When he was three, Michael Stinnett started playing the piano by ear. At 18, he established a piano and repair business. Now in his 40s, he runs a business he founded in his hometown of Friendsville - The Antique Piano Shop.
"There's really not anybody else in the industry that's doing what we are doing so we are having to create a lot of precedents as we go because there are no precedents with what we are doing," Stinnett said.
What they are doing is restoring pianos. Some are family heirloom pianos while others are antiques he has collected to restore - pianos built before the Great Depression in 1929.
"We have 24 specialized craftsmen here who are restoring these pianos, frame up, start to finish and making them like brand new again," he said.
Some take more effort than others.
"This piano behind me as you can see has beautiful art work. The ladies that are pictured on the back side all the way around it has several nudes painted on it. A lot of Greek mythology, that sort of thing. And the lady we got it from thought that the piano was vulgar when she inherited it so she took a paint brush and some house paint and painted the piano black right over all that beautiful artwork. Luckily we have an artist on staff here who was able to restore it," he explained.
Each person focuses on a particular part of piano repair and they learn from each other.
"We have one of the very few people still alive that can rebuild player pianos who works here on staff and he's in his 70s and he's teaching the younger generation the craft," Stinnett said. "Their level of craftsmanship is phenomenal. I have some of the best craftsmen here that exist anywhere in the world."
Customers from across the world find out about the place in Friendsville on the web. The shop has a domestic website in English and another in Hong Kong in Chinese.
"China is now the largest consumer of European and American arts and antiques. So the wealthy Chinese are buying antique pianos for their children to play because music is still part of their culture there," he said. "We've shipped to Dubai. We've shipped to South Korea. Canada quite frequently. And our largest domestic markets are Texas and California."
One beautiful piano is headed to a client in South Korea who is paying $600,000.
"We believe it's the most ornately carved piano in the world," Stinnett said. "It was built in 1888 for Eugene Morand who was a famous French author. The piano was commissioned for his birth in 1888 and it has got carvings of angels and cherubs and everything you can imagine related to the arts and theater and music. It is absolutely phenomenal."
Other pianos are for sale but not fully restored. That doesn't happen until they have a buyer. A big factor in the cost is the amount of specialized labor needed to customize the piano.
Stinnett has the craftsmen on staff who can do that.
"It's all about having the right people and the right staff," he said.
And the right mission to restore antique pianos.
Stinnett's shop has a lot of celebrity clients because their product is unique and they use the utmost discretion.