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How To Whiten Ivory Piano Keys


How To Whiten Ivory Piano KeysDo you own a high end piano or have you ever come across an old piano made prior to the 1950’s? If so chances are the high end piano and your piano has a high probability of being made of ivory keys. The first visible thing you will notice is the keys are dull and yellowish which is a characteristic that happens to ivory over time. Do you want to know how can you whiten ivory piano keys? I will explain several helpful ways to accomplish this task.

To whiten ivory piano keys is by using a combination of white toothpaste and milk. Below are steps to whiten your discolored keys safely: 

  • Squeeze a small amount of toothpaste onto a dry cloth
  • Begin gently buffing the piano keys one by one
  • Allow the toothpaste to rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute
  • Take another cloth and dip it in milk
  • Buff the toothpaste off of the keys with the milk dipped cloth
  • Dry the piano keys with a new cloth
  • Check for leftover residue and wipe until completely dry

Why Newer Pianos Don’t Use Ivory

So what’s the deal with ivory keys anyway? New pianos don’t even use the material these days, and you often fine imitation ivory or “ivory top” keyboards if anything.

Ivory was banned after 1972 because the ivory trade was made illegal due to hunting practices. Basically a lot of innocent elephants were being hunted down in search of their ivory tusks. The good news is if you have ethical reasons for not wanting to have anything to do with ivory you are in luck if your piano was made after 1970.

Most modern pianos are made of resin material. Resin is much easier to work with and is more resistant to chipping and becoming yellow. This is why you don’t see a whole lot of broken down keys on newer pianos. Older pianos are very prone to cracking especially as they age.

The Entire Key Is Not Made Of Ivory

A common misconception about ivory piano keys is that the entire key itself is made of ivory. I can see how someone would think that, but that’s not how it works. The piano keys are still made of real wood, just like the modern pianos of today. It’s the key tops themselves that have ivory on them.

Why It’s Important To Clean Your Ivory Keys

Cleaning your ivory keys offers many benefits from the cosmetics, preventing chipping, cracking and more. I find that ivory keys tend to hold a lot more dust, dead skin, and sweat film more-so than the resin based keys in modern pianos. Those sorts of things can really have an impact on your ability to perform and really enjoy the instrument.

Once you’ve given your keyboard a fresh clean I think you’ll be really impressed with the performance. I don’t own a piano with ivory keys myself, but I’ve played many and can definitely tell one that’s been well maintained over another that’s been neglected.

How To Know If My Piano Has Ivory Keys

Even if you have an older piano you might not be sure if the keys themselves have ivory key tops or not. There’s a couple of steps you can take to quickly determine this. Even if your piano has been rebuilt you can figure it out with these steps.

Texture – Ivory key tops have a very distinct texture. The keys are porous, so you’ll be able to feel the grooves and textures that plastic keys don’t really give you. Many of the ivory tops I’ve played are a little tougher to grip and my fingers tend to slide around.

Age – If your piano hasn’t been rebuilt and fits sometime before 1970 there’s a high chance it’s been made with ivory keys. If you aren’t sure how old your piano is there’s a wealth of resources out there to check the serial numbers and make the connection to when it was built.

Look For Chips – A clear indicator of ivory keys are chips in the material.

Shape – Ivory keys are often made in two parts. You can actually make out the seam and skinny end of the keys.

Ivory Keys Vs Plastic Keys

You’ve come here to learn how to white your ivory piano keys and we’ll get into that shortly. I thought it might be a good idea to explain the difference between ivory and plastic keys in regards to the cleaning process.

Since it’s pure ivory it’s going to take some time in dedication on your part to whitening your piano keys. Ivory keys are very porous so that means that the stains are going to be deeper into the keys which will make it more difficult to remove the stains. They have a texture to them that plastic keys don’t; almost like little grooves that trap dirt, sweat and other debris.

That doesn’t mean you should scrub them really hard though; that’s only going to leave scratch marks. Also the kind of materials you decide to clean it with whether it be alcohol or any other liquid shouldn’t sit too long on the keys. Ivory keys have a high chance of warping, not to mention those liquids can end up drying the keys out.

Plastic keys on the other hand are not porous so cleaning those type of keys could take just a few minutes. Schedule at least 30 minutes of cleaning to be spent on each octave. It may take longer depending on how severe the staining is. Each key needs to be dried after immediately after you have completed the scrubbing process.

5 Different Methods To Whitening Your Ivory Piano Keys

Now that we’ve got a better understanding of what exactly happened with those ivory keys, it’s time to get to cleaning them up. It’s important that your piano not only looks it’s best, but also performs the best it can.

1. Use White Toothpaste

Prepare your piano for cleaning by applying a mild layer of white toothpaste to a soft cloth. After you have added the toothpaste to the cloth, buff the white keys gently. Prepare the next piece of cloth with whole milk for the next step.

Do not drench the cloth with milk. Just add a few dabs to lightly dampen the cloth. Be careful not to let the toothpaste remain on the keys too long (no more than 30 seconds). Use a new clean lightly dampened cloth that you prepared with whole milk earlier and gently buff the keys.

The final step is to dry the keys off with a new clean dry soft cloth. Check to make sure there is no excess liquid on the keys as it may cause the keys to swell and not play properly.

2. Use Lemon Juice

Lemon juice contains acid and can wear down ivory over time because ivory is basically dental bone. Even so lemon juice is sometimes used. Milk is better to use due to its calcium and fatty acids which will help protect your piano keys. But if lemon juice is what you have on hand you may use it. Just don’t make it a habit.

3. Use An Ivory Scraper

You can purchase an ivory scraper for instances where you have tried the toothpaste, milk, rubbing alcohol, and dampen cloth. Ivory scrapers are for those stubborn stains that just don’t seem to want to budge no matter how hard you scrub.

I would contact my piano technician prior to using this tool. Having annoying yellow stains is one thing but destroying your keys will be way more costly if you happen to misuse this tool.

4. Dampen A Clean Cloth

If you find that your ivory keys has a lot of fingerprints, marks, and dirt, just simple use a damp  Even dishwashing liquid will work. Dampen a clean cloth. Be careful not to drench the cloth. Once the cloth is damp, dab on a few drops of the mild soap of your choice. You should use a very, very, small amount of soap. If you see it lather you have used too much soap. Wash the keys off. Use a new clean slightly dampen cloth to wipe the keys dry.

Do not use dish scouring pads or a brush on your ivory keys. These types of products can cause abrasions. Abrasions and scratches may force you to have to replace piano keys.

Since your keys are ivory and not plastic you are going to run into other difficulties such as finding one or two ivory keys or having to replace all the keys either with ivory or plastic keys. Ivory keys were banned in the 1970s so good luck finding a manufacturer!

You will want to avoid using any type of soap that has a fragrance or harsh chemicals. This can be done on a regular basis to keep your ivory keys looking nice and clean. Cleaning time is quick and simple.

5. Use Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol applied to ivory keys is a great option for cleaning stains and smudges. If you want to disinfect keys and give it a good fresh smell, alcohol is the way to go. Apply a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a clean soft cloth.

Do not drench the cloth to avoid alcohol dripping down in between the keys. Use another clean cloth, then, wipe down each key individually from top to bottom. Check to make sure all the alcohol is wiped off of the keys to avoid damage.

Recap

When you are dealing with removal of surface layer dirt and marks, use a clean soft cloth. You can slightly dampen the cloth with warm water and clean it that way. If you prefer you can add a few drops of mild soap.

Be sure to not add to much as you do not want lather to form. In either case always squeeze out any excess water before you use the cloth to avoid dripping liquid in between the keys and access water on keys.

Drenching Ivory piano keys in water can damage the keys and cause them to swell and make them harder to play properly. If you are in doubt about use of any of these techniques for cleaning ivory piano keys, you should contact a professional technician.

 

Joshua Ross

Hello & thanks for stopping by! I'm a professional concert pianist and piano instructor. In the United States, I've given successful performances in several places including New York, Florida, Connecticut, & New Jersey, I have also performed internationally in Italy and made my Carnegie Hall debut in 2014. I enjoy blogging about the piano, the art of performance, general music, current events and the latest in music production.

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