Here’s an easy to follow guide for the often asked question–moreover, how to do things the RIGHT way to preserve your piano’s beautiful ebony and ivories.
If you haven’t already read this article on how to distinguish real ivory keys from modern plastics or resins, go ahead and take a jump over here for a minute: https://anamazingmachine.wordpress.com/ivory_keys/
Don’t worry, this article will still be here for you when you return…
The first step to the process of cleaning keys is a vital one to protect your piano’s functionality against any accidental spills during the process. Even though we won’t be using any harsh chemicals during this process, water can cause damage to the piano cabinet in the form of unsightly rings or water stains. Getting water in between the keys can cause the wooden parts of the keys to swell and stick or rub together, reducing the piano’s play-ability.
If you are cleaning IVORY keys, follow the directions below.
If you are cleaning SYNTHETIC KEYS, follow the directions below, but substitute the toothpaste for a dab of gentle dish soap. If your piano is new, follow your manufacturer’s directions for the specific type of materials used in their keys. Most modern synthetics are cleaned with simple soap and water, but I don’t want to be held responsible for ruining your brand new Steinway Model D.
Materials you will need:
Soft Bristled toothbrush
Two small bowls
Generic toothpaste: (real ivory keys only) brand doesn’t really make a difference, but your generic run of the mill inexpensive toothpaste will do just fine.
Gentle dish soap (synthetics, plastics, resins, etc)
Two soft, non abrasive towels
Here’s our “before” picture in our test subject. Dirt and oil in our hands naturally builds up on ivories over time, causing these dark smudges:
2. To avoid getting water in between keys, first grab your cardboard and cut several small rectangles. They don’t have to be precise, but vary the lengths so some may fit around the black keys, and others will fit between the length of two white keys. If you’re using corrugated cardboard, flatten the cardboard between your fingers, or with a rolling pin, so it will fit snugly between the keys without having to be forced.
3. Take your toothpaste and squeeze about a quarter sized dollop into one of your bowls. Again, toothpaste brand doesn’t make much of a difference, but try to avoid toothpastes with too much “fancy stuff” i.e. “Now with cavity murdering micro robots and radioactive whitening power harnessed from the power of a star 1.4 million light years away!” You get my drift…
4. Add about 3/4 cup of water to the toothpaste. If your tap water is notoriously hard, full of minerals, or other nasty things, you may want to spring for a bottle of distilled water instead. Ivory is porous, and therefore will absorb a bit of whatever it is exposed to.
5. Stir the mixture of toothpaste and water until the toothpaste has completely dissolved and the mixture is cloudy.
6. Place your protective cardboard in all gaps around the key you’re about to clean. It may seem like a labourious process, but trust me, you have far less of a chance of getting things wet that aren’t supposed to be wet if you do it this way. Plus, after a few keys, you’ll get the hang of the process, and it’ll speed up greatly. For the sake of easy picture taking, I’m only going to show cardboard placed around a sharp note.
7. Dip your toothbrush into the toothpaste/water mixture, and firmly tap it against the rim of the bowl to remove any excess. There should be no drips or runs of water coming off of the toothbrush: a simply damp brush will do.
8. Now brush the key gently with the toothbrush, making sure to clean the stems, and if necessary, the fronts of the keys. Go slow and be extra cautions not to drip any extra water in between the keys, or saturate the cardboard.
9. After scrubbing as necessary, dip a cloth into some clean water (no toothpaste) and rinse the surface of the key you just cleaned.
The black keys may be cleaned in the same manner, minus the toothpaste. Use a bit of clean distilled water, or distilled water and dish soap to clean the black keys if they are made of plastic or ebony. Badly smudged ebony keys may be spiffed up a bit by using extremely fine grit (3000+) sandpaper, but is not recommended unless you know what you’re doing, as you may easily dull or remove the black finish on these keys.
Yellowed Keys: Ivory yellows naturally. Like your teeth, if you don’t keep them clean, they will turn on you. To help avoid this, keep your piano within range of a bit of natural INDIRECT sunlight. Sunlight does wonders for whites, and will “bleach” ivory back to its natural white. However, ivory keys left in sunlight that is too direct are at risk of having their glues melt, causing the keytop to pop off. Animal hide and PVC-E glues are both heat soluble to facilitate easy repair, and heat will eventually melt and weaken the glue, and also may crack or warp the ivory itself.
In closing, an interesting factoid: A piano tuner’s manual from 1911 that resides in my library recommends sealing each ivory key with a wipe of white milk after cleaning. I’ve never done so, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but I’ve often wondered if it actually works….
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