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B.C. man’s ‘Middle Sea’ canoe made of wood from old pianos, as pandemic project

Unwanted upright pianos ‘are just going to the dump, one after the other – you can’t even give them away,’ Surrey’s George Klassen says
Surrey resident George Klassen sits in the canoe he made with the wood of old pianos. A piano tuner by trade, Klassen began making the canoe near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and finished building it this month. (submitted photo)

The key to George Klassen’s pandemic project was to create something new and beautiful from unwanted upright pianos.

The Surrey resident made a music-themed canoe from the wood of instruments that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage.

Three old pianos were recycled to create Middle Sea over the past 15 months, in the garage of Klassen’s Fleetwood-area home.

It might be the only canoe of its kind in the world.

“I haven’t come across anything like this,” Klassen noted. “As far as I know, this is the only one on the globe made of pianos, but I might be wrong.”

A longtime piano tuner, he found inspiration in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2020.

“None of us knew what to do with our time, right?” Klassen said. “It all felt kind of surreal and it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I was 64 or 65 years old at the time, and I thought, ‘Someday I’m going to have more time, you know, to do something. So it’d be nice to experiment.’”

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Browsing around Facebook Marketplace, he clicked on photos of cedar-strip canoes for sale, and was reminded of a fibreglass model he built back in high school, in Killarney, Man.

“I know that every day, there are these old, brown upright pianos that are just going to the dump, one after the other – you can’t even give them away,” Klassen said.

“I thought, ‘I wonder if somebody milled some of these old pianos into strips and turned them into a canoe.’ That’s what started the whole process.”

So he collected some old pianos and began making a canoe, which turned out to be a work of art.

Using a tablesaw and thickness planer, he discovered plenty of solid oak in those old pianos.

“It’s really beautiful wood,” Klassen noted, “but the unconventional part of it is, of course cedar-strip canoes are made of cedar, a softer and lighter wood. So people ask me how heavy mine is, but it turns out the canoe weighs about 60 pounds, not bad – about 10 pounds heavier than a cedar-strip one.”

Klassen is justifiably proud of his canoe’s details.

“The edge of the canoe, the outer gunwale, is made of soundboard ribs from a piano, finger-jointed together to make a continuous strip on the outside,” he explained.

“In the pictures, you’ll see slits on the side. The solid parts of that gunwale are actual key sharps, the black keys on the piano. I shaved them down and made them all uniform. There’s three key tops. I inlayed those on either end, and those are actual ivory piano keys.

“The handle to carry the canoe, on each end, those are the handles that were on the back of the pianos, two of them,” Klassen added.

“And the yoke in the middle, the piece used to carry the canoe, it’s a back post from a piano, shaved down and formed into a yoke.”

Joan Clark, co-owner of Carillon Music, on King George Boulevard in Surrey, first alerted the Now-Leader about Klassen’s canoe project.

“He tunes the pianos here,” Clark explained. “(Klassen) hated seeing these old pianos going to the dump, and this is a pretty ingenious use of them. I just think it is incredible what he has done.”

Clark said old upright pianos have become a huge problem.

“We get lots of calls, but we don’t take them in and you can’t sell them. People are going to smaller acoustic pianos, or digitals,” Clark explained. “A lot of them are beautiful pianos and functional, but people just don’t have room for them in their houses anymore, or their apartments.

“We tell people to put them on Craigslist for free, but they end up hiring people or just take them to the dump on their own. You can’t recycle them because they have a metal frame.”

Klassen has been tuning pianos for close to 40 years, and business is still good for his Crescendo Piano Service.

“I’ve got a lot of work, actually,” he related. “I do quite a few recording studios. My most active customer is The Armoury recording studio downtown. I’ve tuned that piano around 150 times now. It’s been played by a lot of people over the years.”

Now that his canoe is fully varnished, Klassen plans to put it in the water soon.

“I just finished it on Sunday (Sept. 12),” he noted. “I could have made paddles, and someday I probably will, but I just want to get it into the water now, so I bought a couple of paddles from Canadian tire.

“I’d like to make it a family affair,” Klassen said of Middle Sea’s maiden voyage, to involve his wife, Cathy, adult children, their spouses and grandchildren. “We’ll take it somewhere, maybe Alouette Lake or something, and see if it floats – in the next couple of weeks, I imagine.”

Klassen added: “Cathy deserves a medal for putting up with the dust and noise I made, and also for making some crucial design suggestions.”

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Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news stories for the Surrey Now-Leader, where I've worked for more than half of my 30-plus years in the newspaper business.
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