How Do I Know If My Piano is Ivory? A Complete Guide

by Madonna

Pianos are cherished instruments, embodying both musical and historical significance. One intriguing aspect of antique pianos is the material used for the keys. While modern pianos typically use plastic, older models may feature ivory keys. This article will guide you through the process of determining whether your piano keys are made of ivory, exploring the historical context, visual inspection methods, physical tests, legal and ethical considerations, care and maintenance, alternatives and replacements, and appraisal and value.

Why and When Ivory Was Used for Piano Keys

Ivory has been prized for centuries for its smooth texture, durability, and aesthetic appeal. As early as the 18th century, ivory became a popular material for piano keys. It provided a tactile advantage for pianists due to its slight porosity, which absorbed sweat and prevented fingers from slipping.


Ivory was primarily sourced from the tusks of elephants, and its use peaked during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the demand for ivory had devastating effects on elephant populations, leading to increased regulation and the eventual ban on ivory trade.


By the mid-20th century, the conservation movement gained momentum, and synthetic materials began to replace ivory. Plastics, such as acrylic and phenolic resin, emerged as practical alternatives. These materials mimicked the feel and appearance of ivory but were more sustainable and cost-effective. By the 1970s, most piano manufacturers had transitioned to using plastic keys.


Visual Inspection

Identifying ivory keys through visual inspection involves looking for specific characteristics that distinguish them from plastic. Here are some key indicators:

1. Grain Patterns

Ivory keys typically have a fine grain pattern, often resembling wood. These patterns, known as Schreger lines, are unique to ivory and appear as intersecting lines when viewed closely. Under magnification, these lines form a cross-hatch pattern, which is a definitive indicator of ivory.

2. Color Variations

Ivory keys usually exhibit a slight yellowing with age, unlike plastic keys, which tend to remain consistently white or develop an even yellow hue. The natural aging process of ivory leads to subtle color variations, often presenting as a creamy off-white or light tan.

3. Joint Lines

Historically, ivory key tops were made from thin slices of ivory that were glued together. This construction often results in visible joint lines. These lines can sometimes be seen running horizontally across the key, indicating where two pieces of ivory were joined.

4. Surface Texture

Ivory has a distinct texture that feels smooth yet slightly grainy to the touch. This texture differs from the uniform smoothness of plastic keys. Additionally, ivory keys may develop a fine network of cracks or crazing over time, adding to their unique appearance.

Physical Tests

In addition to visual inspection, there are a few physical tests you can perform to help determine if your piano keys are made of ivory. These tests should be conducted carefully to avoid damaging the keys.

1. The Heat Test with a Needle

This test involves using a heated needle to determine the material of the keys. Follow these steps:

  • Heat a needle over a flame until it is very hot.
  • Carefully press the needle against an inconspicuous area of the key.

Observe the reaction:

  • If the needle leaves a slight burn mark or indentation, the key is likely made of plastic.
  • If the needle does not leave a mark and emits a faint smell similar to burning hair, the key is likely made of ivory.

Ivory is more heat-resistant than plastic, which tends to melt or deform under high temperatures.

2. The UV Light Test

Ivory and plastic react differently under ultraviolet (UV) light. To perform this test:

  • Obtain a UV light (black light).
  • In a dark room, shine the UV light on the keys.

Observe the fluorescence:

  • Ivory typically exhibits a white or bluish fluorescence.
  • Plastic keys often appear duller or show a yellowish or greenish fluorescence.

This test can provide a clear indication of the material without causing any damage.

Care and Maintenance

Ivory piano keys require special care to maintain their condition and prevent damage. Here are some tips for proper care and maintenance:

1. Cleaning

Regular Dusting: Use a soft, dry cloth to dust the keys regularly. Avoid using abrasive materials that could scratch the surface.

Gentle Cleaning: For deeper cleaning, use a slightly damp cloth with a mild soap solution. Wipe the keys gently and dry them immediately with a soft cloth. Avoid excessive moisture, which can damage the ivory.

Avoid Harsh Chemicals: Do not use bleach, alcohol, or other harsh chemicals, as these can cause discoloration and damage the ivory.

2. Humidity Control

Stable Environment: Maintain a stable humidity level in the room where the piano is kept. Extreme fluctuations in humidity can cause the ivory to crack or warp.

Humidifiers/Dehumidifiers: Use humidifiers or dehumidifiers as needed to keep the environment stable, especially in regions with significant seasonal changes.

3. Handling

Clean Hands: Always play with clean hands to prevent oils and dirt from transferring to the keys.

Limit Direct Sunlight: Avoid placing the piano in direct sunlight, which can cause the ivory to yellow and become brittle over time.

SEE ALSO: How to Whiten Piano Keys

Alternatives and Replacements

If you prefer not to maintain ivory keys or wish to replace damaged ones, there are several synthetic alternatives available. Modern materials can closely mimic the appearance and feel of ivory while being more sustainable and easier to care for.

1. Synthetic Materials

Acrylic and Plastic: These materials are commonly used for new pianos and offer a smooth, durable surface that resembles ivory.

Ivorine: A high-quality synthetic material designed specifically to replicate the look and feel of ivory.

2. Replacement Services

Replacing ivory keys should be done by a professional piano technician to ensure proper installation and preservation of the instrument’s value. Here are steps to find and choose a reputable service:

Research: Look for piano technicians or restoration services with experience in key replacement.

Consultations: Request consultations to discuss the options and costs involved.

References and Reviews: Check references and reviews from previous customers to ensure the service provider is reputable and skilled.


Determining whether your piano keys are made of ivory involves a combination of historical knowledge, visual inspection, and simple physical tests. Understanding the legal and ethical implications is crucial, as is knowing how to care for and maintain ivory keys if confirmed. If you choose to replace ivory keys with synthetic alternatives, professional services are available to ensure a seamless transition. Finally, obtaining a professional appraisal can help you understand the value of your piano in the current market.

By following these guidelines, you can make informed decisions about your piano, preserving its beauty and functionality for years to come.


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