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Ivory versus plastic tops

Posted By: Keith Roberts

Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/08/07 11:53 PM

A technician suggested there wouldn't be any ivory tops if plastic had always been around. He said ivory would seem cold and rough.

I thought ivory was used because it did have the perfect 'roughness', giving it a nice feel.

If as a pianist you know the difference in feel, what do you like and why?
Posted By: ChrisKeys

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 05:31 AM

I prefer ivory because it has a pleasing texture, more so than plastic. But I have no trouble playing on either type.
Posted By: Dan101

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 11:27 AM

Some of my colleagues say that they tend to slip on plastic keys if there hands start to sweat. According to them, the ivory has a bit more traction.

I personally prefer the feel of ivory.
Posted By: cruiser

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 11:46 AM

Notwithstanding the fact that to play any piano with Ivory keys would be abhorrent to me, the following is intended for anyone contemplating a new piano with Ivory keys (assuming they're still available) - in which case no words of condemnation are strong enough imo...

In this day and age there is NO justification for Ivory key surfaces... Steinway uses plastic - should be good enough. If we must have the 'feel' of Ivory, it can be effectively simulated in plastic.

Ivory piano keys = magnificent endangered animal, slaughtered... DON'T GO THERE!!

...sorry for the rant but I feel so strongly about this
Posted By: Morodiene

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 02:14 PM

I have a Petrof with ivory keys. Ivory keys are no longer allowed (imported) in the US, not sure about the rest of the world, but this piano was imported in the 80s, prior to this law. Anyways, I also have a Yamaha with plastic keys. I can tell the difference, and the ivory keys do give more traction than the plastic ones. As far as I know, they haven't simulated the feel of ivory in plastic, but then again, I haven't played a new Steinway, so perhaps it's been done.
Posted By: cruiser

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 02:20 PM

Originally posted by Morodiene:
As far as I know, they haven't simulated the feel of ivory in plastic, but then again, I haven't played a new Steinway, so perhaps it's been done.
It's been done on a digital piano - Roland HP 207
Posted By: tomasino

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 02:21 PM

It may be that ivory can't be simulated perfectly, but it's pretty close. I don't feel we have anything to complain about here. It's a good thing we can't buy pianos any longer with real ivory.

Posted By: CC2 and Chopin lover

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 02:28 PM

I really think the whole attraction to Ivory Keys, aside from the longing for "the Golden Age" of pianos, is the fact that they tended to absorb excess moisture from the fingers due to their porosity. Having a more textured, porous surface also made them feel more similar to the ebony sharps that were typical of the same era, thereby eliminating the contrast between the two that might otherwise be felt. The other thing to consider was the fact that pianos of that day were thought of as works of art just as much as they were musical instruments, as evidenced by some of the ornate Victorian wood working and inlays that many pianos displayed. I do agree that, from a practical and ethical standpoint, plastic, "ivorite", etc. makes much more sense. By the way, it is still possible to get ivory keytops. I am currently having my Mason and Hamlin CC2 keyboard completely replaced with all new parts, and one of the options for the new keys I could have chosen was one piece, (no seam at the tail), ivory covered naturals. They, of course, use already existent ivory. I chose not to go this route for many reasons.....not the least of which was the ethical one that celt mentioned.
Posted By: Keith Roberts

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 03:15 PM

You must remember that plastic is a petroleum product and look at what that is doing to the world and the animals that reside in it. I think it is horrid that we kill for any reason, especially jewelry, and have been reducing the amount meat in my diet. I eat only some chicken and fish now and not much.

Bone is very hard and I think was part of the reason for the use of it as tops. Maybe we can breed steers for their purity of horns too. Then if you eat meat you can't complain. For me to throw away something that is usable and create the need to extract something else from the enviroment to replace it is a horrid thought too. The ivory today is recycled so in effect is redeeming some of the ethics.

I am asking because I want to know if it is worth recomending replacing over a really good repair. Both can cost the same so it is a matter of what will enchance the technical. Better feel, better playing.
Posted By: signa

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 04:49 PM

i'm with Celt, and don't feel there's any reason for that material to be used (not to mention where it comes from) when good quality plasitc key tops becomes so readily available and popular. i don't really like playing on some old ivory keys, which feels so rough at some spots and takes my playing enjoyment away...
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 07:30 PM

Never had the chance to try ivory keys.

Posted By: BruceD

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 08:32 PM

Putting the environmental and animal-rights issues aside for one moment, ivory keytops do require more maintenance than plastic keytops. Given their greater porosity, they tend to absorb moisture and dirt from players' hands and they are harder to clean. They also yellow with age, although I understand that the yellowing can be both retarded and treated when it happens.

However, with fewer pianists having the opportunity to experience playing on genuine ivory keytops, I think the question becomes less and less of an issue as time goes by.

Posted By: BDB

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 09:13 PM

Celluloid is not a petroleum product. Plastics can be made from a variety of sources.
Posted By: hv

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 09:49 PM

I posted some photos and recordings in this thread of a Fazioli with Ox-Bone keys:


My wife loved the feel of the keys so much that when I was having our old Steinway console rebuilt, I also had the keytops resurfaced with ox-bone. The keytop vendor also does "wooly mammouth". That's their most expensive material which, if I remember correctly, would have cost me about $3,500. I understand that wooly mammouth is just ivory that's a little older... obtained from prehistoric remains found in Canada which makes it legal.

Posted By: Morodiene

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 09:52 PM

You can make plastic from corn now! Wonder if they'll come out with corn keys! laugh
Posted By: Loki

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 11:52 PM

Originally posted by Morodiene:
You can make plastic from corn now! Wonder if they'll come out with corn keys! laugh
Edible keys. thumb
Posted By: playadom

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/09/07 11:54 PM

Originally posted by Loki:
Originally posted by Morodiene:
[b] You can make plastic from corn now! Wonder if they'll come out with corn keys! laugh
Edible keys. thumb [/b]
Your piano would truly be finger-lickin' good.
Posted By: opus119

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 12:06 AM

It is a good thing that ivory keys are no longer available in the U.S. (and I'm sure there are many other countries around the world banning the import of ivory products as well).

Having said that, I see no problem with re-surfacing your keys with ivory if it is salvaged from an old piano or source. The ivory has already been 'harvested', so why should it go to waste? It's perfectly understandable if you just have an aversion to having ivory in your home for any reason. There's no criticism there.

I have an old Steinway with ivory keys. It was built in the late 30's. The keys are still white - no yellowing -however, 4 keys have chips on the very ends. I am hoping to either replace those some day or get them filled in, if possible. As to the 'feel' of ivory vs. plastic: It is true that sweat seems to absorb into the ivory a bit better - I always notice a bit more sweat and stickiness with the plastic keys. Wouldn't it be great if they could find a source for 'natural' keys without having to slaughter an innocent animal?
Posted By: BDB

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 06:47 AM

The problem with trying to salvage old keyboards is that keys are not generally exactly the same size. They are cut from a slab of wood, and usually that has been done by size. If I replace a missing or broken piece of ivory from my supply, I need to go through a lot of pieces before I can find one that comes close to the matching the size of the key (let alone color), and it has to be bigger so I can trim it to match. Even in the unlikely event I had a perfect set of ivories to begin with, matching them to another set of keys would be impossible.

To match an ivory front, I have to start with fronts that come from the same note of the scale, because the sharp notch is polished after the ivory is in place. This curves the back of the key front where the back strip of ivory meets it, which would leave a dip at the joint. This in turn lets you feel the sharp edge of the key back. It is hard enough getting that joint so you cannot feel it. I bet if any of you have ivory keys where either the front or back has come loose at one point, there is a bump at the joint. I can only make a good joint by sanding the joint even after the front and back have been glued to the key.

As you can imagine, you might be able to get a few pieces of ivory repaired, but it is not long before it is cheaper to replace the entire keyboard with plastic. Replacing keytops with plastic requires a lot of trimming, as they come oversized for just the reasons I mentioned, so it is not cheap, but compared to ivory, it is a bargain.
Posted By: Supply

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 07:07 AM

Originally posted by BDB:
Celluloid is not a petroleum product. Plastics can be made from a variety of sources.
Celluloid has not been used for decades. It is very highly flamable. Camera film used to be made from celluloid. That is the reason so many movie theatres used to burn down - the film ingnited under the heat of the arc projection lamps and started to burn. That type of film was then replaced with a plastic film. Hence the word "Kodak Safety Film" on the edges of negatives and slides. But I haven't seen to much of that around in the last while either...
Posted By: Supply

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 07:15 AM

Originally posted by Celt:In this day and age there is NO justification for Ivory key surfaces... Steinway uses plastic - should be good enough. If we must have the 'feel' of Ivory, it can be effectively simulated in plastic.
Ivory piano keys = magnificent endangered animal, slaughtered... DON'T GO THERE!!
I'll throw this one out there:
What about mastadon ivory? These animals have been extinct for thousands of years. A layperson would never be able to tell the difference to elephant ivory. I know -I have some.
Mastadon or mammoth ivory is legally available for piano keys (and whatever else - jewelery etc). In fact, a few companies even offer it on their new pianos.

How do you feel about that?
Posted By: Prospero

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 07:29 AM

The first time I played Ivory keys, I found the touch and feel of my dreams. Now that I have been playing Ivory full-time, plastic keys always leave me disappointed. I hope to play Ivory for the rest of my life. The feel is not just a little better; it is vastly superior, in my opinion.

It is true, by the way, that damp fingers stick to those Ivory keys like they were glued. Just the nature of Ivory.

The yellowing of Ivory keys is removeable--if you want to remove it. The yellowing is considered an embellishment and proof of age, adding to the value of Ivory collectibles.

As for the slaughter of elephants, I have heard from a number of sources that a certain amount of Ivory has in recent years become available in compliance with international law. I have seen apparently reputable companies offering ultra-expensive new-Ivory collectibles, and I have a hard time believing that their Ivory is from an illegal source, what with them advertising it openly in numerous American magazines.

I have heard different accounts about where this (supposedly) legal Ivory originates. Some say it is Mammoth Ivory. Others say that the U.N. approved five African countries to sell Ivory because they were being overrun with elephants and the countries needed the money. It is usually added that because Ivory has become profitable, people in those countries are breeding elephants and so they have more elephants than ever--you have heard that sort of thing about the Bison--which leads some people to conclude that an effective way to save elephants as a species is to legalize the sale of Ivory.

(You need not read all the following links to see my point--I put them here just for the curious to pick and choose as you like.)

Or maybe it was three African countries, depending on which source you read:


Before you read that article and conclude that it must have been a one-time sale in 2002, look at this (for example):


Yes, that post describes another one-time sale, this time four years later. Can you have two "one-time" sales of Ivory? Hmmmm... something fishy about all this.

Maybe the sale was delayed for years:


There is of course controversy about whether legalizing Ivory sales will lead to the elephant species' destruction or salvation:


Some African countries reportedly demand legal Ivory sales, allegedly to combat terrible elephant-pest problems:


Some of the legal Ivory trade has apparently been approved very recently:



Still other people say lots of estates include giant Ivory tusks which are so numerous that they account for much of the new Ivory collectibles:


As you can see, the sources do not give a clear, consistent picture of precisely what has occurred. Confirmation or disconfirmation of the legality of new Ivory can be found depending on where you look and who you ask. Even official sources (the U. S. Government) will give you conflicting answers depending on the office you contact.

I am not very confident that any sources I could find necessarily got the story straight. There is enormous potential for disinformation on this topic, where guilt and greed are vying for a chance to veil the truth. It is the nature of the news business that almost every news story is tainted with deliberate and accidental misinformation, and this goes double--no, triple--on a topic as sensitive as Ivory and endangered species. I am still waiting to see a thorough, clear, well-researched article on new Ivory--one that includes a mature, wide-ranging, penetrating perspective on the issue. Probably it is yet to be written. You can get plenty of stuff from obviously-biased partisans, and from reporters who were rushing to meet a deadline. I would like to see something really good for a change.

Oops, I see I am off topic.

To return to the original question:

Anyway, I can play much better on Ivory keys. Fantastic touch and feel. I just love them.
Posted By: Auntie Lynn

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 01:31 PM

I HATE plastic - it's awful. Plastic collects condensation. It's like playing in a swamp; slows you down. I have a Steinway with ivory (personally, I think it's probably walrus tusk these days), but it makes all the difference in the world...
Posted By: Keith Roberts

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 10:12 PM

Walrus tusk!!!!!!


I like that!! Thank you Auntie Lynn. I will continue to salvage old keys for the reclcled ivory. At $3500 for new ones it might be worth the salvage.
Posted By: tomasino

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 11:02 PM

I boycott ivory. New or recycled, it stimulates the market for ivory to purchase it, and thus, stimulates further slaughter.

Posted By: Prospero

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/10/07 11:22 PM

With a lack of solid information, I cannot say if I agree or disagree with tomasino. I am fully prepared to feel guilty for buying my vintage Steinway, but, for all I know, buying Ivory will ultimately save elephants as a species.

It might not, too. I don't know.

Incidentally, not all new Ivory is necessarily "the remains of an animal cruelly slaughtered." Elephants with tusks can die from disease, old age, mating battles, falls, etc.; their tusks break, parts drop, and so forth. It is not quite so simple.

Economically it is certainly possible to imagine a boom in Ivory trade that leads to a vast increase in the number of elephants on the planet because of the profit potential of breeding them in large numbers.

Could it be that outlawing the sale of Ivory is just another in a long line of quick fixes that actually makes it more likely that elephants will become extinct? I see no easy answer to such a question.

I can imagine someone saying, "Hey, I am just going to boycott Ivory, because I want to err on the side of caution and save the elephants," but again I cannot agree with that so easily: if we could save elephants as a species by legalizing Ivory--some large, international, responsible bodies have apparently agreed that this is so--then it would be pretty darn irresponsible of us to block the legalization of Ivory and thereby condemn elephants to extinction.

I can find no easy answer here.

(Are people deleting their posts to this thread or what? I keep on reading posts but then they disappear. What is going on?)

(Aha, now I see: the exact same thread was started in two different forums. Nice. smile )
Posted By: Bob Newbie

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/11/07 02:31 PM

Hmmm I wonder if they can use mother of pearl ..like they do on guitar inlays? or my jazz archtop... abalone?
Posted By: Keith Roberts

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/11/07 02:43 PM

I think pearl or shell is too soft and even more porous.

Thank you Prospero. It is wrong to think that all ivory is a result of slaughter. Ivory is and has been a high priced item and there will always be poachers. I don't think the piano keytop market drives people to become poachers. That field is probably saturated already.
Posted By: lucie_eva

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/13/07 05:59 PM

That is the same for me, Tomasino. I respect people's choice, but no ivory for me, whatever the source. I have taken similar decisions regarding other materials or other subjects, because what I have seen has prompted me to do it, but that is beyond the scope of this piano forum. I strongly feel that as consumers we are much more powerful than what we think.
Posted By: BDB

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/13/07 06:31 PM

Mother of pearl has been used on harpsichords, but abalone is endangered as well, and you need far more of them for a set of keys than you need elephants.
Posted By: GoatRider

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/13/07 08:19 PM

Anybody know how many keys you can get per tusk?
Posted By: John Pels

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/14/07 01:34 PM

Most of these comments deal with ethics rather than function. Putting ethics aside for a moment, my preference is plastic keytops. I have played both over a long period of time and find absolutley no problems with them. That being said, I have no copious sweating problems as others have opined, so it comes down to a durability and cosmetic thing rather than anything else. They look fantastic and to me anyway feel fine. I certainly do not lack traction in any of the demanding literature that I play.
Posted By: Steve Chandler

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/14/07 04:04 PM

Thank you John for bringing the discussion back to functionality. I've had the opportunity to play a few Kawai's lately and they all seem to have this sticky stuff on the keys called Neotex. At first I didn't like it, but it did give a higher degree of traction and I was able to play faster and better with fewer mistakes from fingers slipping off keys. I won't claim to have gotten used to it, it's still sticky stuff on the keys, but I have experienced the benefit of it.

My limited experience with ivory is that it was very comfortable with slightly more traction than plastic depending on the humidity. If it's hot and humid fingers will sweat and get slippery on plastic. In a dry climate the opposite happens, the skin gets dry and slippery on plastic keys. The Neotex is an improvement over plain plastic, the stickiness of it is a bit uncomfortable to me on fast notes, but the stickiness of it also offers a stability on held notes that I did like. I would be very interested in trying ox bone, it seems to me it could share many of the benefits of ivory without the ethical issues attached.
Posted By: tomasino

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/14/07 06:21 PM

Ethics is the issue. Functional issues are trivial in comparison.

Posted By: cruiser

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/14/07 06:41 PM

Originally posted by tomasino:
Ethics is the issue. Functional issues are trivial in comparison.

...and hang your heads in shame those who think otherwise!

[Linked Image]

Steve Chandler, not very 'comfortable' for the original owner of the ivory, was it?

Posted By: eJohn

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/15/07 09:06 PM

Absolutely no excuse to kill another elephant for its ivory. The ethical solution is to use synthetic materials that simulate ivory, or use recycled ivory. I'm sure no one on this forum actually advocates elephant hunting just because it leads to more "comfortable" piano keys. Let's tone it down a bit.
Posted By: John Pels

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/16/07 03:12 AM

Forum members, harvesting ivory is illegal. We all know it. No one here is advocating it. The question is which keytop is preferred, by whom and why. This has absolutely nothing to do with the ethics of harvesting animals for their tusks. I'd be the last to advocate using it in this day and time. THE TOPIC IS NOT ETHICS!!! And for that matter no one is denying that ethics are all important. If any lister is implying that keyboards should not be restored using existing already harvested and generally well-used old ivory, they need to spend more time practicing and less time typing. Enough of the posturing already.
Posted By: BDB

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/16/07 06:42 AM

Actually the original statement was that if plastic had been around 500 years ago, nobody would be using ivory for key tops. Nobody would ever have used it, so nobody would know what it feels like.

So maybe the question is: if you had always played on plastic key tops, nothing else, would you want something else?

Incidentally, you could easily get enough old ivory to cover the keyboard on your computer. Have any of you who claim it makes a difference ever done that? If not, why not?
Posted By: Prospero

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/16/07 06:48 AM

I showed the elephant photograph to my ethics class at the university. A student in the front row raised her hand and said, "What, does this guy think you can settle a complicated question like this by showing a picture of a dead elephant?" The class burst out laughing. I said her comment was interesting, and that I did not think that is what the PW poster meant by it.

I still think the question is difficult.

If we just stop buying Ivory, we might not see any more dead elephant pictures, because there might not be any more elephants left anywhere to photograph, which would be terribly sad. A picture does not prove otherwise.

Of course perhaps we should stop buying Ivory. I think it is difficult to know one way or the other.

Another student said, "I think some people enjoy feeling self-righteous and angry, so they simplify complicated things. That way you can have black and white, bad guys and good guys, and they can just hate the bad guys. They want life to be simpler than it really is."

I said her comment was interesting, too, but I doubt very much that the PW poster really wants life to be simpler than it is.

I certainly do not claim to know better than anyone else. All to the contrary, I am skeptical of those who claim to know better than me.

Many people who know a lot more about this question than I do say that they are unsure just what should be done to save the elephants as a species. They have been studying the problem for years, they have gotten grants, they have traveled, they have researched, they have been at it much longer than I have--and they still are uncertain what to do.

On tough questions like this, I wonder sometimes where people can find certainty. I do not see it.

Maybe it is easier to be certain if you know that nobody is really going to take action based on what you say.

But what if people are looking to you for guidance? What if your opinion is going to influence people who make policy?

What if you blithely say, "Yes, reject the proposals to legalize Ivory trade," and people listen, and they say "trust him," and they take your advice, and they act accordingly?

What if then, many years down the road, you live to see the extinction of elephants, and it comes back to haunt you that those magnificent creatures might be still alive in abundance if you had been a smarter person?

Well, then, you might want something more solid than pictures before you give people your advice.
Posted By: John Citron

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/16/07 04:27 PM

I've played on ivory as well as plastic, and to be honest, the ivory does feel nice, but I'll stick with plastic. To me the plastic is the modern replacement for something that was unavailable 500 years ago.

Ivory natural keys became popular once the trade opened up to Africa and India during the 19th-century colonial expansion by Great Britian and other European nations. So in my opinion, if the material was difficult to get all along, then alternatives would have been used such as wood surfaces, bone, and shell.

It is interesting to note, that prior to the 19th century, that not all keyboards were covered in bone or ivory. Ivory and other white materials were very expensive so were used only on the very best expensive instruments, or used sparingly.

In many cases, the keyboards were made with wood veneers, or painted with only the smallest amounts of bone or ivory used for the sharps, or perhaps as details on the arcades (key fronts) for example. My Italian virginal has boxwood naturals and oak sharps just like the original that it was based on. My clavichord has black painted naturals and bone sharps. (reverse keyboard). The natural keys are extremely smooth on this instrument, and you can't tell that they are painted or not.

Posted By: Bassio

Re: Ivory versus plastic tops - 11/17/07 08:11 PM

And try playing glissandi on those ivory tops wink
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