Caring for Ivory Keys

Ivory_Keys_Before_2Long before plastics became commonplace, ivory was used as piano key top covering material. Ivory presented many advantages in the feel and responsiveness. It also absorbs sweat so your fingers would keep from sticking to the keys.
From an overall cost view, the use of plastic key tops started becoming the standard after around 1930. With the large number of pianos made back in the early 1900’s, there are still many pianos around that have their original ivory key tops.

With the advantages that came from ivory, there are also some notable disadvantages. Progressive build up of dirt and oils from fingers would slowly discolour the ivory. The material also becomes more brittle as it ages and the thin front edges are prone to cracking and chipping.
Some glues that were used for attaching the key tops on economical pianos were also poor and would cause the ivories to come loose. Ivory_Keys_After_2

If you have a piano with ivory key tops, there are a number of things you can do to help maintain them and restore your piano back to it’s previous glory. Your first line of defence is your piano’s fall board. That’s the folding cover that completely covers all the keys. Keep this closed whenever you’re not playing. It will keep the keys from exposure to sunlight (UV), minimize the accumulation of dust, and also the chance something will land on the thin key tops and damage them.

For those piano owners with missing or damaged ivory key tops, there are many piano technicians that will have a collection of ivory key tops for use as replacements (see before and after images above). Ideally, you will want to have a replacement that matches the colour of the other keys, be of the same thickness, and of the same overall length and width. Reattaching ivories must be done with the correct glue – use of water based glues will cause the key top to curl and not set properly.

Cleaning of ivory key tops – It’s always best to start with the mildest approach when it comes to cleaning ivory key tops. Start with a damp microfibre cloth. If that does not remove the dirt, use a very mild soap solution. For tougher stains you’ll need to use something that contains a pumice or whitening agent like toothpaste. Mix a very dilute solution of this with water and apply with a worn out old toothbrush. Gently apply in a back and forth motion in the direction of the grain. You must prevent any solution from getting down between the keys – placing cardboard slices between the keys work well.

If you’re at all unsure of what needs to be done to restore your ivory keys, or need professional help in getting there, contact us and we’ll be happy to help.

Proper care and restoration of your ivory keys will make your piano feel new again and give you hours of playing enjoyment.

Lee Johnson
Master Piano Services

2 Replies to “Caring for Ivory Keys”

  1. I have a Mason and Hamlin Reed Organ, and the keys are beginning to crack. They haven’t fallen off. Is there something I could do (even aesthetic solutions) to preserve or repair the keys?

    1. Hi Rich. The approach to repairing the key tops depends on the material they are made from. If they are ivory, you can look at having key tops replaced by reclaimed key tops that would be available through piano technicians who do that level of repair.
      Plastic key tops can also be replaced – there’s difficulty in matching color and size.
      Try contacting a local piano technician who can provide this service.
      To help preserve what you have, keep the keys covered when not in use (helps prevent any unexpected impact and keeps UV light from degrading the keys), and clean them occasionally with a slightly damp cloth (to remove any build up), and if needed, a very small amount of mild detergent.
      Hope this helps!
      Regards, Lee

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