Mini-pianos proof that best things come in small packages

3/28/2014

As newlyweds in 1965, Tom and Carolyn Klassen didn't have much money to buy Christmas presents.

As newlyweds in 1965, Tom and Carolyn Klassen didn't have much money to buy Christmas presents.

To add some pizzazz to the robe Tom got for his wife, he fashioned a harp out of cardboard tube and wrapping paper and put the robe inside.

In the years since, the containers Tom created have become more intricate and unique.

Klassen, a Finney County farmer and craftsman, creates hand-made miniature pianos, harpsichords and organs out of wood, incorporating tiny parts discovered in hobby stores and adapted to new uses. Keyboards on some include actual ivory.

Each piece includes a hidden drawer or compartment that contained Carolyn's Christmas gift, or a message as to where Tom had hidden it.

"Those first years, she had to tear them apart to get at the gift. It just made the presents a little more special," he said.

For the next four to eight weeks, the public can take a look at the Klassens' miniature collection at The Front Door Gallery at the Finney County Historical Museum.

The gallery is featuring "On Key — Tiny Pianos and Organs from the Pages of History," a display that includes approximately 20 miniature piano, organ and harpsichord replicas created by Tom Klassen.

The historic miniatures range in size from 17-by-17 inches to 1-by-5 inches. The replicas include an 1825 Schleip Lyraflugel, an 1816 Clementi upright grand bookcase piano, an early clavichord with inner lid painting, an 1809 Viennese sewing box piano, an Italian harpsichord from the 1700s and an antique pump organ styled like a real one handed down by the Carolyn Klassen's grandfather.

Carolyn Klassen, longtime piano and organ instructor at Garden City Community College, said her husband has always been creative, so it wasn't a surprise in those early days that he would try to add a little spice to Christmas gifts. But neither expected it would become the tradition it's become.

"It was fun, but I had no idea what would develop. It's just been kind of an evolution. At first, I don't think he had any idea I would want to keep them. When he realized this might be something I might want to hang onto, he began scaling them down," she said.

Klassen said the pump organ replica is one of his favorite pieces because it's patterned exactly after the one Carolyn's grandfather owned and is now sitting in their home. Klassen pointed out that the stops are made from paste-on craft eyes with the blacks removed.

"It's a challenge to me. I get to use a little bit of creativity. It's about as fun for me as it is for her," he said.

Tom earned a master's degree in history and planned to teach. But after military service it was tough to find a teaching job. Carolyn's father was having health problems and invited Tom to come help him on the farm. They've been on their farm ever since.

Planning for each new instrument begins in the spring, he said. Sometime in early fall he begins gathering materials and then begins the project on Christmas Eve morning and works well into the evening, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m.

Like an all-night study session before his college exams, Klassen said he prefers to push straight through on a project once he begins. He said he sets up in the basement, and Carolyn is not allowed down there while he works.

Klassen said many of his ideas came from books his wife owns that had pictures of various instruments. Through trial and error, he figured out the best way to make each one, and also developed a scale based on the size of the tiny keyboard that he uses for each new model.

Early pieces were done in balsa wood; now he works mostly with basswood.

"I've got a little set of tools, like miniature saws and dremel tools. Originally, it was all done with X-Acto knives and sandpaper, and that was really hard, but with these little tools it's a whole lot easier," he said.

Not all of Klassen's projects have gone smoothly.

"I've got to admit to you, one time she didn't get her present until two days after Christmas," he said.

The delay wasn't due to a particularly more difficult creation, but because he messed up a painting on the inside of a piano lid and had to redo it.

"What I really need to find is a book with pictures of old pianos. I'm starting to run out of ideas," he said.

Making the miniature instruments provides an outlet for his artistic instincts, though Klassen said he used to do a lot of pen and ink drawings, as well. His main hobby is restoring old cars. Klassen has a 1960 Corvette and is working on restoring a 1957 Chevy hot rod pickup.

When asked if he plans the piano first, or the gift that will go inside, Klassen paused a moment.

"That's a good question. The last few years I've ... let's just say Tim Regan knows me really well, and he let's me know if he's got something special," Klassen said with a laugh.

Carolyn Klassen said Tom's pianos have grown more detailed over time, but she was amazed at the early paper instruments, too. Carolyn also cherishes the work her husband puts into the containers, probably even more than the gifts found within.

"Tom gives wonderful gifts, but the gift is actually immaterial. The gift is actually what he does, the time he puts into it, the care that he takes with it," she said.

Steve Quakenbush, museum executive director, said he had the Klassens' collection in mind when The Front Door Gallery opened last May.

"It just seemed like a natural. They are interesting and historic — and that's the business we're in. They represent pianos from different periods in history," he said.

Quakenbush had seen them at the college, where they were held in a display case in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building, where Carolyn has taught for 27 years.

Both Klassens are pleased the museum was interested in displaying the collection.

"I'm not big on tooting my own horn, but she's really proud of it," Tom Klassen said.

Carolyn Klassen said she is happy more people will be able to look at them. Previously, she displayed a few at her office and during the annual piano festival at the college.

"I'm so glad. They truly are one of a kind," she said. "I'd like for more people to be able to appreciate them."

The Front Door Gallery, a small space near the front door of the museum, opened in May 2013 as a place to host small exhibits that change frequently.

The miniature piano collection will be displayed four to eight weeks at the museum, with exhibit hours of 1 to 5 p.m. seven days weekly. The location is 403 S. Fourth St., and admission is free.

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