How to Tell if Piano Keys are Ivory or Plastic

Many years ago ivory was the material of choice to make piano keys. This was due to the aesthetic quality as well as the value of pianos with ivory keys. Ivory also has the ability to absorb the perspiration and oils off your fingers. Compared with plastic keys, ivory piano keys were thought to help reduce the chances of a pianist’s finger from slipping while they are playing.

Since the 1950s laws have constantly been put in place to protect elephants and stop the sale and trade of ivory. The ultimate ban came in 1970. Since then the use of ivory has drastically decreased and piano makers now have to use an alternative for their keys.

Because there are no new pianos being made with ivory keys, the only pianos that will have these keys are old ones. If you have an old piano and you want to find out if the keys are made from ivory, check out our guide below.

Original Piano Key Material

The white keys are the longer ones on a piano and these are the ones that were played more often. Because ivory is such a hard-wearing material strip of it was placed on each key. The shorter keys weren’t played as much so these would be made of a simple fark wood like spruce, pine or basswood. These formed the black notes.

There are a few sure signs that you can tell your piano key is made from ivory. Here are the general rules which we will discuss in more detail further on in our guide:

  • Ivory keys will be made up of three separate parts so you should be able to see the very fine lines where each part of the key joins up. A plastic key won’t have these lines as they are made as one solid piece.
  • Ivory has a fingerprint-like pattern across it.
  • Ivory has a texture to it whereas a plastic key will feel smooth to the touch.
  • Ivory is a very porous material so it gets dirty easily and will yellow quickly.

Look at the Keys

Any piano keys that are made from ivory will turn yellow over time. You can tell the age of an old piano with ivory keys because of the shade that the key will turn. The darker the key is, the older the piano will be. The color will only vary slightly too, such as going from a creamy white to a yellow brown. Plastic keys are a stark contrast to this as they will show extremes in their color variations.

Use a Needle

This is one of the most reliable tests that has ever been used to test pianos for ivory keys. It’s been used for a very long time because of its reliability. However, if you don’t want your piano key to be damaged on the top just lightly then you won’t like this test.

Find a needle that has a very sharp and fine point on it. Place it over a flame so that it becomes red and glows with heat. Then press it against the top of the piano key. Be sure to use a place that is least visible just in case it does leave behind a small amount of damage.

Now comes the fun bit. If the needle makes a tiny hole or even slightly dents the key, the piano keys are made from plastic. Ivory is incredibly strong, tough and most importantly in this test, heat-resistant. Unlike plastic, it won’t melt when you place a hot needle on it.

Use Ultraviolet Light

If you can get hold of an ultraviolet light or torch then you can use this to check if your piano keys are made of ivory. Hold the light above the keys. If your keys are indeed made of ivory then the keys will reflect bright white or violet-blue colors. Keys that are made from artificial materials such as resin or plastic will react completely differently when exposed to this light. Instead, they absorb the ultraviolet rays and will appear dull instead of reflecting the light back at you.

Use a Magnifying Glass

An ivory piano key will always be made into three separate pieces. Two of these pieces form the top layer of the key which your fingers hit as you play the instrument. The last piece is attached to make the front edge of the key. Take a magnifying glass and look at the top surface of the key. If you see a very fine line then the keys are ivory as this will be where the two pieces were joined together when the piano was made.

Use a Magnifying Glass… Again

Take the same magnifying glass and take another close look at your keys. Ivory has a natural pattern to it that is referred to as Schreger Lines. These patterns only exist on ivory and are likened to the fingerprints we have on our hands. The lines will be either cross-hatched or diamond patterns across the keys. If this pattern isn’t present, your piano is more than likely to have plastic keys.

If you want to take it a step further you can actually measure the angles present in the lines. If your piano is made with mammoth ivory then the angles will be less than 90 degrees. Elephant ivory keys have angles that are more than 115 degrees.

Ask a Professional

The last thing you can do is ask a professional piano manufacturer or antique specialist to take a look at your piano keys. These people may even specialize in old piano keys and can test them more thoroughly than you would do at home.

Should I Avoid Antique Pianos?

If you are concerned about the ethics involved with ivory piano keys then you may not know what to buy if you want to get an old piano. Many people would argue that the ivory key is more beautiful and superior to your standard plastic key. It’s a very strong ethical dilemma that’s been an active discussion in the piano playing community for many years.

The truth is that if you have a piano that you know was built before 1950, it’s almost guaranteed that the keys will be made or at least covered in ivory. There’s also a consideration that you will have to maintain and repair the ivory. They need to be replaced with the same kind of key to maintain the value of the piano as well as keeping the aesthetics right.

A realistic standpoint is that the animal that your ivory was taken from is long gone by now. There is actually a new and thriving trade that takes old, used pianos and allows you to replace your key with an old antique one.

If you feel strongly about ivory being used in pianos then it can be a hard choice to buy an older piano. If you already own an antique piano and don’t want to have ivory in your home then you can get a quote from an antique dealer or piano technician to sell it on.

Modern pianos are state of the art when it comes to design and innovation, even if they do feature plastic keys. In fact, many people think the new plastic version is superior to ivory in terms of responsiveness and touch.

Today’s Piano Key Material

Today many piano keys will be made from plastic that is easy for the manufacturers to make. It also makes the key more affordable and durable. Yahama, for example, developed and designed their very own plastic that feels and looks exactly like ivory, dubbed Ivorite.

Another popular choice that is quickly becoming a replacement for ivory is tagua nut. This is a type of vegetable ivory that comes from the ivory nut palm which is native to both Africa and South America. Unfortunately, it only grows to about 6cm in diameter typically so the size limits it to what it can be used for.

FAQs

How do you know if your piano has ivory keys?

An ivory key is typically made in three pieces consisting of the stem, front and key. If you look closely at your keys you will see a fine line that joins the keytop to the stem. If you notice this line on your keys, then your piano keys are definitely made from ivory.

Are ivory piano keys worth anything?

Trying to sell ivory piano keys is not worth your time. Not only is it illegal to sell or trade ivory, but the keys are also too brittle and are prone to discoloration. This means anyone seeking ivory wouldn’t choose to buy the keys.

When did they stop using ivory for piano keys?

Even though piano keys are still referred to as the ivories, the actual manufacturing of piano ivory keys was stopped in 1970.

Are piano keys still made from ivory?

No. Ivory is no longer used to make any sort of piano keys, with plastic keys becoming the norm as the trade and sale of ivory was made illegal.

Conclusion

Nowadays you will find that all new piano keys have been made from some sort of plastic. It’s easy to make, affordable and durable. However, if you have an old antique piano you may still have ivory keys so it’s definitely worth checking.

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