A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice

In the course of researching for The Life and Work of John Brown, I’ve had the privilege to examine a wide variety of Welsh stick chairs including examples by John Brown and Chris Williams, as well as a variety of historic chairs held in the collection of the St Fagans National Museum of History (including the chair used for the cover image of John’s Welsh Stick Chair book). The chairs I’ve looked at in person have then been supplemented by those photographed in Richard Bebb’s comprehensive survey of Welsh vernacular furniture. I’ve looked at a few Welsh stick chairs now.

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The Apprentice sitting on the chair my grandfather made for me some 32 years ago.

Vernacular forms are rarely homogenous – regional tastes vary, together with the timber available to the makers, not to mention the skill levels of the makers themselves. There may even be technological changes which impact construction methods over time. And all of this goes double for a chair making tradition that spans hundreds of years. The historic examples Chris Williams and I have examined have demonstrated a range of techniques and styles, emphasising that the Welsh stick chair tradition was vibrant and constantly changing. Some of those early chairs have lodged themselves at the back of my mind for some time – an itch demanding to be scratched. Scratching that itch requires further research, both in terms of closer examination of some of the chairs (as well as other contemporaneous examples), and building them at my workbench. This is a long term project, and I’ll writing about the research and building the chairs as I dig deeper into it.

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A 90 second sketch of the Apprentice’s stick chair. Hopefully the comb won’t be as wonky on the finished piece!

One of the chairs that caught my eye was a dainty child-sized stick chair from the late eighteenth century, held in the collection at St Fagans. This five-stick chair had an unusual trapezoid shaped seat and three tapered legs, topped by a very gently curved comb. I’ve spent months trying to shake this chair out of my head, and finally had to accept that the only way to do so would be to built it. A plan began to form. When I was three or four, my grandfather built me a desk and chair set. This set, which remains to this day at my parents’ house, was a constant feature of my childhood and I spent countless hours sitting at the desk drawing and playing. With the Apprentice’s birthday on the horizon later this summer, I got to talking to Dr Moss about the stick chair rattling around my head, and about my memories of the desk and chair I’d had as a child. We agreed that an excellent birthday present for the Apprentice would be her own stick chair to go in the reading corner of our lounge, next to my Chesterfield arm chair. The Apprentice adores books and reading, so this seemed like a natural gift. Hopefully in years to come it will mean as much to her as the chair and desk my grandfather built means to me.

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This large oak board is left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and will provide the seat, sicks and comb of the Apprentice’s stick chair

With the very kind help of one of the furniture conservators at St Fagans, I now have a detailed set of dimensions for this chair, in addition to the notes and photographs I took during my last field trip. This weekend I marked the conclusion of another trip round the sun, and the focus for the bank holiday is on family celebrations and a much needed get-away with Dr Moss. But no birthday would be complete without a brief moment of workshop time, and so last night I broke down the stock for the Apprentice’s stick chair. Rummaging through my scraps pile located a large piece of oak left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench which will provide the seat, comb and sticks. Further digging found some oak thick enough for the three legs. A few minutes on the saw benches with my Disston D8 and Skelton Panel Saw was all it took to harvest the components, which I will leave to acclimatise for a week or so while I finish up the campaign stools. Once the campaign stools are wrapped up I will build the Apprentice her stick chair in time for her birthday. This should be a fun build!

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This part of the process never gets old – my 1900 era Disston D8 and the staked saw benches.

A Beginner’s Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs

The following is based on an article originally published in issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinet Making

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Blonde stick chair by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

I remember the very first time I saw a picture of a Welsh Stick Chair, how it appeared to be both familiar and completely alien. At first glance this chair shared common DNA with the Windsor chairs I was more familiar with, but there was also an underlying tension that felt very different to the Windsor chair form. More angular than Windsor chairs, the aggressive rake and splay of the legs, together with the distinctive comb perched atop four long sticks, gave the Welsh Stick Chair a dynamic silhouette suggesting a feral energy – this was a chair that wanted to spring out of the corner. I was hooked.

Several years on, and I find myself co-authoring a book for Lost Art Press about Welsh Stick Chair maker John Brown. My co-author, Chris Williams, is a Carmarthenshire-based Welsh Stick Chair maker and furniture restorer who worked with John Brown for a decade. The deep research required for a book has led us to many historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs, as well as modern examples made by John Brown and Chris. That research has revealed a vibrant and enduring form that has evolved and been adapted over many generations, and which remains relevant today.

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Single piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

While a comprehensive survey of a chair form that has been in use for centuries is outside the scope of a magazine article, what is possible is to introduce a fascinating chair that continues to inspire chair makers and furniture collectors alike, and to explain the key characteristics that set Welsh Stick chairs apart from other forms.

Background

Boiled down to the basics, Welsh Stick Chairs are an example of staked furniture – a method of constructing chairs that has been in use since the medieval period. Staked furniture relies on a thick seat into which conical or cylindrical mortises are drilled, and matching tenons are back wedged. The result is a strong mechanical joint that requires minimal specialist tooling to prepare. In his book Welsh Stick Chairs, John Brown suggested that the lineage of Welsh Stick Chairs extended as far back as the 12th century. A 12th-century manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda (a 10th century Welsh King) includes an illustration of a judge, or possibly Hywel Dda himself, sitting on a chair very similar in form to surviving examples of 18th-century Stick Chairs. This is a long-lived form.

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Stick chair by John Brown

Culturally, Welsh Stick Chairs are significant in that they were not typically built by chair makers, and instead would have been made by craftsmen from related woodcrafts such as “village carpenters, wheelwrights, or coffin makers” (John Brown). Welsh Stick Chairs then are furniture of necessity – a vernacular form made by (and for) common folk when they had need of something to sit on. That they were not made by professional chair makers also had a profound impact on the construction methods, and there is a notable lack of steam bending or turning in the Welsh Stick tradition compared to other chair making traditions.

Key Characteristics of a Welsh Stick Chair

As can be expected of vernacular furniture, there is a great deal of variety among surviving historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs. That being said, there are also commonalities which make Welsh Stick Chairs instantly recognisable.

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Sticks on a historic chair, showing tool marks and facets

Historic examples can broadly be split between arm chairs and comb back chairs. Arm chairs are very much as the name would suggest – a number of sticks hold the arm above the seat, so that it is supports the middle of the sitter’s back, and the sticks terminate at the arm. In contrast, comb back chairs feature long sticks at the back which extend through the arm and terminate in a decorative comb level with the occupant’s head.

It all Flows from the Arm

The element that really separates the Welsh Stick Chair from its Windsor cousins is the arm. The shape of a Windsor chair is typically determined by the dimensions and shape of the seat, with the legs and back flowing from the seat. In contrast, the shape of early Welsh Stick Chairs was defined by the curvature of the arm. This is in large part due to the practice of using timber with a natural bend, such as a curved branch or crook, rather than steam bending. The curve of the arm would be refined by carving excess material away from a heavy crook while retaining the natural strength of the grain (which would flow the full length of the arm). With the shape of the arm defined, the position of the sticks would then be laid out and the arm joined to the seat. The result is a distinctive organic curve to the arm, and an arm which on early examples is often visually heavier than steam bent arms. A later development was the use of arms constructed from two or three pieces of timber using scarf joints, with the third piece being placed on top of the two major pieces to reinforce the short grain at the apex of the curve. Combs would also have typically been made from a naturally curved piece of timber, or a curved part would have been cut to shape rather than steam bent.

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A three piece arm by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

Saddle Up?

Early Welsh Stick Chairs had a seat that is wider than it is deep, and the shapes vary from simple rectangular examples to curved seats which more closely follow the curve of the arm. Many examples show little or no saddling.

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Rectangular seat and a one-piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

Welsh Stick Chairs tend to have a much more aggressive rake and splay to their legs than Windsor chairs, and as a consequence do not always feature stretchers between the legs. Both three and four legged chairs are common, and the leg tenons are usually set further away from the perimeter of the seat than is often the case for Windsor chairs. The legs are typically tapered octagons or tapered cylinders, although tapered hexagons can also be found, and the sticks may also be octagonal or cylindrical in cross section. Because Welsh Stick chairs were traditionally not made by chair makers, the use of turned parts was uncommon and cylindrical legs or sticks would likely have been shaved by hand instead of being turned on the lathe, leaving distinctive facets and tooling marks. The sticks supporting the arm and comb may be set straight through the arm, or can be curved through the arm to give a “lobster pot” shape.

Native Species

In terms of timber choices, oak, elm and ash were (and continue to be) typically used as these native species are plentiful in Wales and have attributes which lend themselves well to chair making.  Although elm is increasingly difficult to source, it is particularly prized for seats thanks to the interlocked grain which makes it resistant to splitting when driving the leg tenons home. Ash and oak were commonly used for legs and spindles, as they can be rived easily to yield strong, straight grained components. However, there were no strict rules regarding timber selection and surviving chairs also show the use of yew, and fruit woods.

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Stick chair in yew, by John Brown

Evolution of the Welsh Stick Chair

While the Welsh Stick Chair is certainly less common than Windsor chair traditions, the Welsh Stick Chair is enjoying something of a renaissance. The late John Brown is undoubtedly the most well-known Welsh Stick Chair builder, particularly thanks to his outspoken articles for Good Woodworking magazine in the 1990’s, but he is not alone. Chris Williams continues to make Welsh Stick Chairs from his Carmarthenshire workshop, while the form has a number of supporters in America, including Chris Schwarz and Don Weber.

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Pair of stick chairs by Chris Schwarz

Modern examples of the Welsh Stick Chair have adapted the form for contemporary tastes – often comb back chairs will feature fewer long sticks for a sleeker appearance, and milk painted or oiled finishes are common. The use of crook backs also appears to be less commonly used than scarf jointed or steam bent backs. But despite these adaptations, the form remains distinctive and easily recognisable as the Welsh Stick Chair.

The Welsh Stick Chair remains a relevant and exciting chair form that while not being as widely known as the Windsor, has a cult following among those who have been exposed to its charms, and continues to fascinate chair makers.

 

The author would like to thank the staff of St Fagan’s National Museum of History for allowing access to their collection, and for permission to reproduce photographs of their chairs.

Further Reading and Viewing

Welsh Stick Chairs – John Brown

Welsh Furniture 1250-1950 – Richard Bebb

Oak Furniture, The British Tradition – Victor Chinnery

Visit: St Fagan’s National Museum of History

Build: Build a Welsh Stick Chair with Don Weber

 

 

Dispatches from Carmarthenshire

I’m now back home from rural Wales and reflecting on what was a very productive week at Chris Williams’ workshop. The five days yielded a beautiful chair made by Chris (which other than a lick of paint, is now complete), nearly 700 photographs, and endless pages of detailed notes on the build process. Everything we need to now write the “make a stick chair” section of The Life & Work of John Brown. This feels like a huge milestone. A big thanks must, of course, go to Chris Williams. Over the course of the week Chris not only built a beautiful chair, but he maintained good humour when asked to hold awkward positions for repeated photographs, and answered all of my questions patiently and with clarity. His generosity with his knowledge and experience is what makes this book possible

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And that’s a wrap!

I’m still sifting through the photos (and it will take a couple of days to properly survey everything) but in the meantime, here is a taster of what you can expect from the book.

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Saddling the seat with an adze

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Stick shaping with a draw knife

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Scraping the arm

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Cutting the swan neck on the doubler

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Drilling the seat

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Paring the sticks flush to the arm

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Completed arm

Lights! Camera! Action!

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A final test of the lighting rig before I load the car.

While I’ve not posted an update on the progress of the John Brown book for a while, behind the scenes we’ve been working hard on interviewing people who knew (or were influenced) by Chairman Brown, investigating historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs (see my article for Furniture & Cabinetmaking this month for a beginner’s guide to the chair form), and working out how exactly we are going to structure the book.

Today I am heading down to Carmarthenshire to spend a week with Chris Williams. We will spend the next week hunkered down in Chris’ workshop – him building a Welsh Stick Chair while I photograph and document the process for the book. This will form the basis of the “Build a Welsh Stick Chair” section of the book, a section we started last year with our trip to the timber yard. Over the course of the next week, we hope to be able to capture how John Brown built his chairs, but also how the chair design has continued to evolve in the years Chris has been buiding them since John’s death, and why Chris has changed some of the techniques he uses to build them. Researching these chairs over the past year has highlighted how dynamic a form they are – they constantly evolve maker to make, and often chair to chair. We hope over the course of the next week to be able to lift the lid on some of that process.

At the end of the week we should then be in a position to write the “Build a Welsh Stick Chair” chapters, and a substantial element of the book will be complete (at least in draft form). And so I’m looking forward to setting out westwards this evening. Not just because this represents a major milestone in the development of the book, but also because of the opportunity to learn first hand from Chris – to watch how he crafts his beautiful chairs and to ask questions about the process, the evolution of his approach, and his relationship with John Brown. The next five days or so promise to be a real education, one which we plan to share with you through the book.

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The chairmaking chapters will explain how to turn a set of timber like this, into a Welsh Stick Chair, and also how to source the timber in the first place.

Welsh Stick Chairs – A Beginner’s Guide

If you’ve been waiting for an update on the John Brown book, then you might want to pick up issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking (which went on sale yesterday). Issue 268 carries my “Beginners Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs“, featuring photos of historic examples, and chairs by John Brown, Chris Williams, and Chris Schwarz. As always, the rest of the magazine contains a bumper crop of projects, reviews, and tricks of the trade.

It’s the End of the Year as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)

And another year draws to a close – as I write this there are a mere 75 minutes left of 2017. I’m really not sure where the year has gone, every year passes faster than the last, and even more so since the Apprentice arrived. Where did the year go? At my workbench (mainly working on the Policeman’s Boot Bench), and in Iowa, and at Cressing Temple. Those, I think, are the enduring mental images of 2017 – the virtual community turned into real connections with living breathing people. Good friends met, stories exchanged, and projects completed.

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End of Handworks dinner, Amana. Good people, good conversation, good memories.

Of course, the most important element of any end-of year reflection has nothing to do with woodwork. The traditonal end of year mix cd, and list of the top albums, has been a part of my December reflections since I was a teenager. These are the albums that have soundtracked hours logged at the workbench, and songs which have accompanied me as I build. This year has continued the dominance Bloodshot Records hold over my listening habits (seriously, everything they release is golden, and very much deserving of your listening time). So, in time honoured tradition, here is my top five favourite albums of 2017 (in order):

  1. Sidelong – Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
  2. Boy in a Well – The Yawpers
  3. In Spades – Afghan Whigs
  4. Prisoner – Ryan Adams
  5. Folksinger Vol.2 – Willie Watson

The Year That Was

2017 proved to be another rewarding year with plenty of opportunities to challenge myself and to progress as a woodworker. Although my output this year has only been 1 and a half projects (the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and the staked worktable) there has been plenty to learn. One of my goals this year has been to try and slow down my work pace in order to focus on execution rather than speed of a build. As I’m sure is familiar to anyone who has limited opportunities to be at their bench, over the past couple of years I have had to fight the temptation to rush work so as to complete a particular operation in one workshop session. This year I decided to try and live by the maxim slow down, its faster and ignore the ticking clock. It has paid off, and focusing on the execution of each technique has been very beneficial.

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Photo by Gareth Partington Photography

2017 was also the year when I delivered my first paying furniture commission. At times, working on the Policeman’s Boot Bench felt like wading through bottomless self doubt (can I make this to the standard the client expects? Will he be satisfied with the end product? What happens if he hates it?). All emotions which keep us honest and striving towards our best work. And you know something? While the boot bench is not perfect, the client’s response when seeing the completed piece made those moments of agony all worthwhile. That first commission was a big step, and I am looking forward to making more pieces to order.

The blog readership continued to increase steadily, and I am constantly grateful to everyone who takes the time to read these posts, and to those who leave comments. For a first on the blog, I was honoured to welcome Nancy Hiller as a guest writer for a thought provoking piece on utility dovetailsFurniture & Cabinetmaking also published nine of my articles, including my first detailed project article.

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This ridiculous photo sums up the defining vibe of 2017 – community.

But the truly special thing about 2017 was the opportunity to connect with the wider woodworking community in person, first at Handworks and then at the final European Woodworking Show. It was wonderful to see so many old friends again, and to meet new friends for the first time. Community has been a really important part of woodwork for me over the past three years, and both events really demonstrated how vibrant and inclusive our community is. I am very much looking forward to travelling and spending more time with other woodworkers in 2018 and beyond.

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The Year That Will Be

So what does 2018 have in store? I should know by now not to predict too much what will cross my workbench in the year ahead because unexpected opportunities and projects always arise. But I just can’t seem to help myself.

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The main focus at my bench is going to be completing the suite of office furniture I started this autumn. The staked worktable is getting close o being completed, and I have the matching chair and bookcase (all out of the Anarchist’s Design Book) to build so that my study/music room is fully furnished and I can decant the last two boxes of research materials onto shelves. I also have a project for Popular Woodworking which I am working on, and finally a different twist on the boot bench design for Dr Moss. There will also be more articles in Furniture & Cabinetmaking. So plenty to keep me occupied.

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Welsh Stick Chair in yew, by John Brown

In terms of developments away from the workbench, I am lining up some classes on interesting woodworking topics which I hope to be able to announce in 2018 for a 2019 registration – stay tuned for more details. There is also much to do on the Life and Work of John Brown. Chris Williams and I will be locking ourselves away in February to work on the chairmaking section of the book, an element of work that I am truly looking forward to.

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The maker’s mark after a coat of shellac and dab of black wax

And so, with only 14 minutes left of 2017, thank you dear reader, for following along this year. Wishing everyone a bright start to 2018, I hope you’ll continue to take the journey with me.

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Ending 2017 on a cliff hanger – how did cutting the monster dovetails in the staked work table top go? You’ll have to tune in next year to find out…

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.