March 2005

Nothing Could Be Finer ...

On Carolina's coastal plain, Michael Brown uses 'scrap' hardwood and traditional tools - notably his eyeballs - to create contemporary Windsor-style chairs and tables.

By Anthony Noel
The playful "Minstrel Chair" is a whole new take on the idea of "equal time" and shows Brown's penchant for combining woods of contrasting colors. The detail photo shows how he uses exposed joinery in the arm.

Michael Brown is living what just might be every woodworker's dream: Coaxing one-of-a-kind pieces from indigenous woods, from primary processing to final finishing. And he's doing it in a strikingly beautiful place: Pamlico County, on North Carolina's coastal plain.

The sparsely populated region - there's just one traffic light in the entire county - is home to miles of forest, much of it company-managed. Logging interests have a strong presence here. The cash crop is the loblolly pine, prized for everything from lumber to pilings to pulpwood.

Though the tree farms satisfy the bulk of the demand, independent loggers routinely clear naturally propagated pines from private lands and often find a deciduous species or two in the mix.

"Fortunately, most of the loggers around here know me now," Brown notes, "and if they're cutting down a pecan tree for somebody's house, or a cherry tree or a walnut, they'll call me up and say, 'I've got this walnut tree...' and I'll say, 'Thank you very much.'"

But it wasn't always so easy. When he first arrived, Brown recalls, "There was no market for hardwoods. They could sell the pine trees for pulpwood, but the hardwood was just scrap wood as far as they were concerned.

"So I said, 'You know what...,'" he chuckles.

A native of Brighton, England, Brown and his wife, Theresa, relocated to Pamlico County from the Hudson River Valley of New York - by boat. The year was 1995.

Growing up on England's southern coast, Brown was no stranger to the maritime life. "My father always had old wooden boats and he'd maintain them, and so I had to, too," he says.

This breakfast set combines walnut and ash.

He eventually began building small boats and windsurfers and supplemented his income in the winter by delivering boats from Britain to America.

"In 1985, the dollar and British pound were even. So all you Americans were rushing over there and buying our boats!" he laughs.

After crossing paths with a hurricane while delivering a 42-foot Moody yacht, Brown stopped off in Bermuda to make repairs to the vessel. It was there that he met Theresa, a native New Yorker who was vacationing on the island. Upon landing in the United States, Brown visited her again in New York.

"I went back to Britain, sold everything and came back!" he says.
Brown lived with Theresa in Chappaqua, NY, and took a job as maintenance supervisor at a nearby marina, keeping seaworthy a fleet of charter yachts. But the Westchester County lifestyle never really agreed with him, he says, and in 1995 he and Theresa set sail, quite literally, in search of a new home port.

The winds blew them south, through North Carolina's Pamlico Sound to the Neuse River (rhymes with "moose"). They hung a right into Beard Creek, landing on the wooded tract that the couple's house, Brown's shop and their dry-docked sailboat now share.

"I spent a year logging and storing the beams, and then we built the shop. Three months later we built the house," Brown recalls.

From boatwork to woodwork

Once settled, Brown turned his attention to his craft. His offerings now include contemporary Windsor-style chairs, stools, rockers, music stands, kid-sized chairs, settees and even an office chair that redefines "elegant."

Brown's tools are simple, his techniques timeless. All spindles are split and shaped by hand. Seats are scooped with an adz. As for drilling the parts, "I do it all by eye," he says. "All the work I did on wooden boats and my windsurfers I did that way, so it's natural to me."

Doors on either side of his barn-like shop open wide. Only on the coldest days of the brief Carolina winters do they remain closed.

A small insulated room off the main shop is heated with a wood burner, and it is here that Brown's finishes - mostly tung or linseed oil, although there's the occasional urethane topcoat for gallery pieces - are coaxed to a full cure. The 10-foot by 15-foot space also figures prominently in Brown's lumber-drying process.

After sawing boards on a band mill, he says, "I air-dry a year for each inch, so a two-inch piece I leave outside for two years. Then I fill [the room] up with wood, crank up the woodstove and it gets to about 120F in there.

"I let it cool down at night and then fire it up again in the daytime." He repeats the process across a six-week schedule.

"Above the barn, I have a 12-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot box with a dehumidifier in it, and I finish stuff off in there," he adds.

Today, Brown sells much of his work on the Internet (www.michaelbrownchairmaker.com). He has more recently begun displaying at woodworking shows. But he began by focusing on galleries in the affluent Raleigh/Durham market, home to North Carolina's renowned Research Triangle. Showings of chairs led to calls from clients seeking full dining room sets.

"It's really satisfying to design a table that complements a set of chairs," Brown notes.

Those customers would often call again, seeking bedroom sets and other work. In his early days, Brown took the commissions, although he says, "I wouldn't do that other work unless they had already bought a chair."

Today, he subcontracts casework and other jobs that are outside his specialties to a trusted local cabinet shop.

Why?

"I really love making chairs," Brown says.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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