How to Tell if Piano Keys are Ivory

Since the mid-1800s, many pianos had keys made from elephant ivory. How to tell if piano keys are ivory? In this article, we are sharing several practical ways to identify ivory piano keys.

Ivory has been treasured since ancient times for its unique qualities. Moreover, ivory had been a status symbol in many cultures. It represented power and wealth.

The ivory trading had hurt the elephant population substantially. It declined greatly in the 1900s which resulted in restrictions and bans on ivory trading in the late 1900s.

What are Ivory Piano Keys?

The piano was invented over 300 years ago. Traditionally, piano keys were made from wood entirely. However, in a span of about a hundred years, from 1840 – 1940, ivory became a preferred keytop material due to its hardwearing, durable nature, and aesthetic beauty. Ivory made pianos more elegant.

It was also noted that the ivory keys absorb perspirations from the players’ fingers, so the pianists could have a better grip on the keys and reduce finger slippage.

On the other hand, ivory is a natural material and it is porous. Hence the ivory keys are much more susceptible to dirt and have to be cleaned more often.

Since the mid-century 1900s, the majority of western piano manufacturers discontinued their use of ivory on piano keys. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that the remaining manufacturers in Asia and parts of Europe stopped using ivory after it was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

How to Tell if Piano Keys are Ivory

Ivory has some unique characteristics that can be used to identify the piano keys. If you do not have any special tools, a visual inspection can reveal a lot.

Visual Observation

First, the most obvious observation is the yellow keys. Ivory turns yellow naturally over time, just like human teeth. If you have a piano that was made before 1970 and the keys turned yellow, chances are that the piano has ivory keys.

ivory keytops

However, some well-maintained ivory keys may not be yellow. Another way is to check the joint line on the white keys. When we refer to an ivory piano key, it is not the whole key of solid ivory. It is actually a wooden key covered by a thin layer of ivory on the top and the sides. The ivory keytops usually are two parts with a joint line. If you see the join line on your piano keys, the keytops are most likely ivory.

Another inspection you can visually do is to use a magnifying glass and carefully search for grain on the surface of the keys. Ivory is a natural material and the grain patterns are the “fingerprints” of ivory.

Hot Pin Test

The hot pin test has been around for as long as plastic has been made to look like ivory. However, there’s a problem with it: it causes slight damage to your key. Therefore, this destructive test should be the last resort, not the first.

Find a very fine and sharp needle, use a tool (a pair of pliers) to hold it over a flame so that it glows red hot, and then poke a piano key. If the needle melts a tiny hole or makes a slight dent in the key, your piano keys are plastic. Ivory is tough, strong, and very heat-resistant. A hot needle will not make a dent or a hole in ivory.

Since the hot pin or hot needle could make a tiny hole in your plastic piano key, it is best to use it on a spot not easily noticeable, maybe on a key at the piano end.

Using Ultraviolet Light

If you have an Ultraviolet (UV) lamp or torch, it would be easy to identify ivory since ivory fluoresces under UV light and appears bluish-white.

When you hold a UV torch over the piano keys, if the keys illuminate bright white or bluish colors, the keytops are ivory. The artificial materials absorb UV light and reflect no light.

Asking a Professional

Additionally, in order to know how to tell if piano keys are ivory, you can always ask an expert. They can be ivory professionals, piano makers, antique specialists, or piano dealers.

If you have a loose keytop from your piano, you can take it to one of the aforementioned experts for examination. If you do not have a loose piece and do not wish to lift a piece from your piano, you may need to invite an expert to come to the piano.

The expert will do a more thorough test using some or all of the above methods, and more importantly, leverage his/her experience in the field to determine if your piano keys are ivory.

How to Clean Ivory Piano Keys?

cleaning piano

The first step to cleaning ivory keys is preparation. It is critical to protect your piano’s functionality against any accidental spills during the process. Getting liquid in between the keys can cause the wooden parts of the keys to swell and rub together, reducing the piano’s playability. Using paper towels to fill the gaps between the keys will help prevent the cleaning liquid, no matter how mild, from getting inside the piano.

You should not use water to clean ivory piano keys because that makes the keys turn yellow over time. Using rubbing alcohol with a paper towel and lightly wiping the keys should do the trick. It is a good double-purpose action since the alcohol not only cleans the dirt but also disinfects the keys. Additionally, rubbing alcohol evaporates much faster than water, hence, fewer water residues on the keys.

You may clean the black keys in the same manner even though they are not ivory.

How to Deal with Yellowed Keys?

Ivory keys turn yellow naturally. Frequent cleaning, like alcohol wiping, may delay the yellowing process. To further retain the ivory keys “healthy”, keep the piano within range of a bit of natural indirect sunlight. Natural light does wonders for the ivory keys and will turn the ivory back to its natural white. However, the caution here is to avoid direct sunlight on the keys. The heat will eventually melt and weaken the glue, and also may crack the ivory itself.

Are Ivory Piano Keys Worthy?

You may wonder what the ivory piano keys are worth. First of all, it is illegal to trade ivory products. CITES put into law that anything using real ivory would no longer be able to be bought or sold, shipped across state lines, or out of the country. This applies to pianos with real ivory keytops.

In reality, ivory keytops are too thin and small to be useful for much. However, piano repairers and technicians do hold on to some old ivory keytops when they are removed from some old pianos. They use the ivory keytops for historical instrument restoration purposes.

If a piano with ivory keys is already in your family, you can keep it. The idea of not wasting something that’s already in place comes into use. Just keep in mind that they have no value.

Final Thought

In regards to how to tell if piano keys are ivory, there are several easy ways as mentioned above.

There is a distinct beauty in older pianos with ivory keys. If you already have a piano with ivory keys, just appreciate the beauty and enjoy playing.

You will not find any new piano with ivory keys which we are grateful for, and no more sacrifice of elephants for their tusks.

On the other hand, modern man-made materials like plastic or resin options are perfect for piano keys. Many piano keys simulate the natural material with texture on them that provide good grips for players. Nowadays, many digital pianos feature simulated ebony and ivory textures on their keys, for instance, Casio PX-870,

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