John Brown ~ Part 3

Here John Brown tells of the very moment his career in chairmaking sparked into life. Along the way, in what would be typical JB style, he throws in a disparaging assessment on woodturning. In its life his column generated more readers’ letters than any other subject!
Below: Back in 1997, John Brown sculpts a bow arm using a rasp. Note that he does so using an engineer’s vice
Good Woodworking Magazine
I have written in my book, Welsh Stick Chairs, how I saw this old chair in the window of an antiques shop in Lampeter. This was an amazing experience, a touch mystical, like a message or a vision. At that time I had no direction, no route for my life. Many things had combined to make my self-esteem very low, there was something in my life which was unfulfifilled.

This chair was printed indelibly on my mind. I had no need to measure it, or even count the number of sticks. I didn’t need to know the details, in fact they might have detracted from the whole picture of the chair which was imprinted in stone in my imagination. Making the chair proved a real challenge. I have never put so much pain into anything. All the skills I could muster were stretched to breaking point.

Frankly I didn’t think I had a chance. I had a small workshop where I lived, and at that time of struggle finding the way was full of ups and downs. I had no books on chairmaking, and when I did get some they were either on Shaker chairs, and ladderbacks, which didn’t interest me, or conventional Wycombe Windsor chairs, which again were not what I wanted to make.

One thing is certain, the chair I had seen had no woodturnings. I have a total antipathy towards woodturning. It seems to me a mindless occupation to stand, holding a chisel up to a piece of revolving wood; the epitome of monotony. Without doubt some of the more artistic turning is clever, but the finished products leave me cold.

When I see competitions for woodturning at shows, it seems to be the woodworking equivalent of the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ – ‘nil points’. There, I’ve said it. Now you will understand how I feel about woodturning. So these Wycombe chair books were of little value to me at this stage. I felt that people must have sat in something pre-Wycombe, and I found in my homeland plenty of beautiful examples that had never seen a lathe.

The year was 1978, I finished my first chair, and it came out to look like the image I had in my mind. It is interesting that I am sitting in it writing this piece. I got some of the dimensions wrong, and I felt a few things could be improved, but overall, I don’t think I’ve made a better chair since. I have changed a lot of the processes I used then, and I have since branched out into other styles, but I always come back to this one. Yet, if I tried to make an exact copy of this first chair I don’t think it would work.

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