Between 1995 and 2001, chairmaker John Brown and Drew Langsner carried on extensive correspondence about JB’s classes at Country Workshops. In addition to discussing flights and fees, the two men wrote a lot about how they viewed the craft and the world today.
During our research for “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” Drew graciously sent copies of the letters to help author Chris Williams. I recently reread the letters during a long flight and copied down some of JB’s more eloquent pronouncements about his work. I have left the punctuation and spelling as JB wrote. Drew agreed to let me publish these excerpts here.
Thanks so much to Drew for preserving these letters and letting us share them with you.
— Christopher Schwarz
3 January, 1995
I am a Welshman, and I am influenced in the chairs I make or some of them, by old Welsh chairs. Irish chairs are as different as is possible, so are Scottish chairs. Brittany is Celtic. The people of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales speak a language which has little relation to the Irish or Scots Gaelic. Celtic (with a hard C) is difficult to define, but it is a fashionable ‘buzz’ word, as was ‘heritage’ a year or two back. I strongly recommend you do not use it, and I would forbid the word Celtic to be applied to my work, it is Welsh. Welsh.
…One thing is certain, the chair I had seen had no woodturnings. I have a total and complete 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 product leaves me cold.
When I see competitions for woodturnings at shows, it seems to be the woodworking equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest, – ‘nil points’. There, I’ve said it, now you know how I feel about woodturning.
…I am not really a craftsman, the standard of my woodwork is very poor, I feel an artist, I work like an artist, each new project starts with a clean canvas. I shall be very disappointed if at the end of the week’s work any two of the chairs made are the same, and, furthermore, the chair that I make with them will probably not be the best one. This is surely a chair workshop rather than a school. Correct me if I am wrong.
…I shall recommend, but there will be no rules. I understand there will no complete beginners. If we have 8 people I would expect 8 different chairs. I would start each day with a short talk on what we must achieve before sundown, energy and commitment from everyone will be more important than skill.
2 May, 1995
I’m getting nervous. 13 students! Will you have enough bench space? vices? etc, etc? I guess you have done all this before and seem very laid back about it. I have some horrors though, for it is important the way my chairs are built. If you look through my book, articles etc you can see the equipment I use. For instance I don’t know how I could operate without an engineer’s vice on top of a bench, three quarters of the process is based on this. A low flat, level board for boring the seat and levelling we can rig up. Since I have been involved with the Country Workshops project I have come to realise myself that the process is as important as the materials. For instance you mention tapered holes, even numbers of degrees – I wouldn’t know what a degree looked like. My methods work. I have no purist views, just that in 1979 when I built the first chair I had no books on how to do it, no example to look at, just a picture in my mind’s eye. I worked with the tools I then possessed and built my ‘think’. It all came together, miraculously, you have sat in the chair, I am sitting in it now – it worked. A few adjustments here and there, a few more suitable tools, and I’m still doing it the same way. Remember, I do use glue (yellow polyurethane, BISON or BALCOTAN, both made in Holland, but there must be American equivalents, PVA is not suitable)
17 November, 1995
Notice, also, that I ALWAYS give credit. Time & again I have said I am only an average woodworker. It is true. Most woodworkers are more expert than I am. But I do it differently, and this, in retrospect was the main problem with my course. I was in awe of you and didn’t do some things as I should. Next time I must do it my way. Welsh Stick Chairs was an anomaly, I was just in charge of cobbling together 12 chairs, no matter what. They could have been Mongolian Chairs. The Spirit of Wales was missing. …I abhor these people who keep their archive under their armpit, I tell anybody what they want to know. But this seems rather different. We live in an age of instant experts… And when I write I always have a respect for other workers. I cannot enhance what little skills I have by criticizing others. But I am truthful, and I want to be kind.
4 June, 1996
The solution is to start a new magazine, which is what I am doing in my spare time. At the moment I am making a dummy to see what it looks like. It will be of smaller format with a square binding, black and white. More a journal that a magazine. 6 issues a year with an annual subscription in the UK of £20. I am going to try and get American readers. It will be called ‘QUERCUS’. Will keep you informed as to progress. I would hope to have first issue JAN/FEB, 1997. The magazine will have a high content on hand tools and techniques, chairs, history and the ‘zen’ of woodworking. I shall look for people who have something new to say, or want to get something off their chest. It’s bound to be a success because the competition is so poor.
1 July, 1996
Without any doubt I broke new ground in woodworking writing – quite unintentionally. I covered all sorts of subjects, from smoking bacon to the breakdown of my marriage. Nick (Gibbs) told me that 50% of their correspondence mentioned my stuff. I’m not trying to blow myself up, but realistically about 70% of woodworking writing is boring, repetitious stuff.
…Most of the woodworking press has a certain teethgritting fundamentalism which attracts readers with similar problems. I keep wanting to shout ‘woodwork is fun’, let’s have a smile. I hardly know any woodworker who reads any of the magazines. The true market is hardly scratched over here. Then we have this growing inbalance in our population of old people. Add to this that many are now retired at 55 – there is a vast market.
2 April, 1997
I think it is a very retrograde step to be on the internet, there can be no justification for this. I had a man from Paris phone me to tell me what I was doing this summer, even telling me of the seminar. I was very angry. Never mind, I shall continue swimming against the stream, I was born to do it. By joining this latest fashion you will attract the kind of people you don’t need – like the man from Paris.
30 April, 1997
We are gradually handing all our skills over to technology. I imagine the devil appearing and offering me a computer, free, in exchange for my soul, and my ability to write, and my typewriter etc. The router, the saxophone, and now the computer, these are inventions of the devil. I am happy in my stupidity.
I am keen to make better chairs this time. If I don’t make a chair, and if we don’t have twelve students it will be O.K. I will send seat pattern. This is to be a REAL Welsh chair, unmistakable. I will bring a completed one with me in parts as before. This time I will finish it as I do for home consumption. And I will leave it with you, gratis, on one condition. That is that you allow me to put an axe through the seat of the one I left last time. It was a disaster.
18 June, 1997
I want everybody, I mean everybody, to dispose of all their machines and work by hand. However incompetent I am, to me my woodwork is my life. I keep trying to get better.
10 March, 1998
I do not operate in a ‘teaching’ atmosphere. The finest craftsman of the past were never, never ‘taught.’ An apprentice had to learn, most of his life was spent sweeping the floor, fetching and carrying, and doing menial tasks. They watched, they learned, and in the course had many a ‘thick ear’ for their pains. Now it’s all formalised, regularised, and is death to design and imagination. The first instinct of modern woodworkers when they want to make something is to buy a set of plans. This should be made illegal, with death as the penalty. Modern artists are all imagination and no skill, modern craftsman all skill (machine) and no imagination. I am not a strict traditionalist, we do have modern products that are good, but there should be a better ability to recognise what is good, and what is rubbish.
5 January, 1999
This rustic woodworking worries me a little. It’s O.K. to leave drawknifed surfaces, flats on the sticks and legs etc, but to go over sawn parts to make them LOOK rustic is akin to plastic beams, complete with worm holes, in some pubs! If a chair is ‘rustic‘, it should be so because it was made ‘rustic‘. My highly polished chairs are the real modern rustic. I make no effort to cover anything I have done. Most of the proportions are eyeballed, and the sticks and legs are not regular. We live in an age when subtlety is no longer acceptable. Unless an object strikes you between the eyes, the modern punter doesn‘t see it.
22 September, 1999
I fully appreciate that you work on a shoestring, but it annoys me that people take it for granted that craftsmen can‘t be properly paid. Of course, I am not unmindful of the honour of being asked, but I can‘t eat glory.
28 November, 1999
I am getting older, and being a loner can‘t think of having a helper, they wouldn‘t do it right. I refuse to use machines, whereas nearly everyone else does. I have been hungry many times since I started making Welsh chairs. I invented the name Welsh Stick Chairs, and this is what I make. They are not really rustic. I do not bother to smooth them too much. But they are polished. No one is more mystified than I that people will pay so much, but I won‘t knock it. I love my chairs, I hate selling them, some of me, some pain is in them. But they are not rustic. Rustic means poorly made, primitive.
12 June, 2000
My chairs are art, sculpture. Each chair is a new canvas, and they are simple of construction, but sophisticated of design. With my total lack of formal education it has taken a large part of my life to interpret in words the feelings I have. Right, my chairs are INSPIRED by old Welsh chairs. But the slight dished tapers, the shapes and forms, copied by many in the last twenty years, have come from my imagination. Many people have influenced me over the years since I have been making chairs. I looked to many methods, some conventional, some the idiosyncratic workings of others trying to do their own thing, but I used those processes which I felt comfortable with. I am still learning, becoming increasing less interested in processes than the finished article. I have never ceased to try and improve the honesty of my work. Rustic is insult to all the hours of study, all the attempts to grasp the mysteries, all the pain I have had in working my way towards the perfect chair, an object that really doesn‘t exist. It is a mystery, and in trying to solve all the ‘whys‘, I have become increasingly less interested in the ‘hows‘. The hows are the practical side, easy to solve. They are an exercise in engineering and economics. Enough, even if you don’t agree I think you will understand what I am trying to say.
2 February, 2001
Three or four years ago I used to write at least a page a day in my diary, now I don‘t even write it every day, and when I do it‘s just a few lines. I bore myself! Just at the moment I live in a tiny little single story house, central heating and plastic double glazed windows. No ventilation. Too small for a bath, there is a shower. It is warm (hot) and convenient, but the A40 main road passes about 10 feet from the door. I took the place temp(orarily) whilst I got medical stuff sorted and that was 15 months ago. The only prospect that excites me is thought of moving in amongst trees again.
I hope Louise’s garden is as beautiful and fruitful as ever. I remember it so well, I have some good photographs of it. Anyway it is my hope that you are all well. Thank you for phoning. I’ll write more often in future. When I am depressed I try not to contact my friends but to save them for better days.
Love to you all,