a research trip to find examples of what timber to select, and what not to select – a means to demonstrate and explore Chris’ experience and knowledge gained from building chairs for many years with John Brown.
I always enjoy trips to the timber yard, and Witney was a timber yard I’ve not been to before. So notwithstanding a flat tyre incurred on the drive through rural Herefordshire, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out. What made it most valuable was watching Chris at work and to start to understand what he was looking for in each stick of timber that made it into the “to buy” pile. Occasionally what he wanted was very surprising – a knotted piece of elm I would have passed over without a second glance was said to be perfect. The reason? Those knots encouraged the surrounding grain to curve perfectly for use as the comb of a stick chair. Straight grain and curved grain, they both have their roles to play in this chair form, and knowing where each is appropriate is key to minimising waste and building a sturdy chair that will last the years. These are the lessons which we hope to pass on from Chris Williams and John Brown to the readers of our book. Watching Chris work his way through piles of timber, checking each piece carefully, weighing it against 30 years experience, and making his selections, was a real education.
In the end we bought some timber, but not enough for a full chair. What we did come away with though was a much clearer idea of how we want to present the chairmaking section of The Life & Work of John Brown, and in particular how we want to guide the reader through the process of selecting timber to separate what is truly important from what isn’t. The good news is that green timber is not necessary – good air dried stock is all you need, and we will explain how to select dried wood, as well as how to store and dry green timber if that is all that is available.
The timber species we were looking for are traditional choices for Welsh Stick Chair making, and reflect what John used (especially the elm and oak). But committing future generations of Welsh Stick Chair makers to potentially difficult to find timber species (again, the elm) flies in the face of the ethos John expressed in his work, and also in the broader tradition of Welsh Stick Chairs. And so what we hope to do in what I’ve come to think of the “timber yard guide” part of the book is talk about the characteristics needed for Welsh Stick Chair timber, and give the novice chairmaker the skills to select appropriate timber from locally available stock. Chris tells me that in his later years John talked about using alternatives to the traditional oak and elm, and we feel that exploding some of the myths and rules around chair timber slection is an important part of democratising making Welsh Stick Chairs. I can’t help but feel that John (the original “Anarchist Woodworker“) would have approved.