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Today I was speaking to a piano rebuilder about having some work done on my Steinway M, built in the 1950s. One task is to replace the ivory keytops which have been coming loose for years and are in generally poor condition. I wanted to know if there was something that could be done to the black keys so they wouldn't look shabby next to the new keytops. I was asked if the black keys were wood or plastic. I didn't really know. How can I tell?

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I don't know for sure but I'd think the originals 'sharps' are wood. Perfectly OK to use good quality plastic replacements though. They will look nice.

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+1 what David Boyce wrote.
Beyond that, you might take a very bright light and examine the top surface of the sharps. If they are wooden you might be able to see the grain of the wood running in the direction front to back (or back to front). That's how wooden ones have appeared to my eyes.


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Plastic will make the whole keyboard look new. New genuine ebony sharps can be purchased for a price, but I would go with the plastic with the new key tops. They look pretty sharp and flat at the same time.


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The difference in price between plastic and wood sharps from Steinway is not very much, but higher than other sources. The wood may not be ebony, but I do not know for certain.


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Are the ivories really in bad shape or do they just look bad? Many technicians here seem to believe that someone’s preference for ivory over plastic is little more than ‘what you grew up with’, possibly even naive, so they’ll quickly recommend plastic replacements for older ivories.

I’d argue that if the keytops are simply coming loose and dirty then it’s worth cleaning them up and reattaching any loose ones. It’s quite easy to clean ivory and old yellow ivories can become white and clean. In fact when I replaced one of the chipped ivory heads on my piano I had whitened the extremely yellow replacement so much that it was slightly whiter than the already pretty white rest of the keyboard!

But if they’re actually broken then you can feel good using plastic replacements and keeping the wood sharps (very likely if the whites were ivory). Manufacturers like Steinway and Mason & Hamlin use wood sharps with plastic whites and it’s fine.

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I suppose that your Steinway sharps are made from ebony. If they aren't badly worn or damaged, maybe a good cleaning and optionally staining (including wood below) will be enough.

Ebony lasts long. And, usually, it gives a better grip to the finger than plastic sharp tops, i.e. a better feedback to the player.

At worst, ebony tops are harder to remove than plastic ones.

Last edited by ulrichg; 08/07/19 04:13 AM.

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