As your piano tuner Wilmington DE I am occasionally asked about ivory keys on an older piano. This article will discuss the structure of ivory keys and the following article will discuss proper care if you own a piano with ivory piano keys. This information will be especially useful if you are considering purchasing an older piano with ivory keys, as they require a small amount of special care.

A century ago, ivory was universally used for piano keys, both for its appearance and for its function. Pianists generally prefer the touch of ivory under their fingers. It has a naturally organic feel that is neither too slippery nor too resistant to sliding of the fingers. It also is porous, so it tends to absorb any moisture from the pianist’s fingers that might result from playing a long performance.

The entire key is not made of ivory. The key is a light soft wood, and the ivory pieces are about 1/6″ thick and are glued onto the wood. If you look carefully, you would usually see that each key has two pieces of ivory: a wider piece at the “head” of the key and a thinner piece at the “tail” of the key. This was done to save valuable ivory, since it would be wasteful to discard ivory by making the key cover out of one piece. There were some high-end pianos made in the 1950’s had one piece ivory key tops, but they were the exception.

If you are purchasing an older piano and are trying to determine if the piano has ivory keys, there are two things to look for. First look for the slight dark line separating the head piece from the tail piece. This will be located near the front of each sharp at the intersection of the two pieces. Plastic piano key tops are universally one piece, so that joint between pieces will not exist on a plastic keyboard. The second thing to look for on an ivory keyboard is the grain in the ivory. If you look carefully from an angle, you will see swirling patterns of an organic material. Plastic key tops will just be evenly white. Ultimately, of course, if you are buying a used piano, it is critical to have a professional technician evaluate the condition of the entire instrument, and your piano technician can tell you for sure if they are ivory key tops.

Our next article will discuss the specific care an ivory piano keyboard will require. If you have any other questions about pianos, please let us know. Kenneth Keith Piano Services is your Wilmington DE piano tuning services expert. We also provide professional piano services in Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey and Eastern Shore Maryland.