We all want to maintain the integrity of our expensive acoustic pianos. But what happens when you want to make a significant change, like to the piano’s keytops? If you needed to, would you know how to remove ivory from piano keys without the risk of doing major damage to your piano–or it’s value?
Well, that’s exactly what this article aims to help you with. Whether you’re angry at the thought of elephants being killed for the ivory used in your piano, or your piano keys are turning yellow and you want to replace them, this article will walk you through the various steps of not just removing the ivory keytops, but how you can go about installing new keytops, as well.
Tools to Remove Ivory Keytops
Here are a few tools you’ll need if you want to remove the keytops yourself:
- Single edge razor blade or razor knife
- PVC glue or contact cement
- A heat gun, hair dryer, or clothing iron
Tips for Removing Ivory Keys from a Piano
If you are planning on replacing the key tops without removing the entire key from the piano, you may need to remove the key slip from the front as well. This sometimes requires removing the end block from each side of the piano. If all of this seems like too much work for you, it may be easier to completely remove the keys from the piano and work on them separately. It’s also possible that the key slip may not be removable.
Contact cement and PVC glue both set very quickly. This makes replacing key tops while the keys are still in the piano cabinets possible. If you can replace the keytops without removing the wooden keys, it will save you time and effort. However, it you are having a hard time removing the ivory with the keys still seated, it may be beneficial to remove the wooden keys before working on them.
Spinets and grand pianos require a little more work to remove the entire key, so it may be best to contact a professional if they do not remove easily.
Most piano keys made from ivory included both ivory key tops and fronts. When buying a replacement set of plastic keys for your piano, make sure to purchase a set that includes the fronts.
How to Remove Ivory From Piano Keys
1) You will need access to the interior of the piano. Open the top and remove the fallboard (the piece that covers the keys). The exact interior set up of your piano may differ depending on the model, age, and size. Once you look inside, you should be able to see how to remove the fallboard.
2) Remove the key retaining board (it covers the keys inside the piano). It may be screwed or bolted into place.
3) Number the keys while removing them, so you can be sure they are replaced in the correct spot.
4) You should now be able to lift the key up and remove it from the piano.
5) Working with one key at a time, use a heat gun, hairdryer, or clothing iron to heat the ivory top slightly. You can cover the key with a lightly dampened cloth to prevent any damage to the wood. You only need enough heat to loosen the glue holding the ivory in place.
6) Using the edge of the razor or razor knife, carefully wedge it under a corner of the key between the wood and ivory. You may need to wiggle the knife back and forth to get underneath the ivory. Once the knife is under the ivory, continue applying pressure to separate the pieces.
7) If you come across a key with ivory that is difficult to remove, repeat the heating process and try again. Once the glue softens, the ivory tops should pop right off.
8) Repeat this process on all pieces of ivory on the key tops and the fronts as well.
9) Clean the remaining wood keys with the razor blade or sandpaper to ensure there is no glue left behind.
Installing New Piano Keytops
Apply a thin layer of contact cement to the top of the wooden key and to the new top piece. Allow the glue to set a little bit if using contact cement (PVC glue does not need to set).
Once you’re ready, align the keytop to the key. Use care to make sure the pieces are lined up and centered. And make sure you are putting the right key top onto the correct wooden key (your new keytops should be labeled).
Once you are sure the pieces are lined up correctly, press down and hold them together for at least one minute. If you notice the pieces are not set correctly, quickly peel them apart with the razor knife and start over.
Put the keys back in their position and you’re done!
What to Do With the Ivory From Your Piano Keys?
Some people are mistaken in thinking the ivory from piano keys is very valuable. The truth is they are worth very little because it’s illegal to buy or sell them. Piano dealers and technicians may have a stockpile of old ivory keytops from pianos that have been disassembled or had the ivory removed.
The best thing you could do with the ivory from your keytops is to donate it to a local piano repair shop. Don’t try to sell them, you could face hefty fines and possibly prosecution for very little benefit.
When Did They Stop Using Ivory for Piano Keys?
Most American piano manufactures stopped using ivory around the 1950’s. After the international ban was enacted in 1989, it became illegal to buy or sell ivory worldwide. Even with new regulations in place, the illegal ivory trade continues to be a multi-billion-dollar industry. Environmental conservationists and animal rights activists are still fighting to protect elephants.
Today there are numerous regulations regarding the import and sale of pianos with ivory keys in the United States. Importing ivory of any kind is illegal. If you want to export a piano with ivory keys overseas, or even transport one across state lines here in the U.S., you will need a certificate of authentication verifying your piano is at least 100 years old.
For many piano owners, this could be hard to obtain. You may not even know when your piano was manufactured and obtaining certification can be complicated and expensive. For most piano owners, replacing the key tops of piano before selling it makes more sense.
How to Tell If Your Piano Has Ivory Key Tops
Contrary to what most people believe, piano keys were not made from a solid chunk of ivory. The keys themselves were constructed from wood, and a thin piece of ivory was used to cover the tops and fronts of the key itself. If you have an old piano, and are wondering If the keys are ivory, there are a couple ways to tell.
Ivory tends to yellow, crack, and become brittle with age. If your keys look like this, its possible they were made from ivory.
Ivory tends to have very delicate lines and grooves in the surface. They may be hard to see, buy you might be able to feel them with your fingers. If your keys are completely smooth, they are probably plastic.
The top of the key was usually constructed from two thin pieces of ivory, and if you look very closely to a key made from ivory, you will be able to see the line where the two pieces of ivory meet on the top.
Hire a Pro to Remove Ivory From a Piano?
You might be thinking removing the ivory from piano keys yourself is too much work. Or you may be worried about damaging the piano in the process.
Pianos are very delicate, and risking damage to the wooden keys, interior parts, or the cabinet itself is not worth it for some people. If you fall into one of these categories, you may want to hire a professional to manage the hard part for you.
Most repair technicians will come to your home, remove the keys from your piano, and then take them somewhere to have the ivory removed. They will then replace the tops with plastic keys (or a similar material, but most often plastic is used). They deliver the new keys to your home and install them personally.
This process can assure that no damage comes to your piano during this process, and lets you sit back and relax while someone else does the work!
Cost to Remove Ivory From a Piano?
Having a professional remove the ivory and replacing it with plastic usually costs between $400-$600. This cost can vary based on the model of your piano (grands cost more).
If you want to attempt the job yourself, you can buy a set of plastic keytops from a piano dealer near you, or even order them online. Prices for a full set of plastic keys average $30-$75. Throw in the cost of glue and you can have a brand-new set of ethical, plastic keys for a less than $100.
Replacing the ivory keys on a piano is something more and more people are doing. As pianos age, the ivory starts to yellow, and may chip or crack. So, people may want a shiny set of new plastic keys for their piano. Other people might wish to rid their piano of ivory for ethical reasons related to the devastation the practice of harvesting ivory has had on the elephant population.
Whatever the reason, hopefully this article has better help you understand how to remove ivory from pianos keys safely. You can do this, so long as you equip yourself with knowledge and exercise a good amount of patience. Conversely, you can absolutely hire a professional to do the job for you, and ensure no damage comes to your beloved piano in the process.
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