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Originally published Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Handcrafted guitars are Spokane man's art

Imagine purchasing a guitar straight from the person who crafted it, and having him be able to tell you what the weather was like the day...

The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE — Imagine purchasing a guitar straight from the person who crafted it, and having him be able to tell you what the weather was like the day he sanded the fret board. Or where the tree grew and how old it was when it fell.

In a world where we all strive to customize — whether it be cars, bikes, blogs or burgers — guitarists seek out people like Joel Stehr.

Stehr, a 29-year-old Spokane native, practices the age-old art of lutherie, or handcrafting wooden stringed instruments.

Six days a week, Stehr descends the stairs into the basement workshop in his South Hill home, where he saws, sands, shapes and glues sheets of wood together to make one-of-a-kind acoustic guitars.

"I just love wood, the natural beauty of wood," Stehr said. "And you take wood and music and put them together, and it's a natural. It seems like the right choice for me. It's what I should be doing."

Luthiers allow buyers to specify the type of wood, body style, size, number of frets, tone and any number of other variables.

Stehr keeps different types of wood in his shop and currently has an 800-year-old tone-wood specimen that he says fell naturally on a slope in Oregon.

He wasn't always set on lutherie as a career. In 2004, he opened an ill-fated restaurant in downtown Spokane, before running out of money and closing the doors a year later.

With a failed experiment behind him, but not content with selling his time to someone else, Stehr chose to become a young, fresh face in a business where reputation and income often is based on years of experience.

"It's been something coming for a long time," he said. "Me and a buddy, I don't even know how long ago, maybe 10 years ago, we were like, 'Let's build a guitar.' We started building and making the jigs and learning. He moved away, and I kind of lost my focus, but always had it in the back of my head. And just in the last three years or so, I kind of started picking it back up."

After a couple of practice runs, Stehr tossed a guitar up on eBay and caught the eye of Russ Mason, from Rochester, N.Y.

"I saw one of his instruments on eBay, and I thought, that's a pretty cool-looking guitar. I bid on it, but I didn't win," Mason said during a phone interview. "But we started a conversation via e-mail, and I just liked his energy. He was a straightforward person. He was unpretentious. He was saying, 'If it's not right, I'll take it back. I'll make it any way you want it to be, I'll do my best for you.' "

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Mason's first Joel Stehr guitar had a personal touch from his past.

"My father was a clarinet player, and his clarinet was made of granadillo wood, which is a kind of rosewood," Mason said. "It was kind of a dark maroon wood. It was just very pretty. I thought of my dad when I saw that wood, and I thought, let's try that. I read about its tonal properties, that it sounded as a cross between rosewood in its richness and also mahogany in its brightness."

Stehr, whose word-of-mouth business has sold about 16 guitars so far, charges from $1,800 to $2,500 for his work.

That may sound like a lot, but not in a cottage industry, where guitars crafted by seasoned masters can cost as much as $20,000.

Mason is currently waiting on his third Joel Stehr guitar — the process takes anywhere from two to six months — and says he's glad he discovered Stehr now before the budding luthier's business and reputation takes off and the prices go up.

"All of his guitars are one-of-a-kind sculptures," Mason said. "That's what they are. They're functional art. If you have a Joel Stehr guitar, it's not like a Martin D-28, it's not like any other instrument in the world. It's unique. And he cut and glued every little piece of wood in his workshop."

After buying his second guitar from Stehr, Mason, who is a journalist by day and musician by night, sold the flagship of his collection, a Martin J-40, which retails new for more than $4,000.

"I thought, this is it. I don't need any more," Mason said. "And I sold the Martin on eBay for $2,000."

When it comes down to it, Mason likes knowing that each of Stehr's guitars is built specifically for him. The forthcoming third guitar is a classical nylon-string guitar with a longer fret board and a dreadnought body, which is larger and differently shaped from conventional classical guitars.

For Mason, it's about choice and control.

"If you go to Martin guitars, or to Taylor, or any of the other major manufacturers of acoustic guitars, the menu selection is very limited," Mason said.

"All the tops are spruce, and they're all plain wood. Or all the backs and sides are either mahogany or rosewood. Sometimes you might find a maple guitar, you might find one made of cherry. You'll never find one made of granadillo wood. If you custom-ordered one from Taylor, then you'd pay $3,000 all right, but then there's thousands of Taylor guitars out there, but very few Joel Stehr guitars."

In fact, there are so few that Stehr himself doesn't own one.

"I want other people to make music with what I make. I'm not trying to be a musician by making these.

"Right now it's not real profitable for me," he added, "but I'm getting the bills paid, and I can live on rice and beans for the rest of my life if I can keep doing this."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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