What are piano keys made of? Well, the answer to this question is surprisingly not what you might think. The material that pianos are traditionally made out of was wood, but now most people make them out of plastic or metal.
While the answer may come as a surprise to many people, but “what are piano keys made of?” is one of the questions more commonly asked about pianos by customers looking for their next instrument purchase.
What Are the Black Keys Made Of?
Traditionally, black keys were made of ebony, but now they are mostly made of plastic.
Some people assume that these keys can’t be made out of plastic because they need to absorb moisture and sweat from the hands and fingers over time, but this is not true. Other materials such as metal and hard rubber are also sometimes used for the black keys.
Manufacturers attach the black keys on top of the white keys.
What Are the White Keys Made Of?
For white piano keys, manufacturers used hard maple and other types of hardwood because it has a nice keypress feel and makes a clear sound. Modern pianos are, unfortunately, now made from plastic. You can also find some made from glass and resin. These white piano keys are more sweat-resistant versus plastic.
The switch of material is because of manufacturing costs; plastic is cheaper and less expensive to make. Moreover, assembling plastic white keys is less tedious.
With wooden white piano keys, manufacturers used thick pins to secure both sides of the keys. Since there are 52 white keys in a piano, this process is labour-intensive. This old-style piano construction is the cause of what pianists call “hitting a wrong note,” which means hitting two notes at once.
Modern white piano keys have a different assembly system. Piano manufacturers make holes on each side of the key and insert small pegs. They will then use a press to secure both sides of the black keys until it reaches one end of the white key.
Fun fact: White piano keys also used to be made from ivory.
How Do You Know if Your Piano Has Ivory Keys?
You will no longer find ivory keytops on most pianos manufactured today. If you’ve inherited a piano from your grandparents or found one from your local flea market, you can identify a piano with ivory keys by looking at its color – ivory pianos have a cream color. They also feel very smooth to the touch.
Another identifier that you have a piano with ivory keys is if you spot a fine line between the keytop and the stem. So, why aren’t there modern pianos with ivory keys? The short answer is poaching.
Ivory is harvested from tusks, which is deadly for animals. By the 1980s, many countries started to ban the ivory trade due to endangered species laws.
Fun fact: It’s been more than 30 years since the international ivory ban was implemented, and it’s still going strong.
What’s the Difference Between Ivory and Plastic Keys?
Aside from materials, there are other differences between ivory and plastic keys. They are as follows:
Ivory keys are more complex to make. They consist of three components – key, stem, and front. Whereas plastic piano keys only have two parts, the top and front.
Another difference between ivory and plastic keys is the color. Over time, due to light exposure and usage, ivory keys will turn yellow. On the other hand, plastic keys will retain their white color but with continuous use will develop a glossy finish on top.
Pianos with ivory keys command a high price tag – even for used and old models. Plastic keys are more affordable and are widely available. In fact, you can pick up replacement white piano keys from your local music store or online should you ever need one.
Ivory keys have a grainy texture while plastic counterparts are slippery. There are synthetic ivory plastic keys that are specifically made to replicate the surface of genuine ivory keys.
There you have it. The black and white keys of a modern piano are made out of plastic. They are affordable, replaceable, and most importantly, they are not harvested from elephants. And, should you ever want or have ivory piano keys, just remember that trading is illegal!