To say that Gary Stewart has a passion for wood would be an understatement.
Retiring last year after 25 years of teaching carpentry and cabinet making at Sussex Technical High School, Stewart said he needed something to keep him busy. “I can't sit around doing nothing,” he says.
The idea for Tall Oak Trading Co. was born, and he set about constructing a shop on his 15-acre parcel off Townsend Road between Lewes and Long Neck.
It was nothing new for Stewart, who built his home in the mid-1980s and every other building on the property, home to chickens, beehives, a large garden grown by his wife Kerry, and a wooded section where he's growing shiitake mushrooms.
Stewart specializes in food-related custom wooden products such as bread boards, cutting boards, wine racks, beer paddles and serving trays. He also makes display and jewelry boxes. And he will take on special projects – he made a 46-by-46-inch cutting board for one customer.
His products are reasonably priced, and that's for a reason. “I want everyone to be able to buy my work,” he said.
Most of Stewart's business comes from weekly farmers markets in Rehoboth Beach, Nassau Valley Vineyards and Milton. “The biggest problem I have is keeping up with products,” he said. He will also be in several area shows including St. Peter’s on Saturday, July 1, and Lewes Historical Society on Saturday, July 8.
Stewart had to learn the ropes to become a vendor at the markets. “I didn't realize that you have to sign up many months in advance,” he said. He missed the deadline for the Rehoboth market last year but was not deterred. He would wait in the parking lot to make sure all vendors showed up for the Tuesday market. If one did not show, he could take their spot. “Some days it worked out, and others it didn't,” he said.
Woodworking starts at early age
Stewart has worked with wood since he was a youngster, and ended up building custom homes in the area until he was hired as a teacher. Stewart said his years at Sussex Tech are ones he will always treasure. “I never had any issues and really loved the kids,” he said.
While many of his students were college bound, he had some students who went into the construction business. “To me, it was about teaching life skills and self-confidence,” he said. For the first five years he taught, no girls signed up for the class. By the time he retired, girls made up a third of every class. “I had some really smart, motivated students,” he said.
Stewart, the son of a career Navy father, who moved every two years as a child, moved to the Cape Region as a teenager. He graduated from Cape Henlopen High School in 1970, the first year of consolidation. One of his sons graduated from Cape and two from Sussex Tech.
He lived in Lewes for several years before moving out into the country. “We like our privacy out here,” he says.
It's important to Stewart to use as much local wood as he can. “I look for wood that's eye-catching,” he said. “I use as much Sussex County wood as possible.”
It's an art finding that special piece of cherry, walnut or oak that will end up as a cutting board, serving tray or wine rack.
As more and more people discover his craft, he receives telephone calls and emails from people who have trees cut down for him to look at. He found several large cedar trees last week.
He takes his wood to be cut at one of the last remaining sawmills in the area, run by Eric Clark of Millsboro.
Wood must be dried before he can work with it, and that presents a problem in humid Sussex County. He wants to build his own drying kiln, which will allow him to remove almost 95 percent of moisture, speeding up drying time.
Stewart said he had designs on becoming a painter in retirement, but those plans didn't materialize. Instead he's become proficient in the art of woodworking. “Getting exact matching colors was really hard, and it wasn't happening for me,” he said, although he did build a studio from recycled materials on the second floor of his shop.
Go to www.TallOakTradingCompany.com to see his work.