How I “Met” John Brown

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I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.

My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and opened the cover to find a dedication to John inside. I was just starting to think about building furniture in addition to my usual workshop diet of lutherie, and my interest was piqued, but I still knew precious little about John or his chairs.

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Welsh Stick Chair in yew, by John Brown

All of that has changed in the past twelve months since I joined the team for the Life & Work of John Brown. The chairs still fascinate me, and I cannot wait to start building some with my co-author Chris Williams. And I feel that I am starting to know John a little. Over the past year we have combed through all of John’s articles for Good Woodworking, his book (yes copies are still out there if you search for them, yes you will get gouged for a tatty second hand copy), his article for Fine Woodworking, and his correspondence. All of this is a great starting point for getting to grips with John’s passion for hand tool work, his vision of the Anarchist Woodworker, and the importance he placed in the Welsh-ness of his chairs. But all of that only presents half a picture – it tells you how John perceived himself and his work, a perspective which is incredibly important. But unless you have exceptional self awareness, your writing and correspondence will never tell the reader how other people perceive you.

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Welsh Stick Chair with carved back panel

And so I’ve spent the weekend on a research trip to deepest Pembrokeshire, where John spent many of his chair making years. This trip has been revelationary, giving my understanding of John context in terms of both space and relationships – we saw the house he lived in when he first started building Welsh Stick Chairs, and the countryside that he wrote so passionately about in Good Woodworking. We also spent time with some of John’s family and friends, talking about John’s path as a woodworker and chairmaker, and his motivation and philosphy in craft, trying to understand the man behind the Anarchist Woodworker. One of the joys of carrying out interviews is not just answering the big questions you came armed with, but the incidental details, or stories that you never thought to ask. Yesterday I sat in a Welsh kitchen, enthralled while John’s first wife unveilled the very first thing John had made from wood – a simple lidded cotton box held together with small tacks, and which is still in use today. It was a powerful reminder that even great makers do not start out building masterpieces – they have to start with simple projects just like the rest of us.

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The first item John built as a woodworker – this cotton box is 61 years old. The path John took from this cotton box to his final chairs is a fascinating.

There is a responsibility when writing about someone other than yourself. To write with integrity, you must approach the subject both sympathetically and honestly, critically but without judging. Above all, it must be accurate. In many ways this is not dissimilar to researching and writing history (one of my very first loves), only in a much more modern setting. Tracking down answers to our questions, and uncovering what should be a rich and vibrant narrative, is thrilling. We won’t be writing a full biography of John Brown – that would take several volumes, and much of it is not relevant to John Brown the chairmaker. But as someone whose craft was more than just what he did with his hands, he is in many ways indivisible from his work. And so we are going to tell the story of Chairman Brown, and to hopefully prompt a well deserved re-evaluation of his impact on the craft.

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The domed stick ends are one of my favourite details on this chair.

Yesterday would have been John Brown’s 85th birthday – a fact that I did not learn until after we arranged the field trip several months ago. But it felt very apt that on what would have been his birthday, I finally saw several of John’s chairs in the flesh for the first time. Running my hands over the smoothed arms, feeling the rough-sawn surface of the underneath of the seat, and yes sitting in, John’s chairs transformed for me a lot of his writing from abstract concept to real craft. These chairs have power, very much like the words of the man who made them. This is a power, and an ethos, which we hope to convey in the Life & Work of John Brown.

I cannot wait to bring you all along for the journey.

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Of course, I had to sit in the chairs.

Welsh Stick Chairs: a timber yard guide

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.

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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.

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This knot looked like bad news to me, but to Chris Williams it is an opportunity. The curved grain is ideal stock for the comb for a Welsh Stick Chair.

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.

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A Blue Peter moment – here’s an arm section Chris prepared earlier, showing the curved grain necessary for three-piece carved arms.

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.

Swimming into Focus – The John Brown Book

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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) is 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 road map 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 over 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 is 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.

Which 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 timberyard, 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 timberyard 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 of building chairs with pieced and carved armbows rather than steam bent bows. While English and American Windsor chair making 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 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.

Moving forwards in reverse: 2016 in review

Somehow it is January yet again. I’m not sure where 2016 went – the past 12 months have disappeared in a blur, and it seems like only yesterday that I was writing my 2015 round up. Every year goes by quicker than the last, and fatherhood has only accelerated that feeling. I’m a lot less sleep deprived than I was 12 months ago (the Apprentice has now been sleeping through the night since August) which definitely makes reflecting on the past year a whole lot easier.

First off, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. No year is complete without a mix cd of the best new songs, and a list of top 5 albums, so here are my top picks (in order):

  1. Real – Lydia Loveless
  2. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
  3. Case/Lang/Viers – Neko Case, KD Lang, Laura Viers
  4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
  5. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Badseeds

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The finished pair of saw benches

A year at the workbench

Although I didn’t set out last January to have any kind of theme to my woodworking, looking back it feels very much like 2016 was a year of doubling down on fundamental techniques, and embedding a solid handcraft practice to my work. So I built two Packing Boxes and a School Box from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker (only the chest of drawers to go now!) and a pair of staked saw benches from The Anarchist’s Design Book, as well as  Moxon vise. Little did I know how important staked chairmaking was going to become when I settled on that particular saw bench design.

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There wasn’t much in the way of lutherie last year – the parlour guitar was put to one side so that I could start the Mysterycaster commission, and also so that I could work on the furniture projects.I will return to the parlour guitar, and the Mystercaster is a priority for 2017. But lack of lutherie aside, I’m really pleased with the selection of projects I worked on over the past 12 months – I am definitely feeling the benefit of spending much of the past year focusing on those all important fundamental skills (although there is always more to learn, and more practice to have). An epic build like an acoustic guitar can be very rewarding, but there is something very satisfying about working through projects that take a shorter period of time. Maintaining a balance of short projects and longer-term builds is something I’m going to try and do going forwards.

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I didn’t manage to get to any classes in 2016, but I did take a trip to Forge de Saint Juery, which was a wonderful experience and one that I highly recommend. After nearly two years of discussion and design between myself, Mark Harrell, and Susan Chilcott, the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw was finally unveiled, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing one of the first production models at my workbench.

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The Bad Axe luthier’s saw – being involved in the design process for this has been a wonderful experience

In terms of writing, Over the Wireless more than doubled readership from 2015, and I was grateful to feature interviews on the blog with some really important members of the woodwork community, including Joshua Klein, James McConnell, Brian Clites, and Kerryn Carter. I was also honoured to write the inaugural post for the “Perfect in 1000 words” for the Daily Skep (thanks Jim!). Furniture & Cabinet Making published nine of my articles last year, including the Dancing About Architecture series, which are two of my favourite pieces of writing to date. The June edition of Popular Woodworking  also carried my feature on Karl Holtey, which was a real thrill. But the big writing development of 2016 still has to be the Life and Work of John Brown. This is a hugely important project and one that I am entirely humbled to be part of.

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So 2016 was quite eventful, although I’m quite sure that by many people’s standards that would rather quiet (and in no way do I want this round-up to appear self congratulatory).

…and the next 12 months

And now for 2017 (which  to be perfectly honest still sounds like the future to me). What does the next 12 months have in store? Well the main focus of my attention for much of the next two years will be on the Life and Work of John Brown – there is a great deal of research to do, many interviews to be undertaken, not to mention chairs to be built. But it is going to be great fun, and I’ll be posting as much as I can on Over the Wireless throughout the process. I’ve also got a number of articles slated for Furniture & Cabinet Making, and which I’ll be announcing in due course.

But what about the next 12 months at the workbench? Well, I’m going to be brave and nail my colours to the mast right now. The projects which I’ve got lined up for 2017 are as follows:

  1. The Police Man’s Boot Bench – a furniture commission I actually started today (new year, new build. It seemed appropriate);
  2. Staked Work Table from the Anarchist’s Design Book; and
  3. The Mysterycaster.

So now, if I don’t manage to complete those builds this year, you dear reader, have a full licence to tell me to get my act together.

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Finally, after a year of no courses or shows, I’m looking forward to travelling a little more and connecting with the wider woodwork community. So I’ll be at Handworks in Iowa this May, and then at the European Woodwork Show at Cressing Temple in September. Over the past two years woodwork has been defined for me by the community, and I can’t wait to see many good friends and readers at both events.

So, Happy New Year. And thank you to everyone who has read a blog post or magazine article, or commented on a photo on Instagram. This community is so important to what I do, and the past 12 months would not have been half as rewarding without you good people.

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Hopefully 2017 will involve more father-daughter trips to the timber yard

 

The Life & Work of John Brown

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I doubt I have any readers who don’t already read Chris’ blog over at Lost Art Press. But just in case anyone somehow missed his post yesterday, I’m pleased to announce that I have signed up to co-author a book for Lost Art Press about the influential and radical chair maker John Brown. We agreed and signed contracts for the book a couple of months ago, and have been waiting for the last pieces to fall into place before announcing the book. Co-authoring the book will be Chris Williams, who built chairs alongside John for many years. Given his personal hisory with John Brown, working wih Chris Williams is about as close to the source of Welsh Stick Chairs as it is possible to get. And those chairs are simply gorgeous.

John Brown’s work is incredible, and it is an honour to be involved in a project which will (if we do our jobs properly) give John the legacy he deserves.  There’s plenty of hard graft ahead on this project, and I can’t wait to start work with Chris Williams and the team at Lost Art Press.