How to Clean Plastic or Ivory Piano Keys?

If playing the piano is your passion, you most likely own a piano or a keyboard. As the saying goes practice makes perfect and you need to hone your skill by practicing every day. One of the major aspects of playing the piano is keeping the keys as clean as possible. Dirt like skin oils and dust can accumulate on and in between the keys regardless of whether you play the piano frequently or rarely. Either ways, your piano needs to be cleaned regularly. 

What Is the Difference Between Plastic and Ivory Keys?

Before learning how to clean your piano keys, the first step is to understand the difference between plastic and ivory keys. In short, the keys on a keyboard are plastic but the keys on a piano are made of ivory. However, pianos made in recent years are less likely to be made of ivory.

Firstly, Ivory keys are often rare and hard to find, and in addition to this the keys are not pure white, but rather an off-white color. Over time the keys can become yellow, and should be whitened but this requires more dedication and attention when cleaning.

Ivory Keys

Ivory keys are very porous, meaning it is easier for stains and dirt to accumulate deeper in the keys, making it more difficult to clean. Unlike plastic keys, the texture in ivory keys makes it easier for debris, sweat and dust to accumulate. 

Although ivory keys are likely to have more dust and dirt than regular, this does not mean that they need to be scrubbed. Ivory keys are very delicate and this can only lead to scratch marks on the keys. Additionally, you need to ensure that the alcohol and other cleaning products used don’t stay on the keys for too long. This can result in wear and tear of the keys as they dry out.  

Plastic Keys

On the other hand, the process for cleaning plastic keys is much simpler and does not require the same time and effort as cleaning ivory keys. However, it is important to dry the keys as soon as you clean them as this can wear out plastic keys. 

How Can You Tell If You Have Pure Ivory Keys?

Often, older and more vintage pianos tend to have ivory keys but this is not always the case. Hence, there are a few ways to determine whether or not your piano has pure ivory keys. 

The first thing to look for in piano keys is its texture. As mentioned previously, ivory keys are porous and tend to have certain indentations and textures that plastic keys have. They keys tend to have a smooth finish making it harder for a piano player to grip the keys. 

Older pianos have keys that tend to be made of ivory. Hence, if your piano was built in the 60s or 70s, there is a good chance that the keys are ivory. For those who are unsure of when the piano was built, the serial numbers on the keyboard make it easy to identify when the piano was made. 

Each ivory key is made of two parts joined together. If you look closely at the keys, you can identify the shape of the keys. Keys that are not made of ivory will not have this separation. Each key has a grain that is not there in plastic keys.

Pianos that have been built in recent years are not made of ivory keys but you may find keys with an ‘ivory top’. This is because in 1972, the trade of ivory was banned as a lot of elephants were being hunted down. Therefore, only pianos made prior to the 1970s have keys made of ivory. 

Modern piano keys are made of resin. This is a material that is more resistant to chipping and debris making them more durable in the long run. 

How to Clean Your Keyboard Keys?

All the digital piano keyboards will have plastic keys. Ivory is more outdated these days. Here're the instructions to clean your keyboard keys.

When cleaning your piano keys, you need to use a soft cloth. This could even be an old rag or t-shirt as long as it has a soft texture. 

Next, you will need a empty spray bottle as you will need to create your own cleaning liquid, the commercially sold disinfectants are too strong for piano keys.

Fill this bottle with water and 2 table spoons of a gentle liquid soap (a hand-wash soap is recommended). Shake the bottle and you are good to go. 

Take the spray bottle and spray it onto the soft cloth, don’t spray the liquid directly on the keys as this could damage them.

Wipe the keys from the back of keys to the front, using little to no pressure. This will remove any dirty spots on the piano.

Wipe each key individually rather than wiping across the keyboard as you may miss a few spots on the edges and corners of the keys.

Leaving spots in between the keys can give you trouble when you press on them and try to release.

You can work your way from one side of the keyboard to the other by wiping on the front and back of the keys. When you are done cleaning the top and bottom of keys, you need to focus on the front of the keys.

Like before, you need to clean the front of each key rather than the across. After you have thoroughly wiped down the keys, you can use a light feather duster to clean up any debris. 

Here's a detailed video:

This cleaning technique can be used for both plastic and ivory keys however, ivory keys require special care and attention as discussed below.

How to Clean Ivory Keys?

 Take a spare cloth and add a layer of toothpaste. Toothpaste contains a brightening agent that will remove any dirt on the ivory keys and add some shine.

Next, take a separate piece of cloth and add a few drops of milk to lightly dampen the cloth. Milk contains fatty acids and calcium that can protect piano keys from dirt. Gently dab the keys with the damp cloth and finally wipe down the keys with a new, dry soft cloth. 

If you find that the milk and toothpaste is not enough to brighten and clean your piano keys, the best solution would be to an ivory scraper. This is used for deep stains that are hard to get rid of. But remain cautious when using this tool as it can damage the keys if it is not used in the right way.  

Using the steps above, you can ensure that your piano keys are as clean as possible, be it ivory or plastic. In addition to keeping your piano clean also make sure that you or anyone else playing the piano washes their hands before they play. This can help reduce the dirt and oil from the skin to accumulate on the piano.  

Another great option is using rubbing alcohol to clean your piano keys. This is for those stubborn stain that won’t go away and require a more powerful cleaning agent.

You need to apply a few drops of the alcohol on a clean soft cloth. Once you are done cleaning the piano keys, use a soft dry cloth to re-wipe the keys again. 

Conclusion

Cleaning and maintaining a piano or a keyboard is necessary. It'll will not only make your piano look like a new one, it'll also improve your overall playing experience. 

I'd recommend cleaning it atleast every 3 months. It won't take up much of your time and it's totally worth doing it. 

However, If you have ivory keys, you've to take care of them as they are more delicate and fragile. I'd recommend cleaning them atleast every 6 months. 

Feel free to share your suggestions below!

About the Author Wendell A Wiese

I'm the lead researcher and content manager at PianoNadu. I test various different digital pianos and share our unbiased reviews here. We test them on various different aspects and make sure it passes our quality criteria. During my college years, I was a part of my college band known as DMT. I was the Pianist in our band. My love for playing the piano grew during middle school. Read more about me here

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