By Christopher Williams
You can download an excerpt of this book here.
“Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams is the first biography of one of the most influential chairmakers and writers of the 20th century: Welshman John Brown.
The book’s title of “Good Work” was an expression John Brown used to describe a noble act or thing. He once mused he wanted to create a “Good Work” seal that could be applied to truly beautiful and handmade goods – like the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval.
“Good Work” is the kind of woodworking book we live for at Lost Art Press. It’s not about offering you plans, jigs or techniques per se. Its aim instead is to challenge the way you look at woodworking through the lens of one of its most important 20th century figures. And though this appears to be a book on chairmaking, it’s much more. Anyone who is interested in handwork, vernacular furniture, workshop philosophy or iconoclastic characters will enjoy “Good Work.”
Author Chris Williams spent about a decade with John Brown in Wales, building Welsh chairs and pushing this vernacular form further and further. This book recounts their work together, from the first day that Chris nervously called John Brown until the day his mentor died in 2008.
Alongside that fascinating story of loyalty, hard work and eventually grief, “Good Work” offers essays from the people directly involved in John Brown’s life as a chairmaker. Nick Gibbs, his editor from Good Woodworking magazine; Anne Sears, John Brown’s second wife; David Sears, his nephew; and Matty Sears, one of his sons who is now a toolmaker, all offer their views of John Brown and his work.
“Good Work” also allows John Brown (sometimes called JB) to speak for himself. We purchased the rights to reprint 19 of the man’s best columns from Good Woodworking, the ones that inspired devotion, provoked anger or caused people to change their lives.
Chris then proceeds to show you how he and JB built chairs during the later years together. These methods are different than what John Brown showed in his book “Welsh Stick Chairs.” And Chris goes into detail that hasn’t been published before. Chris covers the particular tools that JB preferred and gives you more than enough information to build a beautiful Welsh stick chair. But, just to be clear, there are no dimensioned plans included in this book.
To honor his mentor’s wishes, Chris instead shows you how to build a chair the way John Brown showed people to build a chair. Yes, there are dimensions. Techniques are clearly and cleverly explained. But there are some things left for you to work out – things that will make your chair your own – not just a copy.
The 208-page full-color book is also filled with historical photographs (many never published before) and beautiful linocut illustrations by Molly Brown, one of JB’s daughters. The book is printed on heavy coated paper with a matte finish to make it easy to read. The book’s pages are sewn, glued and taped – then covered in heavy boards and cotton cloth – to create a book that will last for generations. And the whole package is wrapped in a durable tear-resistant laminated dust jacket, which features linocut illustrations by Molly Brown. The entire book is produced and printed in the United States.
About the Author
Chris Williams grew up in a typical, conservative Welsh family (his words). His mother was a homemaker; his father, a tax inspector. He has one sister.
Although his parents weren’t craftspeople, Chris’s lineage includes shoemakers, cabinetmakers and joiners. Thomas Jenkins, born 1813 and a distant great-grandfather to Chris, is famous, locally. Jenkins kept a daily diary, which has been published as a book: “Selections from the Diary of Thomas Jenkins (1826-1870),” edited by D.C. Jenkins (Dragon Books, Bala, North Wales, 1986; republished by Historia Wales, 2012).
Jenkins was curious and loved to learn – in 1843 he founded the Llandeilo Mechanics’ Mutual Instructing Institution, which met at his house. He built boats, a bridge, violins (which he learned how to play) and more than 250 coffins. He collected fossils, explored caves and conducted science experiments. A lover of astronomy, Chris says Jenkins found work installing sundials in the yards of the big country homes that dotted the landscape. According to the editor’s introduction in the book, Jenkins also erected public lighting, brought gas and water to his town, was involved in mining, beer brewing and census enumerating, fathered 12 children and was named a constable of the Lee Court. He walked everywhere, and later in life built “a homomotive carriage with three wheels.”
“He was an amazing man,” Chris says.
Chris enjoyed a childhood spent playing in the countryside with friends, climbing trees and building dens.
“I didn’t like school, particularly,” Chris says. “I wasn’t an academic, for sure. I enjoyed woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing.”
Chris spent as much time as he could in the school’s woodshop. It was the mid-1980s, and he says the woodshop had an old-fashioned feel to it, starkly different from the clinical and sterile white cabinets and Formica worktops of the school workshops he sees today.
“Our woodshop was a proper workshop, with bloody wooden benches and tools and timber,” he says. “It was what I think a proper workshop should look like.”
Read more about Chris in our full profile.