As a pianist, it’s pretty disheartening when you sit down to play and feel dust or grease on the keys. That’s why we’ve written this guide on how to clean your piano keys properly, whether you own a modern Moog or an antique Steinway.
Establish what material your keys are made out of
There are typically four materials your piano keys could be made out of:
- Ivory – a hard, white material from the tusks and teeth of animals like elephants.
- Ebony – a type of hard, dark tropical wood used for the black keys.
- Cellulose – a type of organic plastic used as imitation ivory on pianos.
- Acrylic plastic – the modern standard.
Ivory keys were superseded by plastic and cellulose around the 1930s, and later became illegal to use in many countries. If your piano predates the 1930s you may have ivory keys.
Although plastic is a convincing substitute, a common tell-tale sign of ivory keys is a thin seam running horizontally just where each white key narrows – as shown here:
Ivory keys were originally manufactured this way to save on waste, given ivory’s expense. The only seamless versions are old, rare, and ornate – and therefore expensive – classic pianos. You’ll likely know about it if you own one of those.
Dry wipe the keys with a microfiber cloth
This should always be the first step whether you’re cleaning an antique grand piano with ivory keys, or a synthesiser with plastic keys.
Lightly wiping the keys with a clean and dry microfiber cloth will remove any dust that’s settled on the keys recently.
Wipe towards yourself, from the top of the keys to their nearer edge as you sit at the piano. Wiping horizontally may misalign or otherwise damage the keys if you do it too hard.
Rub the keys with a damp cloth dipped in soapy water
Before you use a damp cloth, bear in mind that ivory is a porous material, meaning it’s vulnerable to certain cleaning substances and techniques. For instance, ivory keys can warp and the glue sealing them in place can loosen if they get too wet, so ensure the cloth you’re cleaning with is only slightly damp and you wipe away the moisture quickly afterwards. You should also use a white cloth, as any dye from coloured cloths may transfer to the keys.
Plastic is more resilient, and alternative substances like white vinegar, lemon juice, or polish are frequently recommended, but dish soap does just as good a job.
Here’s a useful tip too: prevent moisture or dust slipping between the keys by cutting out a piece of cardboard and slipping it between them as you wipe.
- Make sure the piano is switched off and unplugged and/or batteries are removed if you’re cleaning an electric piano.
- Mix a solution of one-part dish soap and four parts water.
- Take a separate cotton cloth and lightly dab it into the liquid. The cloth should only be damp and cover an area the size of your fingertip.
- Start cleaning the keys from the lowest white note on your piano, and work your way up. Make sure you’re rubbing the keys from back to front to draw the dust off the keys. Do this one octave at a time, and use a separate cloth to dry the keys after.
- As you notice your cloth drying or getting dirty, pick another spot on it, dab it in the solution, and continue.
- Once you’ve wiped down every key, return to the lowest white note and wipe down all the fronts as well (if your piano has full-sized keys).
- Repeat for the black keys. It’s important to clean the black keys afterwards to avoid staining the white keys.
- Give the entire piano a final clean with the dry cloth to wipe the keys free of any leftover dirt.
If you’re trying to restore the white tone to your piano keys due to discoloration, this is slightly trickier. For ivory keys, you may find using the above method in conjunction with toothpaste lightens their tone slightly.
However, if you can’t achieve the results you’d like, the best thing to do is consult a professional piano cleaning service, who can dismantle the piano and bleach the keys.
Plastic has a bad habit of yellowing as well, except this arises after prolonged exposure to sunlight. It can be quite complicated to restore the keys back to their prior glory, but not impossible. Check out this video for a demonstration:
What not to do
- Don’t spray or pour cleaning solution directly onto the keys – water could seep between them and damage your piano.
- Don’t wipe side to side as you may loosen a key’s alignment or move dust between the keys, causing them to stick.
- Don’t wipe front to back either, as you’ll only push dust behind the keys. You want to pull the dust away and off the keys.
- Don’t be tempted to use a scouring pad or scrubbing brush for tougher stains as you may dull or scratch the keys’ surface.
Tips to prevent your keys from becoming dirty
- Stay on top of the dust build-up by regularly dry wiping the keys. Leaving the keys exposed for even one day can yield a noticeable layer of dust.
- Wash your hands and make sure they’re completely dry before sitting down at the piano to play. This will stop dirt and grease transferring to the keys.
- If your keys are plastic, keep your piano out of direct sunlight as this yellows the keys.
- If your keys are ivory, keeping your piano in indirect sunlight will actually whiten the keys slightly.
- When you aren’t playing, close the keyboard lid if your piano has one, or use a dust cover if it doesn’t. This will protect the keys from spillages and prevent the build-up of dust and dirt. If your piano is quite old the conditions under the lid may become humid, which could cause deterioration over time, so remember to let those keys breathe every so often.
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