Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 158, October 2018
 
Welsh Stick Chairs
by John Brown
Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Welsh Stick Chairs author, John Brown, who died in 2008, was a hand tool woodworker who lived and worked near Cardigan in Wales. Born in Wales, he relocated to England at an early age. Employed in building wooden boats, he returned to Wales after he was made redundant in his job. The boat builder wanted to convert to plastic materials rather than wood. Brown refused to go along; he saw himself as a worker in wood, and wood alone. He returned to Wales with no plan in mind, and no way to make a living. Then he saw a chair in a shop window that excited him and changed his life. He couldn't afford to buy it, but he could make one and he did. Thus began a career in during which he built over 400 chairs, many of which have found their way into the best homes.

Just what is a Welsh stick chair? Elsewhere, a similar chair might be called a Windsor, or an English regional chair. But Welsh stick chairs have a distinctly different form that is traditional to the region. And Brown, a fiercely proud Welshman, refused to apply these names to chairs that were known in Wales as stick chairs.

Brown introduces his book with a brief history of the conquest of Wales by the Romans and, later, the English. The story helps explain his pride in his Celtic heritage and in the chairs that derive from it. This is followed by a discussion of the characteristics of Welsh stick chairs, their variations and, to the extent possible, their provenance. The latter is difficult, if not impossible, to establish, since most chairs were made as matters of convenience by makers whose occupations were something other than chairmaker: carpenters, coopers, coffin makers, or individual homesteaders who built things for themselves out of necessity. This helps explain the variations, sometimes subtle, often not, in the styles and quality of chairs originating in different parts of Wales and from different makers.

In his own practice, Brown emulated his forebears. Though he sometimes used patterns for the seats, he did not work from plans. Instead, he worked each piece from the materials at hand, his inspiration and his inclinations at the spur of the moment. He never worked to spec, believing this would render him a factory worker. As a result, each chair he built was individual and unique.

Brown's book, in his words, is not a guide to how to make a Welsh stick chair. That he leaves to the woodworker who chooses to follow his path. Rather, he shows how he makes his chairs with an illustrated example of a single chair.

Thus, the bulk of the book is comprised of clear and well-annotated black and white photos of Brown at work carrying out all the steps to build a Welsh stick chair. While the book does not provide a plan for a specific chair, it does give woodworkers plenty of information to follow in constructing their own chairs.

Back-to-the-land woodworkers take note: Brown's shop lacked electricity. All work, therefore, was done with hand tools, none of them fancy or expensive. In addition, his work schedule was governed by seasonal availability of natural light in his shop. Brown's chairs incorporate steam bent arms and a concluding chapter documents his method for steam bending.

This short paperbound book is a delight to read. Brown is not shy about expressing himself and at times is pointed in his opinions about tools, methods and his homeland of Wales. This charming book is, in my memory, a unique contribution to woodworking literature. Kudos to Lost Art Press for rescuing it from obscurity and making it available to us all.

Hand tool woodworkers will find both inspiration and useful tips here. Chairmakers will find fresh ideas. Readers intrigued by regional heritage or the possible origin of Windsor chairs in America will find this book a treat. An easy read, it's both fun and informative. I liked it a lot.

Find out more and purchase Welsh Stick Chairs by John Brown


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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