Ivory Keys or Plastic Keys?

This is a question that I and many other piano technicians get asked on a constant basis. Are the keys of my piano made out of ivory? If the answer is yes, then nine times out of ten the next question regards the value of either the key set or the piano in general. But how does one tell if you have the ‘ol ebony and ivory, or just imitation plastic? And what are ivory keys really worth in today’s market? Well, let’s put forth some answers and dispel some myths regarding this often misconstrued topic.

First, let’s discuss the advantages of each material.

Ivory was used on just about every piano made previous to about 1930 (the date is not exact by any means). Even today, pianos with ivory keys are in high demand by the discriminating pianist for its many advantageous properties when compared to plastics. Ivory keys are better to the touch, more responsive, and less likely to “stick” to one’s fingers because of perspiration that may accumulate while one is playing a particularly difficult piece. Ivory absorbs sweat, which provides for a better feel of the instrument in general.

However, ivory keys are more susceptible to chipping or cracking, especially at the ends, than their plastic or resin counterparts.

Plastic keys were introduced with the advent of better plastic technology that came around 1929. Plastics were cheaper, easier to work with, and less prone to the damage caused by extensive abuse and wide temperature changes that easily damaged ivory. Plastic was also far cheaper than ivory, and seeing as how the great stock market crash of 1929 launched the United States into the Great Depression, the surviving piano makers were looking for every possible way to make the piano more affordable.

Plastic maintains a stronghold as the material of choice of piano keys to the present day. After the recovery of the economy, materials were short due to the onset of World War II, and the few pianos that were produced during this time followed the same mantra of being an affordable investment. With the Ivory ban of the ’80′s, plastic would forever remain king as key covers.

Today, on higher end pianos, resins are also used as an alternative to plastics–their major advantage being that they are even more resistant to cracking, chipping or yellowing than their counterparts. However, they are more expensive to produce than plastic. But plastics and resins are both privvy to the characteristic “crescent moon” chips at the end flange (closest to you, as you are sitting at the piano), especially with repeated abuse. Cheap plastic keys also yellow easily, with no easy remedy.

So how do you tell whether your key tops are ivory?

Luckily, there is an easy tell, with no research needed.

Some plastics imitate ivory very well, with reproduction “veins” on the surface, and similar luster and feel. However the production of ivory keys differ in one major way from plastics. Ivory keys are made in three pieces–key, stem and front, where as plastic keytops only have two pieces–the top and front.

If you look closely at the keys, you can see the fine line that is the joint between the keytop and the stem. If this line is present, your keys are indeed ivory. Here’s an example:

So now this new information begs the question: What are these puppies worth? Well, in all reality, ivory key tops are too small and too thin to be useful for much of anything. Barring the occasional artist that will buy piano ivories for a carving project, perhaps, ivory key tops are primaily only useful for replacing missing or broken key tops on other pianos with ivory keys. As a general rule of thumb, you can still potentially get from $100 to around $500 for a complete set of keys, depending on their condition, from somebody who is either looking to replace their existing ivory or plastic key tops with something new. And just in case you were curious–by the time you find a piano tech willing to put in the time and effort to track down a complete set of keys and replace the ones on your piano, you’re probably looking to spend around $1,000.

And finally: How does one properly care for ivory keys to prevent yellowing, cracking, warping, and dirt accumulation? Well, the answer is actually quite simple. About twice a year, or as needed for dirtiness, gently brush each key with a small amount of whitening toothpaste, and wipe clean with a damp cloth and let dry. Also, ivory keys yellow when not exposed to light for long periods of time. A bit of INDIRECT sunlight, at least for the majority of each day will keep your keys sparkling white and brand-new looking. however, excessive direct sunlight may melt the glue holding each keytop to the key underneath, and also may cause the ivory itself to crack or warp.

 

 

 

27 thoughts on “Ivory Keys or Plastic Keys?

  1. Louise says:

    And it obviously doesn’t bother you at all that 100 African elephants are murdered EVERY DAY for their ivory.

    • bdpt109 says:

      You are obviously missing the point of this article. I would invite you to take your insane-o “save the poor baby elephants” crap to some left leaning environmental animal rights blog where it will be appreciated. My business is pianos. Antique piano keys are made of ivory. If you could read, you would see in the article that piano keys haven’t been made out of ivory since the 1930′s BECAUSE of the poor baby elephants. No one kills elephants for piano keys. And you madam, are a moron.

      • Kim says:

        thanks for a great response to Louise but more to the point, thank you for the useful information.

      • Ron says:

        I think your response to Louise is fair, ” Cruel but fair” as Monte Python might say. Old Ivory keytops from 80 years ago is no longer killing elephants and the few new sets of keytops are all made from Ivory that is not aquired through poaching or killing of elephants. There is an organization that is very aggressive about illegal ivory sales.

        My 1907 Hamilton Chicago Upright/ Cabinet Grand has what I was told was top qualtiy Ivory. Unfortunately about half of the tops are chipped. I waterfalled the worst section but don’t care for that look.or feel. Now I am looking into a good immitation set of plasic or whatever is best. Not Ivory. I will save the good old ones in case I pick up another worthy project. My question is about thickness. I was told by one tuner that some replacement sets are thick enough to make vertical travel of the key less than it should be. Have you ever run into this? If so, is there a optimal thickness for the new tops and tails? I would expect that if it is a problem I could order a thinner back rail felt to increase the travel but the piano was built right the first time so I don’t want to screw it up.

      • bdpt109 says:

        Hi Ron!

        What I would do (and have done in this situation) is gently pop off a couple existing keytops, measure with a micrometer, and then decide as follows: if you’re using plastic and PVC-E glue, order roughly the same thickness. If you’re using resin, I’d go slightly THINNER than what the ivories were. This is only a rule of thumb, and your local piano technician/keytop provider may be able to help you make a decision in this respect. I’ve found that some of the resins are thicker, and do cause shorter key travel than is ideal. Also, newer glues, like PVC-E, have a tendency to dry thicker than hot animal hide glue. You may be able to adjust by changing pin rail/back rail shims/felt, but you’ll find yourself tinkering (and pulling your hair out) for longer than is necessary.
        Feel free to email at any time!

        Best,
        Brian

    • Kelly says:

      RUDE !! Even worse ignorant and inappropriate. I mean Louise I can hear 99 African Elephants blowing water in the air in amazement of your lack in “reading words”! P.S. It should bother you that your careless rant towards this “professional HUMAN being” who is in fact here helping people like myself…. They articulated clearly an expertise on this subject and with integrity of an ELEPHANT!!!

  2. I inherited my childhood piano which my mother also inherited. Today I was reunited with it after many years and realized it had taken some wear while in storage. I have decided to do most of cleaning myself as a project. It is a hoffman and czerny so I needed to know if the keys were ivory or plastic. I found this information helpful to determine this. It is important to know the difference as cleaning and maintenance is different for each. they are ivory keys. I did not kill the elephants and it is very unfortunate that such a majestic creature was killed for them. I Live in africa and the trade continues to this day albeit reduced. Thank you for writing this which I believe was the point.

    • bdpt109 says:

      I’m very glad indeed that the article was able to help! Although I too am very much against elephant poaching and the contraband trafficing of their ivory, I find it very difficult not to respond negatively when someone blames illegal activities on something that was legally produced a long time ago. It is unfortunate that any creature was killed for any purpose, but this should only make the proper maintenance and care of ivory keys that much more important. Good luck on your project! All the best!
      Brian

  3. Hi Brian, Love your postings. We have a 1876 Bradbury Square Grand Piano. The keys are in good to fair with some chips, small cracks on the edges of a few and some yellowing. Any do’s or don’ts to help preserve them? Should I look for someone with a complete set or just replace the chips ones? Or neither. Best. Steven

    • bdpt109 says:

      Hi Steven!

      Good question…when it comes to repairing/replacing a keyset, a lot of judgement comes into play. Personally, I’m more apt to do all I can to preserve as much as the original keyset as possible–especially on an instrument as old as your Bradbury. Cracks and chips are only cosmetic in nature, and should not affect functionality. Cracks can usually be filled by using an ivory compound that blends them back into the keytop. Chips are more tricky to reconcile, and usually call for the replacement of the ivory. The old ivory can be removed using nothing more than a household clothes iron. Several vendors specialize in dealing with replacement ivories cultivated from donor pianos, and will do their best to match a replacement ivory to your original. Some vendors even have pre-ban ivory on hand, and will make bespoke keytops to your specifications–effective, but not necessarily practical, seeing as how this will run into some serious $$$$. Donor keytops will usually run $5-10 per replacement, but keep in mind that any donor top will not match perfectly. The only way to ensure perfect matching would be to replace the entire keyset–a nearly impossible proposition if you want to remain with ivory.
      Yellowing can be improved by a thorough cleaning with a whitening toothpaste. After brushing carefully, using a rag dipped in whole milk will help seal the key. Rinse with water and dry thoroughly before replacing the key onto the piano. Also, be cautious not to excessively wet the wood sides of the keys beneath the ivory–doing so will usually result in sticking when the keys are re-installed. If you have any more questions, or would like more detailed procedures, please feel free to write or call.
      Best,
      Brian

  4. Darren says:

    Thank you so much for the information, I recently acquired a Haines Bros. upright in great shape for $50 made in 1923 and we love it and it will be a family heirloom.

  5. MCP says:

    Thanks Brian, the information was helpful.

  6. Frank says:

    My question is regarding replacement of keys on a vintage Crown piano, my parents replaced the original keys on a piano with probably 110 plus yrs of beautiful wear on the ivory keys, (which for me was like stripping the history & character from this family airloom that had come across the states in a covered wagon and spent over 60 yrs in a church) As I am familiar with todays standard for collectors of antique’s that original & untouched is the rule these days, I am wondering what effect replacing the keys with new has on the value of the piano??

    • bdpt109 says:

      Hi Frank!

      This is a very good question, but unfortunately one that comes with a lot of “grey area” in the answer. You’ll find a couple of different schools of thought on this one, and I’ll give you the rundown on each. Firstly, there are collectors who are obsessive with keeping antiques in completely original condition, as I’m sure you are familiar with. These people will pay top dollar for a certain type of piano, as long as it has been relatively untouched during its lifespan. This faction of collectors is a rare breed within the realm of the piano trade. Pianos are machines with thousands of moving parts–parts that wear out, dry out and break over the course of time–with or without proper maintenance. Felts, hammers, strings, and yes, even ivories, will wear out and crack/break over the life of the piano. Personally, I will only replace ivories in the event that they are so severely damaged as to make the piano completely unplayable. To me, a piano is of no use if the keys are in such poor condition they cannot be used properly. In that event, I will replace the entire set of keys with replacement resin keytops. It is possible to replace a broken/damaged key with a replacement ivory, however, it is nearly impossible to come up with an exact match to the rest of the keyset, and will likely cause an eyesore if done improperly.
      So, is your parents’ piano worth any less? If the instrument was still usable with the keys it had on it before, I would say yes. However, if it was no good as a piano, then no. Depending on the condition of the rest of the piano/model/year built, the value may be affected slightly more or less than it otherwise would be. Do you have pictures/serial numbers that you can provide me to get a better idea of what we’re dealing with? I’ll do my best to give you a better idea, once I know the full details.

      All the best!

      Brian

  7. Elephant Lover says:

    Your advice has been very helpful as we just bought a beautiful Mueller & Haines Walnut upright from 1937. The keys are splitting slightly and we will try your advice. Killing elephants is not cool, and slavery is wrong; Americans no longer do either; so get over it!
    Thanks bdpt109

    • bdpt109 says:

      That’s exciting to hear! Mueller & Haines made some gorgeous pianos, and I’m sure yours will find itself as an heirloom for a long time to come. If the keys are splitting/have rough edges or cracks, you may also want to try smoothing its surfaces out with VERY fine grit sand paper–2000 grit automotive wet sandpaper. Go slowly and carefully being careful not to cut too quickly, which may cause discoloration. If you want further advice or tips, feel free to contact me at any time!
      Best!
      Brian

  8. Just Me says:

    Woo Hoo! Just found out the keys on the piano we took apart are ivory!! Now what to do with them. Thanks for the great info. It was so easy to tell.

  9. Chris says:

    I have worked on several instruments, especially German ones that have one piece ivory keys. It is not the norm, but certainly not so exceedingly rare as to propose a rule that all keys of one piece construction are not ivory. Ivory has a grain, like wood. It can either be flat cut, where the grain lines tend to be in v shaped patterns, or quarter sawn, where it will be in straight lines. This is rare, but I have seen it on some older instruments of very high quality. Plastic has no grain, and the simulated ivory plastic also has a fake grain that does not look like wood, but more of a swirly mother of pearl look. It also has no pores like ivory does.

  10. william barbour says:

    I’m looking over your website, but I don’t see direct contact information. I note your information about ivory key cleaning, but do you have information/advice about restoring natural color to yellowed ivory keys? Also saw your estimate for case restoration? Where are you located?

  11. Allison Williams says:

    I just purchased what I believe is a 1940′s wurlitzer baby grand piano. It has real ivory keys. About 10 bottom pieces are missing but owner gave me 4 to glue back on. Should I get more ivory or replace with plastic? Hoping this piano isn’t junk. I paid 700.00 for it. Will get it next week. It sounded good when I played it.

    • bdpt109 says:

      Hello Allison!

      That really depends on how much you’re willing to spend on replacement tops, and/or your preferences regarding cosmetics/playability etc. There are sites that will try and match ivory as close as they are able, but it will never be a 100% match. Your local piano technician (if you have one close by) may also be able to help in your search. If looks are your concerned, the entire keyset can be replaced with resin/plastic, usually for the cost of a few hundred dollars parts and labor. Sorry I can’t give you a more detailed answer past “personal preference,” but I’ve gone both ways with this one. Some folks are only concerned with looks, others want the sentimentality of real ivory. If it was my piano, I’d stick with ivory, but that’s me.
      Also, it’s worth mentioning that if you decided to glue the keytops yourself (a fairly easy procedure), you MUST use PVC-E glue. This glue is specially formulated for gluing ivory keytops, and other glues will damage the materials. Don’t be like a recent client of mine and attempt to gorilla glue them back on. It was a mess… Feel free to contact me for further information as you find necessary.

      Best,
      Brian

  12. Eric C says:

    Thanks for this information. It’s quite helpful. I’m in the process of learning the piano technician trade myself and I just acquired a 1917 H.P. Nelson. Cosmetically it’s in very good shape and been well cared for. It’s had some restorative work done on it at some point. The pedals are a lot newer than 1917.(It would be nice to make them look a little more antique) The thing that’s puzzling to me is why someone would paint the keys. Yes, there’s flaking white tempera paint on them. Is it possible to remove that without doing too much damage?

    Otherwise it’s cosmetically sound and quite attractive (mahogany). Some scratches here and there, but nothing major. I’ve done a couple of pitch raisings on it and it’s holding it’s tune pretty well. I’ll definitely be doing some work on the action but it seems like a really well built instrument that on the whole has been well taken care of. Incidentally I saw your restoration of the player piano. You do beautiful work. Thanks again for this web page and information. All the best, Eric

    • bdpt109 says:

      Hello Eric, and glad to hear from you! I’ve seen painted keys once before, and it left me, (as I’m sure it left you) shaking my head. These keys can be cleaned, but “patience” is the key word. I’d start with slightly warm water and a fine plastic bristled brush. If you find that it does not remove the paint to your satisfaction, I would recommend travelling to your local auto parts store and buying some 2000-3000 grit automotive wet sandpaper. Get the paper wet and gently work off the layers of paint until you’re down to the ivory. Again, don’t over do it. On the player I restored, someone had taken a sharpie marker and written the note names of each key in purple directly on the key. It took me about a week to clean the numbers/letters off each key, using sandpaper. Hope this helps! Feel free to email at anytime!

      Best,
      Brian

  13. Peter Begg says:

    I am Peter…I have a Koch & Sohne upright engraved with lettering showing it was made for an exhibition in 1889…what sort of material would be on these keys…they are in good condtion

    • bdpt109 says:

      Hello Peter!
      Have you looked at how the keys are constructed? If the tops consist of three pieces (look for the “joint” on the keytop), it is likely ivory. I’d venture to say that with a piano that old there’s a very good chance they are indeed ivory, but without seeing them for myself, I can’t say with 100% certainty.

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