How to Clean Plastic and Ivory Keys on a Piano - INSTRUMENTIO

How to Clean Plastic and Ivory Keys on a Piano

Many people overlook the importance of regularly cleaning their piano keys. And, when you mention it to them, the question “How do I clean the keys on my piano?” often pops up!

Being able to play the piano must be one of the greatest joys that life has to offer. Whether you’re a Mozart-Wunderkind, a Romantic-Wonder or a Jazz-Maestro, you probably take pride in the instrument you play on – and so you should. But, mastering the skill and honing your musical talent is only the first step of your hobby and passion…

Why you should clean your piano’s keys

Think about other hobbyists for a second: Harley Davidson owners often spend hours washing and polishing the chrome on their motorcycles. Keen Bonsai gardeners spend as much time diligently pruning, planting and replanting their trees.  Being a musician – especially a pianist – is no different. After acquiring a decent instrument, you should make it a priority to keep it clean and functional.

While the necessity of tuning your piano (if it is acoustic) can’t be overlooked, we need to emphasize how important it is to clean your piano keys. Oils from your skin, dirt from your fingers, dust blowing around and many other microscopic parts of bacteria will inevitably build up on the keyboard of a piano. Eliminating all the dirt and grime regularly will prevent your piano looking aged and mucky. Regularly cleaning your piano keys will also ensure longevity, and retain its inherent value over the years.

So, how DO you clean piano keys?

Different types of piano keys

Before we introduce you to the best way to clean piano keys, you should know what material the keys on your piano are manufactured from. There are different approaches to cleaning plastic and ivory keys.

PLASTIC piano keys are typically smoother and whiter than ivory keys and are mostly found on keyboards and digital pianos. Pianos with plastic keys are usually cheaper than pianos with ivory keys, as ivory has become a rare commodity.

IVORY piano keys are made out of ivory. And like the statuesque source of ivory – the elephant – ivory keys are usually found on the biggest pianos of them all: Baby, parlor, concert and grand pianos. Many of the older upright acoustic pianos and the more top end modern acoustic pianos also have ivory keys on them.

White ivory keys are not really white – they have more of an off-white type of hue. And, they typically turn yellow as they age. We’ll go through methods explaining how to get piano keys white again a bit later.

It is really important to know what the type of material your piano’s keys are made of before you start getting ready to clean them – so make sure before you go through the next steps!

General tips on cleaning piano keys

Regardless of whether the keys on your piano are made of ivory of plastic, these are a few general tips to keep in mind:

  1. Avoid using any harsh cleaners that contain strong chemicals or polish.
  2. When selecting the right cloth for the job, stay away from cloths that are abrasive. You want to have a lint-free cloth – and no, tissue or toilet paper won’t work (you’ll end up with pieces of tissue stuck in between the notes, which is not ideal!
  3. Keep the cloth you’re using clean. We’d recommend using a new cloth every time you clean the keys of your piano. If your piano or keyboard’s keys are very dirty, it might even be necessary for you to change to a fresh, clean cloth during the cleaning process.
  4. When doing the actual cleaning, do a brushing motion (as if you are brushing your teeth) from the back of the keys to the front. Avoid wiping across the keyboard in a side to side motion, as you’ll be wiping dust, dirt and moisture into the spaces between the keys, which might result in them getting sticky. Stubborn notes that won’t come back up after you pressed them will turn your favorite pastime into a nightmare real quick – so be forewarned!
  5. Don’t spray ANYTHING directly onto the keys.
  6. Clean one octave (8 notes) of the keyboard at a time. Always make sure that all the keys you have just cleaned are completely dry before you move on to the next group.

How to clean plastic piano keys

Once you have observed the general cleaning tips above, you are ready to get cracking!

  1. The best way to clean plastic piano keys is to use a damp cloth – it should not be wet or drippy.
  2. Fill a bowl with warm water, and add a little soap. You should use a MILD soap, such as dishwashing liquid. Dip your cloth into the soapy water, and wring it out before you start wiping the keys.
  3. Make sure you focus on each individual key, by breaking the keys up in octave groupings. Clean the white keys first, and then run through the piano again focussing on the black keys.
  4. Don’t apply too much pressure while you wipe the keys down. Imagine that you are polishing the keys, and just keep going until the keys are white and shiny.
  5. Have a second soft cloth ready, that you can use to wipe the keys dry after you have wiped them. This will also remove any soap residue that might have gotten onto the keys.

How to clean ivory piano keys

Pianos with ivory keys should be handled with particular care. If you’re unsure about the heritage of an old piano – especially a grand piano – you might want to consult with an expert first, as cleaning it might actually make it depreciate in value and collectability. We’re betting on the odds that this is not the case with YOUR piano, so here goes!

  1. If you’re cleaning the ivory keys on a piano, you should be using a white or light-colored cloth. You might get away with bright cloths if you’re cleaning plastic piano keys – but, the color will wipe off on the ivories, as they are porous. Having discolored keys (picture a pink middle C) might be funny to some, but you’ll probably not laugh along.
  2. Do not use ANY soap or other chemicals. Simply put a bit of warm water in a small bowl, and use that as you clean the piano.
  3. Start off by dusting the keys with a soft duster. A paintbrush with soft bristles will work too – but, don’t wet it yet! When you’re dusting the keys, dust away from the piano so that you don’t end up forcing dirt into the note-bank or between the keys.
  4. Now, wet your cloth, and wring it out. You want a damp cloth, that is not dripping with water.
  5. Make sure you focus on each individual key, by breaking the keys up in octave groupings. Clean the white keys first, and then run through the piano again focussing on the black keys with a new, clean cloth. Most pianos with ivory keys have black keys that are made out of wood or plastic – or in rare cases ivory – that has been painted. Wiping the white and black notes at the same time might result in some of the paint transferring onto your cleaning cloth and landing up on the white keys.
  6. When wiping the keys, make sure that each key is completely dry before you move on to the next key. Imagine a wipe-on, wipe-off approach. The wood underneath the keys should be protected from moisture at all costs, and this is the best way to do so.
  7. Take special care if you own an antique piano with ivory keys. These keys are often made of two parts of ivory – and rubbing too hard on them might cause one half to become unstuck, leaving you with a half-wood-half-ivory key.

How to Whiten Ivory Keys

Lame joke time: Having a grand piano is like having a mouth… if the teeth aren’t white and shiny, you want to keep the lid shut!

Ivory keys on a piano do tend to show their age as they will often get yellow over time. There are a lot of old-wives tales and unconventional approaches when it comes to whitening ivory keys on a piano. These are a few of the best approaches, all of them best followed right after using the cleaning process described above:

Whiten the ivory keys with an eraser

Use a white vinyl eraser and gentry rub each key on the piano. Make sure to use a motion that rubs away from the piano to prevent bits of eraser falling in between the notes. Erasers are cheap, and it actually works, but this method  is hard labor and will take a lot of time – especially if you want the keys to have the same shade of white

Whiten the ivory keys with whitening toothpaste

Use white toothpaste and a fine bristled toothbrush to gently clean the keys. While it might be tempting to brush the whole piano like a set of chompers, don’t do it! You’ll just end up with much and sticky toothpaste in between the keys. Instead, clean the keys one by one, and wipe them immediately after you’ve brushed them with a  damp cloth.

Whiten the ivory keys with steel wool

Using very fine steel wool is another option, although it is probably the most dangerous approach. Using anything rougher than a #0000 grain will end up scratching the keys and causing damage. So, use the wool pad to gently wipe the piano, hoping that you’ll abrade the top layer of yellow off the keys as you do.

Whiten the ivory keys with sunlight

Place your piano somewhere where the keys will get exposed to indirect sunlight is another option. Make sure that the whole cabinet isn’t exposed to the sun, as the extreme heat and temperature variation will cause the cabinet to warp. Sunlight might brighten up the color, as it will “bleach” the ivory after prolonged exposure. The one issue with this method is that you might have to call a piano-tuner out to tune your shiny keys – again, pianos are quite averse to temperature fluctuations as it expands and contracts the strings over time, which will cause your piano to go out of tune.

Whiten the ivory keys with plain yogurt

Your last option is to use plain yogurt as a whitening agent. Apply the yogurt to the keys, making sure that none of it lands in between the keys (which will make it sticky AND stinky). Leave the yogurt on the keys for 30 minutes, and wipe it off with a damp cloth… presto!

These are the five best ways to whiten ivory piano keys. They can also be used to whiten yellow plastic on very old keyboards. People often consider replacing piano keys simply because they’ve yellowed over time – but a set of replacement piano keys aren’t necessary if you’re willing to use a bit of time and some “elbow grease”.

How to keep your piano keys clean

Once you’ve cleaned the keys on your piano, the best way to keep them clean is to… keep them clean! Make sure you wash your hands every time before you play, and keep a soft cloth or duster handy to use every time after you’ve played. Preventing dirt build-up is paramount to maintaining white shiny piano keys, and it doesn’t take much effort.

Many new pianos come with felt covers that can be placed on the piano when it is not in use. These typically roll up, and can easily be placed in a piano chair while you play. The soft material it is manufactured from does an excellent job at collecting any dust or moisture in the air, so that it doesn’t end up on your piano keys.

You can also buy one on Amazon:

I hope your keys are clean!

If you have followed this guide and successfully cleaned the keys on your piano, congratulations! Playing on a clean and shiny keyboard is great fun, and that’s what we wish you: Hours of fun tinkling the ivories.

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