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.