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 fi eld, 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 fl own 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 Chairman Brown 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
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