How to Tell if Piano Keys are Made of Ivory

How to Tell if Piano Keys are Made of Ivory

As a piano technician, one of the questions I am often asked is, “How can I tell if my piano keys are made of ivory?” In the early days of piano making, ivory was the best choice for key tops because it was strong and could absorb moisture. However, the use of ivory has since been banned due to the endangerment of elephant populations and the illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks.

Nowadays, modern pianos and digital pianos use plastic keytops, but older pianos or antique pianos may still have ivory keys. If you suspect that your piano keys are made of ivory, here are some steps to help you determine if they are the real thing.

Step 1: Inspect the keys with a magnifying glass

The first step in identifying whether your piano keys are made of ivory is to inspect them closely with a magnifying glass. Ivory has a fine line or grain on its surface, which may not be visible to the naked eye. The grain on ivory key tops may resemble the pattern of tiny, slightly curved lines that form a rough diamond shape. Plastic keytops lack this characteristic grain and have a smoother surface.

Step 2: Check for color variation

Ivory keytops tend to yellow with age and may have a slightly different color than the white vinyl eraser that is commonly used to clean piano keys. If your piano has yellow keys, it is more likely to have ivory keytops. Additionally, ivory keys are more translucent than plastic keys and may allow more light to pass through.

Step 3: Look at the black keys

If you are still unsure whether your piano keys are made of ivory, take a closer look at the black keys. Ivory black notes are typically less matte and have a slight gloss compared to plastic black notes. Ivory black keys may also have a better grip and feel more comfortable for the piano player.

Step 4: Check the front of the key

The front of the key, where the keytop meets the key itself, can also provide clues as to whether the keytop is made of ivory. Ivory keytops are usually one solid piece that runs from the front of the key to the back. In contrast, plastic keytops are typically glued to the front of the key and have a seam.

Step 5: Test with lemon juice or toothpaste

If you are still unsure whether your piano keys are made of ivory, you can conduct a simple test. Apply a little bit of lemon juice or white toothpaste to a soft cloth and rub it gently on the surface of the keys. Ivory turns a light yellow under high concentration of lemon juice, while plastic remains unchanged. However, be sure to test a small and inconspicuous area first to avoid damaging the keys.


It is important to note that the use of ivory in the piano industry has been banned since the 1970s, and the global treaty in the late 1980s reinforced this ban. As a result, ivory pianos or ivory keytops are now considered to be rare and valuable. If you are a piano owner and suspect that your piano keys are made of ivory, it is a good idea to have them appraised by a piano technician or other expert in the piano community. Additionally, if you are looking to purchase an older piano, be sure to check the piano’s keys for ivory before crossing state lines, as the sale and transportation of ivory is illegal in many parts of the world.

To Sum Up

In conclusion, determining if piano keys are made of ivory requires careful inspection and knowledge of the instrument’s age and origin. If you have an older or antique piano, it’s important to consult with a piano technician or appraiser who has experience with these instruments. For newer pianos, it’s safe to assume that the keys are made of plastic, but it’s always a good idea to check with the manufacturer to be sure.

It’s also important to consider the ethical implications of ivory use in pianos. The ivory trade has contributed to the decline of the elephant population and the practice of illegal poaching. The use of ivory in pianos has been banned in many countries, including the United States, and the piano industry has shifted towards using alternative materials.

Whether your piano keys are made of ivory or plastic, proper maintenance and cleaning are essential to keep them in good shape. Regularly cleaning the surface of the keys with a soft cloth and mild cleaning solution can help prevent discoloration and buildup of oils and dirt. Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that can damage the keys.

As the piano community continues to evolve and adapt to modern instruments and materials, the legacy of ivory keytops remains a part of piano history. Understanding the history and use of ivory in piano manufacturing can help us appreciate the craftsmanship and innovation of earlier piano makers while also promoting the ethical treatment of animals and preservation of endangered species.

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