Chris Schwarz's Blog

John Brown for the 16th Time

Every time I read John Brown’s book “Welsh Stick Chairs,” I latch onto something different.

When I read the book for the first time in the mid-1990s, I became obsessed with the Welsh stick chair’s form (and I remain so to this day).

After a few more readings, I became obsessed with the history of Windsor chairs and wondered if JB was right that the origin of American and Welsh Windsor chairs was actually a Welsh (or at least a vernacular) form.

And now, 18 years after the book was first published and almost 10 years after John Brown’s death, I am deeply indebted to his way of looking at the process of chairbuilding.

What is that process? Here’s a taste.

At no time have I ever made a drawing. Each chair is a new canvas, and an adventure. I can tell you nothing of degrees or feet and inches, there’s enough of that elsewhere. How could I maintain the joy and excitement if I worked to plans? I’ll leave that to the factory and use my eyeball.

This short passage (and a few other similar ones in the book) gave me permission to go astray of maps. For the first 10 years as a woodworker, I was the altar boy of graph paper, CAD and drawing out everything full-size before I even thought about picking up a tool.

And even today, when I work for commercial clients who bring me sheets of drawings, I respect those as holy writ. I work to the print.

But when I build a single chair for an individual, I’ll be danged if I’m going to do much more than take some measurements of the client, ask them what they like and then feel my way through the project as I go.

This unscientific method requires the trust of the client (or not, I can always sell the chair to someone else). And it involves a lot of staring blankly at my parts and assemblies as I move forward. It requires me to talk to my materials. I recently had a set of spindles that insisted on being 24” tall instead of 27”. I’m glad I listened.

When I work “to the print,” I need to leave my judgment and critical eye in my lunch pail. I simply have to do what the drawing says – whether I made the drawing or an architect did. But when I don’t have a drawing, that forces me to evaluate my parts and assemblies at every stage. If I don’t have a drawing, then it’s easy to change direction.

If I sound like I’m telling you to throw away your scaled drawings, I’m not being clear. I think you need to be able to produce, read and strictly follow drawings. These drawings are the “rules of the road” when you are driving 70 miles an hour and need to get a certain place at a certain time for a certain customer.

But when you stop the truck (or lorry) and stumble down the interstate’s embankment to pick your way slowly to your destination, then your GPS isn’t going to help you. You need to trust your eyeball.

— Christopher Schwarz

If you are interested in Welsh stick chairs, check out Don Weber’s excellent video on the topic.

7 thoughts on “John Brown for the 16th Time

  1. JacobWFlynn

    I truly appreciate this post, especially as an aspiring woodworker. I wanted to start woodworking as a way to let my creative side out. I completely understand the need for exact measurements, they are important in their own place. I think it is good to work outside the box though and let your piece speak to you. Thank you for sharing!

  2. DeerMtn

    Thank you Christopher for this insight, maybe I won’t be so hard on myself now when I chose to drop the plans and go it “alone!” I love form and function, but have been a stickler for following design plans – I’ve always felt they kept me from falling on my face, however, when I’m hopelessly attracted to certain furnishings, they are usually items of flowing curves and softened corners! I think my soul craves the uncharted!

  3. rboe

    When building things I bought the plans for (typically some shop tool) even, the plans seem to be more of a “strongly suggested” thing. When building things for me, which is 99% of the time, I’ll noodle out a sketch, toss some bits together, clamp other bits up to get the right angle I need then go from there.

    However; this has produced some useful but klunky looking things – typically ugly book shelves so I could stand to pay more attention to design and ratios. I do wish I could learn the tricks of the divider. That said, I’m a sucker for the pen and napkin school of design.

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