Cleaning Your Piano Keys
Jeffrey Cappelli, RPT (Registered Piano Technician, Piano Technicians Guild)
Piano key coverings may be ivory, in the case of older pianos, or various types of plastic or synthetic material. Plastic is common for use in key coverings for pianos made since the 1970s although ivory wasn’t actually banned until 1989. When we grew up, most of the pianos we saw and played had ivory keys. Ivory keytops often turned various shades of off-white and some cracked or curled at the edges or along the fronts. Nearly all modern pianos use plastic key coverings.
Keeping piano keys clean is essential in our modern age. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, we see the importance of keeping all surfaces that we regularly touch as clean as possible. I have cleaned our studio and my own piano keys regularly for over 40 years. My “go-to” formula is simple. I use Windex (Original formula) and a splash of rubbing alcohol in the bottle with the glass cleaner. This is fine for modern pianos which also have plastic sharps (the black keys). However, it is not an ideal solution for older or wooden sharps. These are painted or lacquered keys and a somewhat harsher solution such as the one described may remove paint from the keytop. Early plastic “natural” (white) keytops are also less durable and may be adversely affected by stronger solutions. For these keys you can simply use a mild detergent and damp rag solution to clean real wood sharps, ivory or older plastic keytops. Simply dampen a soft cotton or terrycloth rag or cloth with warm water and dish-soap mix. Draw the rag toward you from the nameboard of the piano, over and over until the keytops are very clean. Use your fingertips to get between the black keys in order to get the entire length of the white keytops which extend between the sharps. Do not allow any water to drip between the keys. If this happens, it can damage keys or the keypins which guide the keys. The rag you use should be damp and moist but not “wet or dripping wet.”
With my more modern Windex/alcohol mix, I simply spray soft paper towels while facing away from the piano and then wipe the keytops as described above. Do not spray the keytops directly. Throw the paper towels away and wash your hands to complete the process. I often do this between lessons and individual students. Now that we are being especially careful not to spread germs, more frequent cleaning is necessary for your instrument.
Anyone who plays the piano should wash their hands before and after playing the piano, whether for practice, lessons or fun!
Additionally, take precautions when you are using key cleaning mixtures of any kind. Do not get any water-based solutions on the exterior finish of the cabinet. Traditional and older finishes usually are lacquer, varnish or shellac-based finishes which may turn white from water. So, avoid dampening these surfaces with water-based or more modern surface cleaners. These surfaces can be cleaned with a favorite furniture polish.
For modern “shiny” or glossy cabinet finishes such as current model Yamaha, Kawai or other Asian pianos, it is safe to use what works for keys at often-touched areas near the front of the piano. These are very durable and hardened finishes.
It is never safe to use any form of solvent when cleaning keys or piano finishes, as they will cause damage. These solvents would include lacquer thinner, acetone or nail polish remover, naphtha and paint thinners. Bleach is also too harsh to use for these purposes. Keytops will melt from these solvents.
Knowing that our piano keys are clean is both visually pleasing and better for our health. Never put your fingers in your mouth either before, during or after playing the piano. It is not good for the piano or for you! Remember to wash your hands with soap and water before and after practice.
Here’s to a healthier piano and a healthier world!