Pro-Tips For Cleaning Your Piano Keys (Even If They’re Going Yellow)

Remember your family piano? The one set in the corner, with stacks of sheet music within the bench or stacked beside it? There are a lot of memories that go with it: Those moments spent with the teacher, stumbling over the keys and probably making more mistakes than getting it right. Then you reach that point where you’re dancing over the keys, maybe still making mistakes, but not noticing because in that moment you’re lost in the music.

It’s a beautiful thing. But as time goes on, those keys are going to fade from white to yellow with use and age. Perhaps with newer generations of future musicians sitting at those keys they’re bound to get sticky. You know how important it is to maintain your instruments and keep them in pristine condition. You want to restore those keys to their former glory, but hesitate for fear of damaging them with chemicals.

Don’t worry, there are ways to clean your piano keys without damaging the instrument. Please keep in mind that sometimes cleaning your piano keys should be done by a professional. Contact Ogden Piano Gallery for more information about piano maintenance and care if these methods do not do the trick.

First Thing’s First: What Are Your Keys Made Of?

Everybody knows the phrase “tickling the ivories,” but is that what your keys are really made out of? Piano keys are in fact made out of the number of materials and when cleaning your piano keys it’s very important to know what they are made of as different cleaning solutions will have different effects. Let’s take a look at a few of the materials that piano keys I normally made of:

  • Ivory: This is a hard white substance made from the bones and tusks of animals like elephants. It was widely used for piano keys but has since fallen into disuse in favor of cellulose and acrylic plastic. 
  • Ebony: This is a strong dark tropical wood that has been commonly used for The Black Keys.
  • Cellulose: This is an organic plastic that is often used as an alternative to ivory.
  • Acrylic Plastic: This is the modern and most common material used to make piano keys today. 

Due to high costs and eventually being made illegal, ivory fell out of use and was replaced buy cellulose at acrylic plastic around the 1930s, giving way to the modern standard that we know today. If your piano is over 100 years old there is in fact a very good chance that it has Ivory keys and might be worth checking out.

A telltale sign of ivory keys is a thin horizontal seam along where the key narrows, which was a way to keep from wasting material during manufacture, as ivory was, and is, expensive. While some ivory keys are without the seam, those pianos are much older and very valuable.

Plastic keys, on the other hand, are generally smoother and are jointed at the base.

Pro-Tip One: Don’t Forget To Wipe Off The Keys

(This tip is for: Any kind of keys)

Regardless of whatever your keys are made from, it is very important that you first wipe off dust and other debris from your piano keys, regardless of whatever your keys are made of (whether that be Ivory or plastic).

  • Gently wipe away the dust with a microfiber cloth or some other soft material (such as a t-shirt you don’t use anymore, or even cheesecloth, or flannel). Using a rough material comes with the chances of scratching your keys.
  • Remember to wipe towards where you would be sitting at the piano bench, as wiping towards the piano or even from side to side can cause damage to the keys If done too forcibly.

(Bonus tip: to keep dust from falling in between the keys, try cutting a thin piece of cardboard and placing them between the keys as you wipe.)

Once your keys are wiped free from dust, now comes the time to clean them up!

Pro-Tip Two: The Toothpaste Method

(This tip is for: Pianos with ivory keys)

Much like brushing your teeth helps you have a whiter smile, toothpaste has proven to be a simple and highly-effective tool in cleaning and whitening your ivory piano keys.

Remember: Only use straight white toothpaste, as gel or colored toothpaste will do more harm than good and discolor your keys even further.

  1. First, use a thin layer of white toothpaste and buff the keys gently using a soft cloth (preferably flannel, microfiber, or cheesecloth).
  2. Then, wipe away the residue with a very lightly dampened cloth using whole milk or water. (Remember: a little goes a long way when it comes to liquid and your piano keys. Make sure that your cloth is only lightly dampened). 
  3. Let the keys dry before use. Going over them with a dry cloth is encouraged.

Be careful not to use too much toothpaste and risk having it fall between the keys. A thin layer will suffice. 

Pro-Tip Three: Soap And Water

(This tip is for: Pianos with plastic keys)

Soap and water, seems pretty easy, right? While this is a simple technique, it is important to keep some things in mind:

  • First thing to remember: not just any soap will do. You will need a mild soap (preferably a dish soap).
  • Make sure you are using the right ratio of soap to water. The general rule of thumb is one part soap and four parts water.
  • Use a soft cloth (such as microfiber or flannel) and make sure that when you wipe the keys it is damp, not tripping and not wet. Too much liquid can cause more damage than good, especially on electric pianos or synthesizers.
  • It is best when cleaning your keys to focus on active groups. Start with the white keys, then clean the black keys.
  • Always keep two cloths handy, one for washing and the other for drying. You will want to dry your keys as soon as you have finished wiping them with the damp cloth.

To further preserve your keys, keep your piano or synthesizer out of direct sunlight. 

Tips To Remember

  • While lemon juice is often recommended in the Toothpaste Method, whole milk is a far better alternative for cleaning ivory keys. Remember that ivory is bone, and much like acidic substances can wear away bone over time, lemon juice can simultaneously clean and wear down your Ivory Keys as time goes on. Milk, containing high levels of calcium and fatty acids, is much more adept to preserving ivory keys.
  • Plastic keys are prone to yellowing in direct sunlight. Please try your best to store your piano in indirect sunlight, which will preserve the whiteness of your keys for much longer. 

Whatever you do, do not pour cleaning solution directly onto your piano keys. This runs the risk of that liquid seeping between the keys and causing extensive and expensive damage to your instrument.

Ogden Piano Gallery Are Your Piano Maintenance Experts

When it comes to keeping pianos clean, being proactive is your friend! Plastic keys are known to yellow when placed in direct sunlight so please cover them when not in use. Most pianos have some form of cover for their keys. By making good use of them, as well as other cleaning techniques (such as regularly dusting your keys) you can preserve your instrument for years to come and share those memories with family, friends, and the next generation of music lovers.

If professional services are needed (and when in doubt call in a professional), contact the Ogden Piano Gallery at (801) 779-9700 for more information on how to preserve your beloved instrument. You can find information on tuning your piano, piano maintenance, piano lessons, sheet music, and many other ways to share this amazing instrument for years to come.

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