Highland Woodworking
Book Review: Good Work - The Chairmaking Life of John Brown
by Christopher Williams
Review by J. Norman Reid

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 legacy.

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 myself.

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 everyone.

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 nreid@fcc.net.

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