Meet the Australian who’s helping pianos play on in wonderful new ways.
Did you know that in the second half of the 19th century, Australia had almost one piano for every 2.5 families? Pianos were a symbol of social status and more than 700,000 of them were imported (mostly from Germany) before federation alone. One even arrived with the First Fleet.
So, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that Australia is home to a lot of unwanted end-of-life pianos – and that we don’t quite know what to do with them. This first became apparent to Mike Hendy, a piano tuner and partner at Pianos Recycled, back in 2014. Mike had grown up with (and developed an affection for) pianos through his family’s piano importing and restoration business, Hendry Pianos. He remembers the fateful day he showed up to do an insurance assessment of an instrument at a transport office.
While waiting to be shown the piano he was assessing, he saw a worker pick up a sledgehammer and swing it through the front of another piano. “I remember after about 10 blows of the sledgehammer, he had the piano pretty much lying in bits, sitting on a pallet rack,” Mike says. “He then dropped the sledgehammer, picked the whole thing up and shovelled it into a big bin.”
A lightbulb switched on in Mike’s head. “I know piano's reach their end of life,” he says, “but there's just got to be a better outcome for such a beautiful old instrument.”
It wasn’t just the instrument’s undignified end that bothered Mike; he knew that sending pianos to landfill was an undesirable outcome for the planet. Piano parts – especially the metal bits – are particularly stubborn when it comes to the decomposition process. “[The piano] will rust, but it won’t decompose,” he says. “Not in 50 years, not in 100 years, not in 200 years.”
After a few “streams of consciousness” and “conversations that went to one or two in the morning”, Mike partnered with two friends to form Pianos Recycled, a business giving a second life to unwanted pianos destined for landfill.
Along with restoring pianos, Pianos Recycled works with local artists and craftspeople to extract new value from the instruments, turning their materials into unique items for the future, like furniture, jewellery and artwork. Think lampshades made of old pianola rolls, half-metre pepper grinders made out of a piano’s wooden support posts or a statement dining table made from a piano’s veneers. Each item – like each piano – is unique, and treated with respect and care, honouring the ancient skills, craftsmanship, resources and history of the instrument.
On the day Bank Australia visits Mike’s workshop in Braeside, Melbourne, staff members (including Mike’s son) are hard at work breaking down a family heirloom piano to turn into three jewellery boxes, which will be passed on to the owner’s granddaughters. It’s a story Mike hears a lot: the piano as a multi-generational item. “We have people who come to us and say, ‘Mum's giving me this piano. I don't really want it, I can’t play it and I don't have space for it.’ And we go, ‘Well, is your mum going to be offended if you turn it into something else?’” For many people, it’s a great alternative.
The thread of family is also a motivating factor for Mike. “I have two grandsons, they're five and three,” he says, reflecting on how our culture of waste is going to affect future generations. “We’re in danger of completely destroying the planet. I would like to make a contribution – no matter how small – to leaving the world in a better place than I found it.”
Pianos Recycled has now saved over 250 pianos (and hundreds of tonnes of largely non-decomposable materials) from landfill, and inspired similar businesses around the world. “We’re a really good template and working model for the way forward, which is the circular economy,” Mike says. “This is one of the things we keep coming back to as part of this multifaceted circle of sustainability.”
As someone who loves pianos, Mike sees the irony of being inspired by someone putting a sledgehammer through one – and the fact that his business now takes circular saws to them. But there’s a difference between destruction and deconstruction – between trash and transformation. “We don’t smash pianos apart,” he says. “We dissect them, and we create new things. We create new ideas.”
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