If you want to know how Ken Hannah builds intricate wooden Christmas gifts each year, you could start with the inner mechanics of a Steinway grand piano.
There, tucked deep inside each of the iconic instruments, are wooden levers and bushings, laminated maple planks and pine bridges, all of it performing a seamless bit of engineering when a pianist strikes a note.
That’s where Hannah works — fixing and restoring the guts of the world’s finest pianos — and for years he’s cultivated a reputation as a pre-eminent craftsman working out of his Baytown Township shop.
To the lucky family and friends who get a special gift from him at Christmastime, he’s also known as the toymaker.
Using the old-world skills, precise engineering and specialized tools he usually applies to piano restoration, Hannah makes a couple dozen or so gifts each Christmas, a holiday tradition now running for some 40 years.
“It’s been a fun thing to do,” said Hannah.
The gifts are sometimes whimsical toys and sometimes more grown-up items like a trivet or wooden tongs, all made to professional standards.
Among his favorites is the ladder man, a wooden figure who drops down a ladder, one rung at a time. Last year, with COVID upending the 2020 holiday season, Hannah made a pair of wooden dice, a recognition of how chance had entered our daily lives. His dice have no numbers, but each face has between one and six precisely-cut shapes in either walnut, mahogany or maple.
The origins of Hannah’s gifts started when Hannah and his wife, Karen, had young children. As other young families came over to visit, Hannah found himself in his piano workshop with other dads. They started making picture frames before the idea of a wooden children’s toy took root.
“Most toys are made out of plastic now, and I like the way the wood feels,” he said.
The ideas for the gifts come from travels, friends, and sometimes modified woodworking plans. Karen’s favorite is “The Clapping Man,” a wooden figure who claps when a crank at the bottom of the toy is turned. That idea came from something they saw while traveling through Amsterdam.
Some of the others: a frog that zips along the floor, an elephant that rocks down an incline, a dancing figure, a toy that makes a whirring sound when it spins at high speed.
Some of the Christmas gifts end up with repurposed piano parts. The eyes of The Clapping Man were made from wooden bushings designed to hold individual tuning pegs. The base of another toy was made of pinblock material, a wooden plank of cross laminated maple used for a part of the piano that has to be rigid.
The moving toys, especially, take careful planning: a caterpillar uses a series of cams to rise and fall. And other toy designs needed trial and error: an elephant that walks down a ramp wouldn’t move properly until the ramp was at the perfect angle. The ladder man didn’t fall properly until the ladder’s rungs were cut thin, and then a specialized tool known as a Foredom was needed to cut a thin groove. Hannah typically uses the tool to cut the thin gap between white and black keys.
His children eventually grew up, and for several years they helped build the gifts each holiday season. The shop became a family affair in those years, with his two daughters and one son all manning a power tool. Hannah recalled one year when he was making a tap-dancing figure: “I told my son to come out: ‘I need you to make 50 shoes,’ ” he laughed.
Hannah didn’t start out in woodworking or even with repairing pianos, but as a high school music teacher in southern Minnesota with a music education degree from St. Olaf. He taught for a while, but after taking a piano-tuning course at MacPhail Center for the Arts in the 1970s, he and Karen moved back to the Twin Cities and he took a position at the Schmidt Music store in downtown Minneapolis. He eventually became manager of the piano repair shop, and in 1980 launched his own business, Ken Hannah Piano Tuning and Restorations. “I had an epiphany: This is what I’m going to do,” said Hannah.
He soon learned how to rebuild soundboards, considered one of the most difficult parts of piano restoration. It was out of necessity: Minnesota’s humid summers and dry winters wreak havoc on pianos, he said. He uses spruce imported from a specialist in Canada to make the new soundboards. The spruce has tightly packed grain, the lines that mark each year of a tree’s life, at 24 grains per inch.
“Spruce has hollow cells, and when you bend it and elongate it, it becomes alive,” said Hannah.
In his career, Hannah has restored pianos for schools and churches, universities and performing artists. His work can be seen at the Alexander Ramsey House — he restored the piano owned by the state’s first governor, Alexander Ramsey — and for customers across the country. A tenure at the Aspen Music Festival had him tuning pianos for Peter Serkin, the renowned classical pianist. He’s currently working on a 7-foot Steinway made in New York. New, it would cost $160,000. His restoration will cost much less, perhaps making it affordable for a musician who otherwise couldn’t afford a Steinway.
“I try to get good pianos into the hands of good musicians,” he said.
And, at Christmastime, a few gifts go out the door as well.