I feel right at home reading Chris Williams’ new book Good Work, about John Brown. I’m sure I first heard of John Brown from Drew Langsner; he taught at Drew’s school a couple of times. His book Welsh Stick Chairs is quite an inspiration. Today I was reading one JB’s columns reprinted in the new book, about his disdain for measured drawings and plans. His thrust is to learn to trust your eye(s); and have that as a guide while you make your chair.
I have similar feelings about drawings for the joined furniture I make. Once I had a job for the US government, making a few pieces of furniture for an historic house in Connecticut. The major stumbling block for me was the feds wanted measured drawings and specs. I asked if I could do the drawings after making the furniture. They didn’t understand. I got through it, but it wasn’t fun.
My joined furniture falls into two general categories; one is direct copies of existing pieces. Then I measure the original, and produce parts that will get me stock of the proper size to build that piece. The other is to make a piece based on period practices, using construction, decoration and proportions based on what I’ve studied in various collections. I have notebooks filled with detailed notes to draw from. Then I get to work making my version of a box, stool, chest, etc.
Here’s the next carved box underway. The determining factor for the size of this box was my suitcase! I took the white oak board for the box front to North House and carved the front as a demonstration. Then brought it back home and made the box sides accordingly. So this is not a reproduction of an existing box, but made in all the same manner as a period box.
My next joined stool is underway as well. The customer didn’t have any particular stool in mind, but we talked about stools from Connecticut and from Northern Massachusetts…so I climbed up on the ladder to look over the story sticks hanging in the shop. Here’s just a few of them; one problem is many are two-sided. That’s now one of those rainy-day projects, to copy any “backs” and make them all one-sided, so they’re easier to find.
I picked one from Essex County, Massachusetts – the first thing I do after prepping the stock is layout and cut the mortises.
But I wanted to change a couple of things. The previous stools I just did were a customer request for stools just a tad higher than usual. I liked that look, and wanted to make this stool just 1 1/2″ or so taller. So you see here I’ve bumped things up (to our right) to increase the foot for this stool. I’ll tinker with the foot shape when I get to the lathe. I also beefed up the stretcher from 1 3/4″ high to 2″ high. Slight changes, but this is the sort of thing John Brown was writing about.. and some of his thoughts on this subject “keep it simple”…”use the eyes” – good advice. I drive some of my students crazy when they ask for specifics and my reply is “just a little bit more” or “about like that” with my fingers showing the amount. Rulers – bah!
Once I struck the dimensions on the first stool leg/stile, I put the story stick away and marked the rest from that existing stile. It became the standard for this particular joined stool.
In the book, I also saw a variation on a favorite quote – “Experience is the best teacher but the fees can be very high.” I learned it from Daniel O’Hagan, “Experience keeps a dear school but fools will learn from no other.” That version is often attributed to Ben Franklin. Citations are hard to come by. Apparently, if you go by the internet, everybody said everything.
Get the new John Brown book, well, the Chris Williams book from Lost Art Press
They brought John Brown’s book back into print as well.