Dr Piano Tells All 


rev. 11-29-13
Cleaning Ivory Keys


By: Elizabeth Atkins

Cleaning Ivory Keys

Plastic keytops are usually one piece, with no division between the front (wide part) and the tail (slender back part). Ivory keytops usually have a butt joint which you may see as a black line between the front and the tail. Very occasionally, you will get a plastic keytop which tries to mimic an ivory keytop by having a narrow score line where the butt joint would be. Look at the texture of the key. Ivory has a pattern of sworls, much like a fingerprint. Plastic is smooth. Both plastic and ivory can become yellowed, so that is usually not good as a guide

Cleaning ivory is a little different from cleaning plastic. First of all, ivory is porous; any water you leave standing on it will penetrate through to the glue (usually animal hide glue which is water soluble) which holds the ivory slip onto the key stock and release the joint. Water left on the keytop will also cause it to curl.

Because using water based cleaning products can lead to so many problems, I usually use acetone, otherwise known as nail polish remover. You can get pure acetone at any drug store. It is possible to scrub the natural (white) ivories with this, using extreme care, without removing the keys from the keyframe. You do need to be super careful not to get any acetone on the black keys (sharps) since it will take the finish off. You could use a Q-tip as your scrubber, or a cotton rag folded extremely compactly and pointed at the tip to do this procedure.

Even better than acetone, I like this metal polish Maas International Metal Polish, 4-Ounce.  I know, I know.  It says metal polish, but what it really is is jeweler's rouge in a suspension, which makes it ideal for cleaning and polishing ivory.  Of course, you can also clean your silver with it.  Or apparently, your fiberglass RV.

The fronts of ivory covered keys are usually not ivory, but plastic. This can lead to you making a big mess if you get the acetone on the front of the keys, so be careful! If you aren't careful, the stuff will melt the keyfronts. Again, you will probably be able to tell the difference if you look closely; ivory will have a texture and pattern to it that plastic just won't. Also remember that even on pianos that you think are too old for plastic, plastic has been around a really long time.

If you want to have the keys off of the piano for this project and you have an upright piano, please refer to Cleaning Your Upright Piano for instructions on how to remove the front panel and then Cleaning the Keybed of Your Upright Piano for instructions on how to take off the fallboard and remove the keys from the piano. Please make sure that you have numbered them first!

You may notice that your keys are very yellowed. Ivory will get yellow when it is kept too long in darkness, So closing the fallboard on your ivory keys is not recommended. However, strong sun which would keep your ivory keys white, will damage the finish on the piano. You just can't win! I have tried using bleach on ivory keytops; they curled. (The water thing.) Really, the only way to get the yellow out, or make it less apparent, is to remove the keys from the piano, sand the tops with superfine sandpaper (400-600 grit) and a sanding block, and then follow that with polishing with a product that contains jewelers' rouge, or buffing on a wheel. The sanding will leave fine scratch marks on the key which you really don't want. That's why you must polish to get those marks out.