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MMD > Archives > May 1996 > 1996.05.06 > 04Prev  Next

Ivory keytops
By Douglas K. Rhodes

Les Smith mentioned the probability that some piano technicians must have thousands of pieces of old ivory that they have salvaged over the years. (I must be the one old technician he meant..) This is probably true, but a relatively small percentage of that ivory ends up being really useful. Much of it may have came from sets that had become so brittle with age that all but a few pieces were broken, and the ones still intact are last-resorts for patching other sets. There is also a fair range of dimensions, grain pattern, and colour. (Some sets, which are really very pretty, were made from walrus tusk, and have long pale bluish stripes.) Sometimes yellowing is only on the surface and will sand out. If it goes right through the keytop, the piece is generally usable only if it can be bleached. I have found few customers that wanted yellow keytops, except on very old instruments. Bleaching yellowed ivory is not always successful, whether done with chlorine bleach, oxalic acid, or hydrogen peroxide. Sometimes the ivory will just disintegrate before it loses the yellow.

My attitude is that if the piano requires more than ten or twelve ivories replaced, I just won't do it in ivory, I'll insist on plastic. The exceptions might be pianos that have strong historic value and/or are in otherwise exceptional condition. For one thing, I'm seeing less and less usable ivory coming from keytop full-set replacement jobs. I may now have just barely enough good ivory for a handful of high-quality pianos over the next eighteen years before I retire (my mortgage has another eighteen years to go). I've got to be really selective about which pianos get the real thing, and which ones get plastic, unless the customer can supply the ivory, which so far has never happened. Not yet mentioned is also the fact that _good_ ivory replacement work is tricky and _expensive_.

My own traditionalist leanings have been sorely tested in this realm. I wish I could be an unequivocal champion for the real thing.

BTW, in the July 1995 issue of the PTG Journal is an excellent article by David H. Shayt of the Smithsonian Institute, titled "Elephant Under Glass: The Piano Key Bleach House of Deep River, Connecticut". Required reading if you have any interest in ivory.


Doug Rhodes
RPT - The Piano Technicians Guild

(Message sent Mon 6 May 1996, 19:18:00 GMT, from time zone GMT-0700.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ivory, keytops

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