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How To Tell If Piano Keys Are Ivory

The ivory keys of a piano have a long history dating back to the early days of the instrument. Made from the tusks of elephants, ivory was the material of choice for keyboard instruments due to its strength and durability. They’re also popular for their ability to absorb moisture, preventing a pianist’s fingers from slipping off the keys while playing. Out of curiosity, you find yourself in an endless search looking for ways how to tell if piano keys are ivory. This post is for you!

The majority of piano keys back in the day were made of ivory from elephants, walruses, narwhals, and even hippopotami. 

The most common method of telling your piano keys are made of ivory is by the color and patina of the keys. Real ivory keys tend to be off-white or yellowish in color and may have a smooth or textured surface. 

How to Tell If Your Piano Has Real Ivory Keys?

There are several ways to tell if you’re looking for proof that your piano keys are ivory.

1. Check the Color of the Keys

One way to tell if your piano keys are ivory is by their color. Real ivory keys will have a yellowish tinge to them, while fake ivory keys usually come off as pure white. Often, you can also see a patina on ivory keys, which is a natural yellowing that occurs over time. This may make the keys appear even more yellow.

To the trained eyes, they can determine piano’s age by its ivory keys. Newer pianos will have brighter white keys, while an older piano’s ivory keys would have turned slightly yellowish from age.

2. Look for Textures on the Surface of the Keys

Another way to tell if your piano keys are ivory is by looking for textures on the surface of the keys. Real ivory keys will often have a smooth or textured surface. Fake ivory keys, on the other hand, will usually have a smooth surface.

3. Test with a Needle

While this might seem like a destructive way of testing, using a needle is considered to be the simplest method. Caution: There’s a slight chance you might damage your key, so test it out in an inconspicuous area first.

Heat up the needle until it’s red-hot, then touch it to the surface of the key. If the key is made of ivory, you won’t notice any damage. Ivory is known for its durability and is able to withstand high temperatures. However, if the key is made of plastic, the needle will leave a small mark.

However, if the key is made of a different material, like plastic, the needle will leave a small mark.

4. Test with Ultraviolet Light

If you’re able to get your hands on a UV light, you can use it to test if your piano keys are ivory. Ivory is known to fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so if your keys glow bright white or blue under UV light, chances are they’re made of ivory.

Otherwise, if the keys don’t glow or only emit a faint light, they’re most likely made of plastic.

5. Check for Marks or Stamps on the Keys

If you’re still unsure whether your piano keys are ivory, you can check for marks or stamps on the keys. Many manufacturers would stamp their products with a logo or name to show that they’re made of ivory.

While this method is not foolproof, it’s a good way to narrow down your options.

old piano, antique

6. Carefully Inspect the Keys

Do you know what sets ivory keys apart from plastic ones? Ivory has Schreger lines – these are naturally occurring patterns only found on ivory. They could either have diamond patterns or parallel lines.

On the other hand, plastic keys will have a smooth surface with no patterns. You may use a magnifying glass to get a better look.

7. Check with an Expert

If you’re still unsure after trying all the methods above, the best way is to seek a professional’s help. Aside from being able to tell if your piano keys are ivory, a professional will also be able to tell you the age and value of your instrument.

Are Piano Keys Made of Ivory?

The answer is both yes and no. While the majority of piano keys used to be made of ivory, that is no longer the case. In recent years, there has been a shift towards using synthetic materials, such as plastic, for keyboard instruments.

Plastic keys are easier to produce and are more affordable than ivory keys. While real ivory has a different feel than plastic, some manufacturers have found a way to replicate that feeling. For example, Yamaha uses a plastic material called Ivorite for their piano keys that mimics the look and feel of real ivory.

Another alternative to plastic is tagua nut, which is a sustainable and environmentally-friendly material. Sourced from the ivory nut palm, this vegetable ivory is often used to coat piano keys. Unfortunately, its smaller size means that its applications are quite limited.

Are Piano Keys Still Made of Ivory?

The use of ivory for piano keys has been banned in many countries, including the United States. Ethically, the harvesting of ivory is a controversial topic, as it often results in the death of elephants.

As a result, you won’t find any new pianos with ivory keys on the market today. Antique or vintage pianos are the only ones that still have ivory keys, which is why they are often quite valuable.

If you have an old piano with ivory keys, you can have them refinished to restore its original appearance.

Take note, though, that trading ivory has been completely banned in most countries, so you won’t be able to sell your piano keys unless they are part of a registered antique.

When Did They Stop Using Ivory for Piano Keys?

There had been a long-standing debate over the use of ivory for piano keys, with many advocating for a ban on the practice. The issue came to a head in 1950, with multiple laws ordering the stop of the ivory trade.

It was finally in 1970 when the total ban was put into place. Since then, the use of ivory for piano keys has been illegal, and alternative materials have been sought out.

elephant tusks

How to Clean Ivory Piano Keys?

Prized for its durability and beauty, ivory is a material that requires special care. Its beauty and value can be preserved with the right care.

If you have an ivory piano, it’s important to know how to clean and protect the keys. Ivory is a porous material, which means that it can easily absorb dirt, dust, and oils. This can lead to discoloration and dullness over time.

Here are some tips on how to clean ivory piano keys:

Dust Off Your Keys Regularly

The first step to keeping your ivory keys clean is to dust them off regularly. A soft, dry cloth can be used for this purpose. Be sure to go in the direction of the grain to avoid damaging the surface.

Cleaning your piano keys in between uses will prevent dirt and grime from building up and making them harder to clean.

Carefully Choose Your Cleaning Solution

The next step is to choose the right cleaning solution. Mild soap and warm water can be used for general cleaning. NEVER use harsh chemicals or abrasive materials, as these could damage the piano keys.

Specific piano cleaning solutions are also available on the market. These are usually in the form of a spray and can be used for tougher stains.

You might notice that your keys turn yellow as they age. As mentioned earlier, it’s the ivory’s patina, which is a thin layer of oxide that forms on the surface. It’s worth noting that no amount of cleaning product can turn your piano keys back to their original white color.

While some people might view it as a sign of age, others find it to be quite beautiful. If the patina has developed an even yellow color, it can actually increase the value of your piano.

Use a Gentle Touch

When cleaning your ivory keys, always use a gentle touch. Harsh scrubbing can damage the surface and affect its appearance. Depending on the severity of the dirt or stain, you might need to clean your keys several times.

Always check the product instructions before application. Some products may require you to leave the solution on for a certain amount of time before wiping it off.

soft cloth on piano, cleaning piano

Use a Soft Toothbrush for Hard-to-Reach Areas

There will be some areas that are harder to reach with a cloth. In between keys, you’ll find small cracks and crevices. A soft toothbrush can be used to get into these areas and remove any dirt buildup or grime.

Be sure to rinse off the toothbrush after each use to avoid transferring dirt back onto the keys.

Dry Your Keys Thoroughly

After cleaning your ivory keys, be sure to dry them thoroughly. Using a different dry cloth, wipe off any residual moisture. Leaving your keys damp could lead to discoloration or even mold growth.

Final Thoughts

Old pianos with ivory keys are beautiful and unique pieces of history. Unfortunately, due to the ivory trade ban, they’re also quite rare.

If you’re lucky enough to own one, caring for the keys is essential to preserving its value. With the right care, your ivory piano keys can last for generations! Simply follow the tips above to keep them clean and looking their best.