1932 - 2008
'Chairman' Brown, boatbuilder,
maker and author of
'Welsh Stick Chairs'
The world of woodworking is full of colourful characters, but John Brown stands out as one of the most unique. Often controversial, he was regarded as something of a Luddite by many fellow woodworkers for his loathing of power tools and modern woodworking machinery. In fact, his monthly column in Good Woodworking probably generated more letters from readers than anyone before or since. As a champion of hand tools, he had little time for timesaving gizmos and gadgets. But he did own a bandsaw, which he regarded as essential to his craft of chairmaking.
My first visit to his workshop in the depths of west Wales was a memorable experience, once we’d actually tracked it down. The bandsaw sat outside in a field, covered by a tarpaulin. I got the impression John only used it when absolutely necessary.
His timber workshop was reminiscent of a Shaker building in its simplicity. One end consisted of the chairmaking shop, the other his basic living accommodation, with steep stairs to a sleeping area above. Over a cup of tea with John in the kitchen, I was amused to spot a tiny TV hidden in a drawer which he’d opened. John was an avid football fan (Newcastle, I think), and this concession was strictly to keep abreast of the beautiful game, you understand.
A week or two earlier, he had been visited by America’s Fine Woodworking magazine. Their editor had flown to Britain primarily to interview John, which no doubt amused him. John was well known outside Britain, teaching at several summer chairmaking workshops in the USA.
Rather quaintly, John kept a candle on the corner of his bench. This would be lit at the beginning of a session, so he could keep tabs on how long a chair took him to make. So you’d end up, perhaps, with a two or three-candle chair. Certainly a novel way of pricing your work! Anyone who bought one of John’s fine Welsh stick chairs knew that it would have been created with integrity – certainly that was part of his philosophy.
The John Brown Column came to an end when he felt he’d run out of things to say that were of interest to the reader. These topics could be intensely practical, such as building a new workshop or how he came to meet the latest woman in his life! He’d discuss a fi lm he’d seen that week or his current reading matter. All were of relevance to John and sharing aspects of his private life with thousands of fellow woodworkers did not seem to worry him. It was probably the closest woodworking has come to having its own soap! He certainly told life as it was for him and was not afraid to bare his soul on occasions.
He was persuaded out of literary semi-retirement with a new practical series called The Anarchist Woodworker. Aimed at the novice, John based the features around a kit of tools he put together from the Axminster catalogue, building projects for the workshop along the way. Around the same time we managed to persuade him to join us (rather reluctantly) on the Good Woodworking stand at the Axminster show. Flanked by woodturner Ian Wilkie and bodger Paul Hayden, John was clearly not at ease in a sea of power tools and machinery. His toolbox remained firmly shut most of the weekend, although he was happy to discuss its contents with anyone he deemed a genuine hand tool convert! That the show had a no smoking policy was an irrelevance for John, who could usually be seen with a roll-up. He had little time for workshop Health and Safety procedures, especially in the magazine!
When I last visited John he was living in a big, rambling house in Llandovery. He’d converted one of the front rooms into a small but delightful workshop. We discussed the idea of me building a chair under his tuition, although circumstances meant this never happened, sadly. Our evening meal was pretty simple, but John insisted on presenting me with a tin of his favourite creamed rice pudding to take home the next day. Typical of his generous spirit, if you caught him at the right moment!
He could be cantankerous, he could be charming. I doubt if John was aware just how much of an influence he had on so many woodworkers around the world. He’ll be remembered with affection by many. Goodbye Chairman Brown, you’ll be greatly missed...
Phil Davey 2008
“My grandmother used to tell me that most of life’s ills were caused by men chasing money. Even fifty years ago the poor old dear could not understand what all the rush was about. She had a theory that the heartbeat hadn’t altered since time began, and that the pace of life should be regulated by this fact. I didn’t take any notice of her at the time, but recently I’ve had cause to recall her words. The speed of life is out of synchronisation with the human body. If we could slow our lives down a little, think of quality before quantity, there would be more time to savour the pleasant things before we are forced to rush on to something else.
Woodworkers are not excused this malady, every bit of literature, every handbill or periodical to do with the craft is packed with advertisements for machines. A young man interested in making things out of wood can be excused for believing that machines are a fundamental necessity. Hand tools have been relegated to the small ads section, or second hand or antique dealers, as though they were relics of the past whose use went out with grandfather. I have been into woodwork shops where there was hardly a decent usable hand tool in the place. A screwdriver, some plastic handled chisels and spanners, all mixed up in the same box.
The price of timber once seemed of little consequence. Now, with rain forest problems and a general scarcity, this has become a very expensive raw material. A return to the use of hand tools, apart from being less wasteful, would add more value to this precious material. I fully appreciate the average woodworker cannot render tree trunks into planks, and handsawing huge bulks is pure sweat, so the use of a power saw is necessary. That is all that is required to lead a full and satisfying woodworking life.
Power machines are unfriendly for they are very noisy and make a lot of unpleasant dust. Craft woodworking should be a creative activity, with the practitioners as artists. Surrounded by ugly, noisy, dusty machines the woodworker does not have the environment in which to do good work.
There are two main health hazards from frequent use of machinery, that is apart from cutting off the fingers. Dust and noise. Neither of these is instantly apparent, as is an amputation, but nevertheless, they are just as dangerous. The most frightening is nasopharyngeal, or nasal cancer, closely associated with wood dust. Although a rare disease, the incidence can be as high as breast cancer. This, of course, applies to full time workers, but the residual chance is not insignificant amongst occasional users. Then, constant exposure to high levels of noise can damage the ears and lead to premature deafness.
Of course you can wear protective clothing and apparatus against these ills. But to mummify yourself in this way can only be to the detriment of careful work. I have seen a colour photograph in a magazine of a man using a bandsaw. He has on a rubber face mask, ear muffs and goggles, perhaps it is just a coincidence that he closely resembles a chimpanzee! Recent British magazines have a large advertisement featuring a bright faced youth, who looks entirely happy in the most ridiculous, all-encompassing headwear I have ever seen. Picture if you will a cabinet maker working on a fine piece of oak furniture, clad in a hard hat! I am sure the sense of control of the operator is impaired by wearing all this safety equipment. Dust accumulates on the goggles, giving poor vision, and it is often a subtle change of sound that tells you a blade is about to break. Some smocks I have seen must restrict the free movement of the arms, resembling a canvas straight jacket. To work thus on machinery takes courage, and the use of such bravery has a stress effect which is cumulative.
The reason for the introduction of machinery in the 19th century was to speed up production in the factories. The words of Adam Smith were burned large into brains of the industrialists. Water, then steam and finally electricity provided ample power, and in that great age of innovation machines were invented to cope with more and more processes. The owners cared not a jot for design or quality, unless it affected sales. Quantity was the main criteria. How can we make more profit? Unskilled people could be trained to work a single operation machine in days. The fact that these operators had no interest in their work, and did the job for what money they could get, interested no one, except people like Ruskin, C R Ashbee and William Morris.
Since the last great war, it seems that these same principles have been adopted by modern woodworkers. Yet the motivation is entirely different. I have never known a craft woodworker who does the job only for money, or at least admits to this. Woodworkers pursue the craft because they love it, they enjoy working with wood, and they get great satisfaction from seeing a well finished piece. To a man, or woman, they try their hardest to do fine work, and to produce an artefact of delight. If this is not true, how come there are so many well supported competitions? They all love to show their work, and are proud of it. I don’t suppose there has ever been a time when so much effort has gone in to producing good work.
Unfortunately a large part of the works on show are made by machines. And at what cost! Many thousands of dollars are spent on all these machines, saws and re-saws, lathes, planers, thicknessers, spindle moulders, mortising machines, dowelling machines and biscuit jointers, dovetail attachments, belt sanders and portable machines of all kinds. New ones every week. They come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. The daddy of them all is the router. This screaming monster, used for nearly everything, turns at so many revolutions that the poor wood doesn’t stand a chance.
Now, apart from the initial expense of this armoury, there are attachments to buy, numerous cutters for different profiles, saw blades to be bought, and few of these things can be satisfactorily sharpened by the user, they have to be sent away. The operator becomes a mechanic producing precision engineered works. This has little to do with woodworking.
What about the extra time it takes to do a piece by hand? Well, it can take a little longer, that’s true. You need to be well organised the workshop laid out properly, and above all you must have a first class bench. The “kitchen table” might do in a machine shop, but for hand work the bench is the very hub of success. It must be heavy, at the right height, and with good, accurate vices, positioned to cope with the kind of work you are doing. The hand too maker needs the best bench he can make – or afford! You must know your tools, what they are made of, fine adjustments and sharpening angles. Everything must be clean and sharp. Tools talk to the craftsman, and will let you know when they are right. What the machine does by noisy, brute force, you will be able to do with quiet cunning.
I doubt there’s much saving in machine work over hand work for the small one-off maker. If you’re an amateur it doesn’t matter. The quality will be so much better. The satisfaction of the maker won’t compare, and this will show itself in the finished piece. A professional will have to charge a little more. People will pay it. With the saving in capital cost, bank interest, and the time consuming business of setting up machines, you could be better off.
It is difficult to know whether machine mania was led by the woodworking press, or that the papers were merely following a craftsman led trend. I am inclined to the former opinion. It looks as though the machinery manufacturers have the technical press in a vice-like grip, leaving the humble hobbyist to believe that unless he buys the machines he will be a second class woodworking citizen. I was always led to understand that machines were there to do the tedious work, and that the craftsman’s skills should actually do the making. Gradually the idea of what is tedious has been updated, for it is now possible to make complicated pieces entirely with machinery. The only handwork left to be done is to lift the wood to the machine. I am sure the manufacturers will cope with this in time!
I ask, where is the pride of the craftsman? Does he, or she, think that money is a short cut to skill? I have seen wonderful work done by amateurs, using hand tools. True it does take time to learn the skills required, and much practice. It’s a pity the apprenticeship system has gone, when young people were exposed for five years to good practices, working alongside skilled men. Pride in work, pride in a fine set of tools, I know this is now unfashionable, but there is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s achievements. It is between a man and his God whether that pride is false or not. Some woodwork is quite tricky and needs lots of practice. The wonder and joy as each hurdle is leaped has to be experienced to be believed. The material you work with is not uniform it is moody, it can be deceptive, sometimes hiding faults until the very last moment of finishing, and you have to start all over again. Handwork breeds patience, and granny's words are recalled, about speed and the heartbeat.
The kind of accuracy you can achieve cannot be measured in “thous”. It’s not necessary. An eighth or a sixteenth of and inch. Closer than that is a sixteenth “full” or “slack”, and for the perfectionist we are down to a “gnat’s whisker”. I have heard of micrometers being used on tenons. Frankly, I find this ridiculous.
I would not go so far as to say that there are no skills necessary to working machines. It is important to be able to read and interpret complicated instructions. What you end up with is engineering skills – precision engineering in wood.
I have spoken to many woodworkers on this subject, and I am heartened by their defensive attitude. “I have a few machines” means they have a lot, and “but I seldom use them” means they use them all the time.
As a substitute for apprenticeship these days we have training colleges. I believe in the United States it is possible to obtain a degree at universities (“I mastered in woodwork”). These young people, having been taught design and machine skills, feel they should come out of college and jump straight into the first division. One or two of the cheekier ones do just this. They ply their unsubtle wares, made with ersatz woodworking skills, often making wood look like plastic. Fortunately most of them are seven day wonders and soon disappear. I hold no regard for this type of work. The main skill required is in hiding the machine marks. I suspect these young people never feel that wonderful, solid confidence of the apprentice who has just finished his five years, and with his beautiful handmade tool-box, full of fine tools, is about to set out in the world to do good work.
Norman Potter, in his recent book, Models and Constructs, tells the story of a visit to his workshop of a Gimson trained cabinet maker called Rex. He told how Gimson would run his finger along the under edges of a newly finished piece, saying “kindly Rex, keep your edges kindly”. (I can find no specification called “kindly edges” in the standard textbooks!) I am reminded of that wonderful quotation in the front of Dr Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”. “We are remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and are proud of our yardage.” Those are the words of Aldo Leopold.
Handmade work has soul, it has verve, a sparkle which a machine cannot reproduce. Eric Gill would never let an apprentice stonemason incorporate a mistake into the design of a carving. It must stay for all to see, or be scrapped. There is a lack of understanding to this kind of approach which inhibits the modern woodworker. The apparent “perfection” of some machined operations has trapped the craftsman into feeling that this is the way it should be. There is no excuse for lazy people or shoddy work, hand or machine, but it is nice to think that this table, or this chair, was made by a human being.
You often see people inspecting furniture minutely to see if all the joints are tight, or to see if there is any slackness in the dovetails, or perhaps they are looking for graving pieces to cover a mistake. This annoys me. Do these people do the same to a painting in an art gallery? A firm I know makes one-off pieces, things like Welsh dressers, and furniture in the Georgian style. The joinery is impeccable. This company has the very latest in machines. Yet it is possible to detect their work from a good distance, it is so ugly. They undoubtedly sell things, I believe they export occasional items. They will certainly never fall to pieces, which in a way is rather a pity. As one stands back to appreciate a painting, so it should be with a piece of furniture. Is it beautiful, well proportioned? Will it do the job it was designed to do? Is it strong enough for its purpose and will it last? Do I like it, can I live with it? When the customer has asked these questions only then does the price come up. If it is handmade and has live it will probably be sold.
Corporately the public taste is quite good. Individually we can criticise people for spending their money on badly designed goods, but there seems to be a balance that prevails. Successful cabinet makers and joiners have only become so because people like what they make. They rarely advertise so the old saying about building a better mousetrap must be true. The entrepreneurs that run substantial and elaborate galleries know what they can sell for they have usually built up a following who buy what they are told. This group must rank amongst the taste makers. However, by far the greater part of craftsman made woodwork is sold at the workshop door, then by word of mouth recommendations. This takes a long time to build up for there is a credibility gap. The main advantage of selling direct is that the large mark-ups for the showrooms are avoided. There is also a personal relationship with the customer.
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.” These again are the words of Schumacher, an economist, a breed not normally associated with such sentiments. In a spiritual way I think there is a parallel with the organic farming movement. When they first started organic growers were ridiculed by the establishment as “mud and muck” freaks. Now, demand for their product far outstrips supply, and with framing problems as they are, I think they will have the last laugh. No one has grasped this particular nettle. The money man, and his pet poodle, the advertising man, have woodworkers in a vicelike grip. They have created the need for all this junk, and now they fulfil the need. If that’s what woodworkers want, good luck to them, but I hope they won’t have the gall to talk about skill. It reminds me of painting by numbers!
The Shaker style has had a great revival. I am certain this has nothing to do with celibacy! It is the simple beauty of Shaker designs, the lack of fussy ornament. The shape of the furniture and it’s proportions are what attract. There is probably a residual idea that the Shakers were honest craftsmen, and the goods were well made. This is true, but unfortunately the get rich merchants have detected the mood and the cash registers hum in Shaker shops. Many of the products they sell are factory made at astronomical prices, for certain that’s true in London. I suspect there is a spiritual element firing this revival, owning a Shaker piece might bring them nearer to God. As the last Shaker Eldress said before she died in 1990, “I don’t want the Shaker religion to be remembered as a chair”. They were right though, it is a gift to be simple.
I often feel that the craftsman of today is recreating in his little heaven, the very hell that the industrialists of the last century were so soundly dubbed for.
Woodworkers should look anew at their hand tools. Take the meanest, rusty plane, clean it, grind the blade and sharpen it – like a razor – then set it up, cap iron, mouth opening, there are plenty of books to tell you how if you don’t know. Now, set very fine, run it over a scrap of oak. Hear the sound it makes (you can tell a sharp plane by the sound), and feel the perfect finish. Use a sharp chisel, what a thrill.
Craftsmen in wood who agree with the sentiments expressed here should make a self-denying ordinance, that after a certain date they will give up their machines. Then they should tell everyone what they are doing, broadcast the message, print it on their headed notepaper, make a statement. Perhaps there’s a need for an organisation like the Soil Association, with a “Good Work” symbol.
If you make your furniture by hand, news will soon spread, and people will travel to see your work, and they will buy it! I have worked with machines in other people’s employ. I have owned some machines myself. Years ago I examined what I was doing and went “organic”. I haven’t regretted it once. It was a renewal of my love affair with wood.
The saying that if it’s any good they don’t make it any more, becomes increasingly true. We must do our best to turn things round. We must educate ourselves, and our customers to realise what quality really means, quality in making quality in design, and finally quality of life. Our children are educated to believe that success is making money, quickly if possible. The politics of recent times have encouraged us to turn greed into a religion.
What I have said here is about as fashionable as advising people to sell their car, and take a bus, or even walk. Real progress can only be spiritual progress. The calm and unhurried atmosphere in my workshop makes enough to pay the bills for a simple life, no more. God bless you, and remember, Good Work.”
John Brown, 1997