Good Work - The Chairmaking Life of John Brown is a book that, when I first laid my hands on it, I was not so sure I would want to read. Or more to the point, I was pretty sure it was a book I could let pass me by. After all, I had just read another book about an English woodworking magazine columnist and more of the same did not seem especially appealing. But I picked up this book somewhat reluctantly, perhaps because it's a beautiful book, and then something unexpected happened. I got hooked, on the book, yes, but especially on John Brown the man.
So just who was John Brown, or JB as he was often called? And why should we care?
At the most fundamental level, JB was a somewhat obscure Welsh chairmaker, known
especially for his hand tool-built chairs of a traditional and distinctive Welsh style. But to
relegate his life and work to semi-invisibility would be an error and a disservice to his
legacy. For he almost certainly transformed a traditional but unnamed Welsh chair form
into a level of artistic development that propelled it into worldwide recognition.
You see, when he first spied one of these prototypical country chairs in a shop window,
he immediately seized on the form as something he had to re-create after his own
fashion, from memory, as it were, without plans or drawings. Years later, after
numerous chairs had left his shop, he wrote a book about the chairs and their
construction. Lacking any other suitable name, he called the chairs, as well as the
book, Welsh Stick Chairs. The name, well, stuck.
JB was a hand tool woodworker for the most part, using a restricted palette of tools and
only a bandsaw for breaking down large boards to manageable size. Unlike many
chairmakers who work with green wood, JB preferred dried lumber. He worked mainly
alone, though he took on the author, Christopher Williams, as an apprentice and
associate in later years. That association grew from mentorship to deep friendship,
launching Williams's own career as a Welsh stick chairmaker and inspiring the creation
of this book, a retrospective on John Brown's chairmaking and woodworking columnist
Brown was an educated man, not by schooling, perhaps, but as the result of an
enduring passion for exploration and self-enhancement. He was well read in literature
and poetry, knowledgeable about the classical music he played as he worked, a gifted
writer and observer, and had been an RAF jet pilot in his earlier days. But it's his role as
maker of the now iconic chairs that interests us most.
In addition to his life as a maker of Welsh stick chairs, he was a long-time columnist for
the British magazine, Good Woodworking, and in this way he became widely known in
Europe and North America. His much-anticipated and highly readable columns ranged
over such topics as sensitivity in the use of hand tools, successfully cutting glass, the
poverty of machine-made goods, and the meaning of "traditional" in woodworking.
Luckily for us, Williams has included a generous sampling of these delightful and
informative monthly essays in this volume. They take us a long way toward
understanding his emphasis on the highest standards in woodworking.
Good Work covers a lot of ground and approaches JB's chairmaking life from multiple
angles, a probable necessity for understanding such a many-sided and fully developed
man. Williams's own perspective is given by his description of his evolving relationship
with Brown, from his deeply reserved first approach to his idol to the sometimes stormy
relationship that eventually evolved. Another and deeper appreciation is provided by
Brown's own words in the selected columns that comprise the bulk of the book.
Additional insights are offered in short essays by Anne Sears, Brown's second wife,
David Sears, his nephew, and Brown's son, Matty Sears.
Williams includes a chapter on Brown's tool list, in which he details and shows the
individual hand tools Brown used to fashion his chairs. Seeing them evidences the fact
that the quality of one's work is hardly the necessary product of many or expensive tools
as much as from the care by which they're put to work.
A major element of the book is a significant chapter on how Williams builds his own
Welsh stick chairs after the style of John Brown. Well-illustrated and thoroughly
documented, this chapter will help the aspiring Welsh stick chairmaker to craft her or his
own exemplars. It should be noted that Williams, like Brown before him, offers neither
measurements nor drawings, believing that each creation should be both unique and
the reflection of the maker's own inspiration within the bounds of the overall style, which
allows for considerable variation, as it did for JB, who never made two chairs alike.
I will never have the chance to meet this man, whose example bears much that's worthy
of emulation. Would I have liked to have met him? He was certainly an interesting man,
an intriguing figure, and a model for the value of ever striving to produce "good work.”
Still, he reputedly had a caustic and self-centered side, and knowing him might have
been somewhat like being drawn to a flame by its bright light, only to come away burned. For that reason, perhaps, it may be better to know him and absorb his example
from a distance.
I'll never know, of course. But I do know this: his example serves as a model for creative
expression and the highest standards of workmanship, for avoiding slavish imitation,
and for the value of being your own self without apology. John Brown, though I never
met you, by coming to know you through this volume you have helped me better know
In the end, I found this book, which I reluctantly devoured, to be thoroughly intriguing.
It's perfect for armchair excursions and for getting lost in conversations with a first-class
mind. In addition, there's plenty here for woodworkers eager to try out this distinctive
and attractive chair style. In short, as was true for me, there's plenty in Good Work for
Find out more and purchase Good Work - The Chairmaking Life of John Brown
at Highland Woodworking
J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of
Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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