John Brown’s Tool Kit

John Brown’s handsaw, now in my toolkit.

The first time I met Chris(topher) Williams was in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG). I can’t remember why I was dispatched to pick him up on his introductory visit to the States (maybe there was an author reading going on?), but I was, and I had no idea what he looked like. Arrivals at CVG come up a long escalator, so I hung out at the top, peering down for someone who looked Welsh. I don’t, however, have any preconceived notion of what a Welshman looks like – maybe a strong bow arm? But I spotted a tall man with curly hair in a polo shirt, pulling a large bag (he’d packed a chair in pieces, along with his tools), who looked slightly bewildered and awfully tired of traveling. “Chris?,” I asked, as he stepped off the escalator. Yep. (Must have been the adze arm, not the bow arm.)

On the drive back to the shop, he was fairly quiet. I chalk that up to exhaustion; that was the last quiet moment in his delightful company. Most of the time when I’m with him, he’s making me laugh…or I’m making fun of his penchant for claiming “the Welsh invented that” (the Welsh apparently invented everything).

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And after three two-week (or so) long visits, I’ve now spent a fair amount of time in his company either shopping, drinking, driving to a “must-see” site or listening in on his Welsh stick chair classes. Chris is a great deal taller than the average man in Wales, so every time he’s here, I take him shopping at Carhartt’s so he can stock up on his favorite pants with 34″ inseams (apparently he can’t get his beloved long-length Carhartt’s overseas). And Chris loves his red wine; he decimated the supply of Revolution Red at Crafts & Vines, a delightful family owned wine bar that’s around the corner from our shop (I think we’ve ended up there every day it was open during his visits). The owners – and Philip – miss you, Chris!

And I miss Chris, too. He was scheduled to be here in early September to teach a Welsh stick chair class before we all drove out to Amana, Iowa, together for Handworks. I was looking forward to hearing “the Welsh invented basketball” as we rolled through Indiana. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to hang out together again soon.

— Fitz

The following is excerpted from “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” by Christopher Williams.

John Brown had a vast tool collection – a whole chapter could be written about the tools that he amassed over the years, but I will concentrate on his core chairmaking tools. The majority of these tools were of a good vintage but, interestingly, several of his favourites were new. If a particular tool has an intriguing story, I’ll tell you about it.

No. 8 Jointer Plane
For jointing boards for chair seats, his favourite was a Stanley No. 8, which had been “stuffed” like an infill plane. Not dissimilar to a Norris or Mathieson plane in appearance to the layman. In truth, he had two of these, one stuffed in mahogany, the other in yew. The one in yew was his favourite as it had been “stuffed” by his son Henry. John loved its huge mass for shooting “the perfect edge” whilst thinking “flat.”

Jack Plane
This was used for roughing out chair parts and, in particular, for making chair sticks and legs into octagons.

Two Block Planes
JB had a real affection for his Stanley No. 6-1/2 low-angle block plane – this was a vintage one fitted with a Hock blade. He’d use this plane for shaping sticks and in particular for creating the 5/8″ and 1/2″ tenons on the stick ends. I believe whilst teaching at Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops in North Carolina in 1995, the students pooled their money together and bought him a small bronze Lie-Nielsen block plane as a thank you. A few years later he was gifted a Lie-Nielsen No. 60-1/2 low-angle block plane by a friend. During my own time with JB it was these two planes that were never away on his bench. He particularly liked the weight of them in his hand, which he felt was always an advantage in a one-handed tool. Although the plane is typically one for use on end grain, that didn’t bother him, he used it without too much thought. Other makers now wax lyrical about having a spare blade honed at various degrees to eliminate tear-out on long grain. The minutiae of this subject would have no doubt infuriated JB. The tools’ function was to make beautiful chairs not to beautify the grain of the wood. His dumbscrape (more on that later) would sort any tear-out later.

John Brown shaping a tenon with a 60-1/2 block plane. Photo courtesy of Drew Langsner.

Stanley No. 53 Spokeshave
The No. 53 spokeshave was a definite favourite. JB couldn’t understand why modern tool manufacturers didn’t copy its simple design. He felt that the adjustable throat was a huge asset. You can close its throat up tight to take the slightest of shavings. Its raised handles were always a huge positive to him as the No. 53 was used after the scorp (aka inshave) as a surrogate travisher. I’ve talked elsewhere in the book about its use in seat stock preparation. John Brown had several of these and his favourite had been fettled for a Hock blade to fit. Travishers are now de rigueur and although he had a homemade one, I personally can’t recall him particularly using them as a matter of course. The No. 53 was the important tool here.

His brace and bit collection was one of the first things that I noticed when I met him at his workshop. There were several hanging on a rack, each with a different auger bit. The reasons were tenfold, he would often glue up chair seats from two or three boards. The jointed edges required a dowel to strengthen the joint (in his opinion) this needed a 1/2″ dowel, so a brace was allocated for this, which included a Stanley depth stop permanently fitted to the 1/2″ Jennings bit.

Next was an oversized sweep Millers Falls (I believe) brace fitted with a 1″ auger for drilling the leg mortises. He liked the extra size of the sweep whilst drilling the leg mortises

Then a brace fitted with a 5/8″ bit for drilling both the mortises for the sticks that entered the seat and for the mortises in the doubler on the arm, this also included the mortises for the short sticks to enter the arm, and finally the mortises in the legs for the stretchers.

Next, a brace with another 1/2″ Jennings bit for drilling the mortises into the comb and medial stretcher.

Finally, an electrician’s brace with a small sweep. This was important because it allowed him to drill out the mortises for the short stick that is closest to the long sticks in the arm without the brace hitting the back sticks. You must bear in mind that the arm was at this point already fitted over the rear long sticks. The electrician’s brace was fitted with a large 5/8″ auger, which had been extended to reach down through the arm mortise, thus being able to drill the mortises for the short sticks.

This being JB, something had to be different, the bit being 5/8″ was in his words “a smidgen smaller,” which allowed it to penetrate the already-drilled mortises in the arm for the short sticks without enlarging the already-drilled mortises in the arm. There was method in his eccentricities…. I personally did the same for years, but as you can see in the chapter on building the chair, I now use an extended bit in a battery-powered drill. The augers he used were both Irwin and Jennings pattern.

John Brown drilling a leg mortise with a brace and an auger bit. Photo courtesy of Drew Langsner.

Saws were a subject close to JB’s heart. He realised early on his journey that a good saw was essential to master both in use and maintenance. He owned boxes of them, too many to discuss here, so I’ll tell you just about the relevant ones.

Gent’s Saw
A 12″ gent’s saw was used for general workshop use. The tasks included crosscutting sticks to length, cutting the V-groove on the swan neck detail on an arm bow, but probably more importantly it was used to cut the kerfs in the legs’ tenons. The saw bottomed out on the brass back at approximately 1-3/4″, which is an ideal measurement for the length of the kerf.

Bowsaw or Turning Saw
These he made himself from oak. Its blade was cut to length from a huge roll of band saw blade that was coiled up. Its use was to cut out arm bow stock. I witnessed this personally, which was a joy to watch. Later on he used the band saw for this grunt work so the bowsaw was used mostly to cut coves on the swan neck detail of his arm bows.

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Crosscut and Rip Saws
I’ll discuss JB’s favourite crosscut saw here for a few reasons of interest; he wrote an extensive article in Good Woodworking magazine about this saw. It was 26″ long with six teeth per inch. I watched him once crosscut an elm board. Firstly he placed his pocket watch on the board and started sawing. He had previously worked out that if he had correctly set and sharpened the saw and worked to 66 strokes per minute, it took 140 downward strokes to cut through the board. On several occasions I had to study the end grain of a board to witness the marvel of correct sawing.

Etched on its blade is Harley, Old Maymarket, Liverpool. Its fruitwood handle has a medallion which reads J. Tyzack and Son, Sheffield. It was a conundrum to John why the medallion and saw plate had different names. When JB retired he asked if I’d like to choose a saw from his box as a gift – I did and I’m now the custodian of this fine saw for another generation, my name along side J.H. Buchanan, M. Leigh and John Brown on the handle.

The saw intrigued me for some time, so I put a photo of it onto social media and asked for information. Shane Skelton of Skelton Saws contacted me to say it was made by John Harley of Liverpool between 1882 and 1902. John Harley would apparently later become a mechanic. Another person contacted me to ask if I realised what another mark on the saw demarked? I didn’t. It transpired that it was a “Daisy Wheel,” an apotropaic mark that comes from the Greek word for averting evil. The marks were meant to protect from witches and evil spirits. If only a saw could speak.

Adze, Scorp & Drawknife
I’ve grouped these three tools together as they were made for JB by his son Matty Sears. John spoke highly of these tools and was proud to own them. Matty is a great craftsman and understands wood and metal in equal proportion. This benefited JB as these tools were immediately user friendly – so many tools are not.

I have seen lots of beautiful adzes that couldn’t chop a chair seat. An adze needs to be made intuitively and become intuitive to the user. This is where the maker’s skill and experience comes into play. The ergonomics of an adze are difficult to describe – the haft has to be the correct shape as does the head. Matty mastered this and he’s developed a technique of forging the head so it can be removed from the haft on a sliding dovetail. This makes maintenance easy, yet the clever part is that whilst being struck, the haft and head tighten. I coveted JB’s adze for years. Now, more than two decades later, I own one. Sentimental? Maybe, but it’s without doubt the best I’ll ever use. And its provenance? I couldn’t ask for more!

The drawknife and scorp I believe were also made by Matty from a leaf spring from an old Land Rover (an iconic British 4×4 vehicle, in case you’re not familiar). Again, both tools were an important part of JB’s arsenal.

The adze made by Matty Sears. He refined an African form for chopping out seats.

I never asked JB why he called his curved card scraper a dumbscrape. I’ll let John Brown explain it as he did in “Welsh Stick Chairs.”

“God forbid that I should ever have a fire in the workshop, but if I did, and had to get out in a hurry, I’d make sure my dumbscrape was in my pocket. This is a magical tool. Called a cabinet scraper in the tool catalogues, it is sharpened to have a wire edge with a burnisher of hard steel. It cuts like a plane – see the curly shavings on the seat. When they come from the shop they are oblong, four-sided. For this kind of work the edges need grinding to a gentle curve. It is a most pleasing business using a scraper.”

I can remember making one after reading this quote. Back in 1990s I bought a new Sandvik cabinet scraper from my ironmonger and fettled it to shape. There wasn’t a photo of it in WSC so I just made what JB describes. It is without any shadow of doubt a must-have tool for chairmaking and woodworking in general. Its uses are endless. I’m not suggesting that I’ve ever opened a tin of wax polish with one, mind you…woe betide anyone who was reckless with JB’s.

In “Welsh Stick Chairs” there’s an iconic photo of JB hammering a leg home into the seat. It’s a piece of real theatre, and although I wasn’t present to say for sure how hard he was hitting the leg with the mallet, I can honestly say that I never personally witnessed anything like that. In my experience he used a 16 oz. ball peen hammer to drive legs into seats and sticks into their mortises. Well, at least in retrospect it looked approximately 16 oz. to me. In my own personal experience with JB, the seat stock was thinner. So more of a close fit was needed whilst making tenons fit into their mortises. Particularly if anything other than elm was being used for seat stock.

Driving in wedges with a ball peen hammer.

Mechanic’s Vice
The mechanic’s vice was instrumental to John Brown and in particular with how he developed its use for chairmaking. Its use was twofold. One, its being at a suitable work height for sculpting an arm bow (for example). And two, in holding stretcher stock up and away from the bench. Its metal jaws were lined with oak so as not to mar the work. I have described its use in the build section.

Folding Rule
A boxwood folding rule was always used instead of a tape measure. It is large enough for the dimensions involved in chairmaking. I’ve discussed how JB disliked measuring things too much; the eye was the important tool for making chairs the John Brown way.

John used a few varieties of benches through the years. He wrote some wonderful articles for Good Woodworking on the subject with detailed plans. I’ll briefly discuss two benches.

Workbench No. 1
John made the bench from pine which was readily available PAR (planed all round) from the local builders merchants. He’d dress the edges and laminate the leg stock to roughly 4″ x 4″. The top was glued up from three 9″ x 3″ boards. These were dowelled on the edges – the same way he joined chair seats. Tenons were worked on the ends of the legs, and these were mortised and pierced through the benchtop and wedged.

Stretchers were put around the circumference of the bench low down. He made several benches of this style, and my personal bench is exactly the same. I guess you could say it was more French than British in appearance, particularly in that it didn’t have the typical deep apron that appears on a British Nicholson-style bench.

John always used to make a tool rack that sat to the rear of the bench and ran its full length. This worked fine but it’s one thing I personally dislike; when chopping a chair seat the cacophony created by clanging tools infuriated me. Making chairs should be a peaceful pursuit.

For the purists, the bench measured approximately 6′ in length by 26-1/2″ wide. Lots of benches measure 24″ in width, which is fine for cabinet work but is slightly narrow for a full-blown Welsh chair with its eccentric leg splay. A quick-release vise was used as an end vise.

Workbench No. 2
JB also wrote a great article on his designated chairmaker’s bench. This measured approximately 4′ 6″ long by 27″ wide. It was made from various materials. The top was laminated from plywood, which was then sheathed with oak. Narrow dovetailed aprons then sheathed all of the edges of the ply and oak benchtop.

He made the undercarriage much the same way as mentioned on the first bench, but with much deeper stretchers – 8″ x 1-1/4″ wide rather than 4″ x 2″. This added mass and eliminated racking. The top sat on the legs with only stub tenons instead of the through-tenons of the previous bench. The aprons on the benchtop sat proud of the legs all the way around. A dowel located both through the apron and leg tenon secured the top to its undercarriage.

Three vices were built into this particular bench. One was a standard big Record quick-release. The second was a homemade leg vice, and the third a Veritas twin-screw vice, which ran on a chain. I believe that the bench was inspired after JB saw Drew Langsner’s chairmaker’s bench when he taught at Country Workshop back in the 1990s. And for the bench nerds, it measured 34-1/2″ in height. I used this bench extensively for a number of years and it worked incredibly well – yet with me being 6′ 4″ tall, it was too low. I raised it on 4″ x 4″ timbers to suit me. (Heaven forbid this book should start a debate on the subject of bench height; I mention it purely for posterity.)

Lastly, both of the workbenches’ undercarriages were decorated with paint in JB’s favourite drab green. There was no “Welsh Miserable” involved whatsoever.

John Brown’s mechanic’s vise was the centerpiece of his chairmaking operations.

Hand Grinder
JB was a proponent of the hollow grind and honed his freshly ground edges with oilstones. He wrote quite a lot about its use and was even instrumental in helping to promote a grinder made in Eastern Europe. It was simply attached to what I would loosely describe in appearance as a bench hook. This was held in the mechanic’s vice and by being well up and away from the bench, the hand-cranked handle could be turned without encountering any part of the bench. JB made a simple oak tool rest, which was adjusted with a wedge to attain his 30° degree preferred grinding and honing angle.

A Favorite Chisel
I’ll finish up with one chisel in particular – a 1-1/4″ bevel-edged paring chisel. This was never far from him. It was used broadly – and yes, it was struck at times. What more can I say? It’s just a chisel. As I said earlier I could have written a book on JB’s tools. He loved tools.
We all must not forget: Tools are necessary to the making of something tangible, to get to the glory of the form, and to one of beauty that John Brown deemed to be “A Chair.”


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