Knocking On Wood: An Interview with Jonathan Stewart

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Jonathan Stewart makes music. He makes guitars. He also makes coffee.

“I’m more of a pour over coffee guy myself,” he explained as we sat down once recent Sunday to talk.

Stewart is a luthier by trade, and explained that he builds and repairs instruments for a living. He has a wood shop locally in Saratoga where he works with his shop mate, his 40 pound dog Jane. At present, he’s working on 3 acoustic guitars, among other projects.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“I always had an interest in wood working, and people who build things,” he noted. In High School, Stewart liked cutting boards. “I thought it was fun.” He took two semesters of wood working classes, and then CAD drawing and digital drawing.

But when Stewart went away to SUNY Potsdam, he chose to study Economics. “It seemed like a good idea,” he mused.

During his final college semester, Stewart needed some additional credits to graduate and was looking for a way to explore something new. Around the same time, a bandmate’s girl friend had purchased the friend a guitar from a local luthier. This really peaked his interest, so he traveled the five minutes out of town to Parishville to see the luthier.

Stewart was immediately stoked by what he saw.

The luthier talked with him about interning for the last semester in college, and Stewart agreed to work in his wood shop. He spent eight hours a day, 9:00 – 5:00, Monday through Friday, learning how to repair instruments and build custom guitars as an intern through SUNY Potsdam.

“It was a different senior year, that’s for sure,” he recalled. Still, Stewart felt he needed more schooling after this experience, and studied instrument crafting and repair further during some time in Colorado.

Stewart’s current projects include one acoustic guitar he is making entirely from rough wood, starting with a solid block. He gets the wood from Northern Hardwoods in Lake George.

His process sounds a lot like creating music. Describing it as an “organic” experience, Stewart uses his headphones as ear protection as he builds. He prefers Grateful Dead tunes, and of course Jane’s joyful company.

“I follow a pattern: wake up, have coffee, eat, and work. When I need a break, I go work on bonsai trees behind the shop.”

Bonsai trees? “Yeah, bonsai trees. You know, it’s really meditative,” Stewart confirmed.

When asked if what he listens to influences his work, he agreed. He primarily favors Jerry Garcia, but he also loves Miles Davis and Coltrane. He will listen to full albums, appreciating the body of work. And while that’s interesting, “It can distract me too,” he admits. Stewart prefers to really focus on the instrument when he’s working on it, pouring energy into it.

Stewart just turned 30 last month, but seems so much more mature than his years. He plays guitar with a small group of musicians: Angelina Valente and JP Hubbs (“we haven’t named the group, but we do have some sarcastic joke names”), two local musicians and now close friends.

“Angelina and I met at Saratoga Guitar 3-4 years ago, worked together for a bit. We played together at a New Years Eve event a year or two ago at the Cock ‘n Bull, and now we play often together,” Stewart recalled.

And while he loves building guitars, Stewart also should be recognized by many of our readers for his playing of guitar and bass guitar. “I like doing Dead covers, but I also have some originals…Not as many as Angelina, I mean she can fall asleep writing music and wake up writing music.”

Stewart sounds like a perfectionist. He’s meticulous, and critical of his own work. This slows him down sometimes, but he loves the process as much as the outcome.

“Right now, I’m building three guitars concurrently. And building my shop as I go, so it’s slower than usual,” Stewart acknowledges. COVID -19 shifted his focus away from working in retail, and allowed him the time and energy to focus more on his craft. Leaving retail and building the shop was the start of his business.

Not that COVID has been easy on Stewart. His father, a local firefighter, got sick with COVID, and the family went down with the virus for a bit. His mother and father were both sick, and he noted his father was seriously ill. Thankfully all recovered.

And Stewart is able to focus on his song writing. “Music is something I can do entirely for myself. It’s great to go out and play for people, and have them enjoy it,” Stewart explains. But he went on to add “It’s also for myself. Having a good time, communicating amongst the musicians on stage, and communicating feelings without words, feelings that don’t have words for them, is just really powerful.”

Stewart’s goal for ten years from now?

“Oh I hope I’m doing the exact same things, but more of it. You know, more productive, maybe having a bigger, independent wood shop.”

Stewart’s enjoyment of his work, his ability to enjoy guitars, music, friends, “and hanging with my dog,” per Stewart, make him the envy of many artists in the Nippertown area.

“Life is really about the quality of interactions with other people for me, to see the influence of time in the shop, and have patience with a project,” Stewart thought out loud.

You can’t rush Stewart’s process. He takes care and attention to tasks.

“Knock on wood,” he smiled, “it will turn out good.”

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