John Brown: 1932-2008
When we started Woodworking Magazine, one of the things we definitely wanted to include as part of the fabric of the publication were quotations about the craft that made us laugh or think.
And when we launched our first issue in March 2004, there was no doubt or discussion about what quote would be emblazoned at the top of the first page:
Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”
– John Brown, welsh stick chairmaker
Brown, who died June 1, is in my estimation the most influential writer on handwork of this generation. His columns in Britain’s Good Woodworking magazine inspired thousands of woodworkers to attempt or even completely embrace handwork.
His columns were short epistles on topics philosophical, mundane or both. He might offer a recipe for bacon in one column, offer plans for a workbench in another and in a third comment on the sad state of woodworking where we have traded skill for speed.
Brown was at times crotchety in tone, other times apologetic (to turners in particular); but he was always the spokesman for anyone who wanted to take hammer in hand and try to build something , either fantastic or mundane , using hand tools.
Brown himself was a boatbuilder who was made obsolete by fiberglass watercraft. After spotting a primitive Welsh chair in a shop in Lampeter, as Brown put it: “It was like a vision. I had never seen anything that had made so instant an impression on me.”
And so he built a Welsh stick chair like the one from his vision. He began selling them. He began writing about them. “Welsh Stick Chairs” was published in 1990. It’s a short volume, but is one of my prize possessions. In it, Brown gives a concise history of the Celts and their furniture. Then a short history of his love for the craft. The remainder of the book is photos of Brown in action, building what he calls a “cardigan chair.”
I first encountered his column in Good Woodworking in the mid-1990s. Brown had begun writing for the magazine during issue 13, I believe, which was the November 1993 issue. It was called “The John Brown Column,” and discussed mostly chairmaking, but with all hand tools. His run of columns there ended 32 issues later with a condemnation of power machinery in June 1996.
After a year of respite, Brown returned to the pages of Good Woodworking in issue 58 and continued for a couple more years. The last column I have of his is from December 1998. He continued as a chairmaker for awhile but during the last decade, Brown turned his attention to studying art.
“The John Brown Column” , sometimes titled “The Anarchist Woodworker” , was so inspiring to me, it’s difficult to quantify. I think it’s best said that if I had to have only one hero in woodworking, it would be Chairman Brown.
Not only did his writing encourage my hand-work skills, he also inspired me as a chairmaker to the point where I even ventured into the Canadian wilderness to take a class in Welsh chairmaking from David Fleming, a Cobden, Ontario, chairmaker who is Welsh.
All this detail above might make me sounds a bit like a stalker, but I never met John Brown. It was one of my primary goals for the coming years, which I can now bitterly cross off my to-do list. My plan was to ask if we could reprint his columns in book form so they could receive the wide audience they deserve. That project might be in limbo now, but perhaps his heirs will be willing.
If you can get a copy of “Welsh Stick Chairs,” you certainly will get the flavor of his writing and wit. And if I have any luck, perhaps you’ll also get to read his columns and then understand the loss the world of handwork has suffered this week.