We Get tons of emails each day asking what does ivory look like? How do I tell the difference between Ivory and Plastic, Can Ivory still be bought? So We will answer those questions below.
There is a link at the bottom of the page for a Kentucky company that specializes key cover replacement. They sell used ivory and also recover keys with new ivory, you can read this page further to find out where new ivory comes from.
For those of you still asking me what ivory is and where it comes from here is your answer : Ivory comes from the tusks of Elephants and some other types of animals like Walrus etc.
*** Buying an Antique Piano with Ivory Keys ?? *** It will be important to get CITES paperwork from the owner of the piano. This will be needed if you want to move the piano to states or globally that have ports of entry. California, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Cross border to Canada etc. You will have to be able to prove what type of animal and scientific name of animal as well as age ( when keys were replaced, date and what manufacture date the ivory was made) . Major moving companies will manifest cargo but if you are doing the move yourself you could be asked for the documents and could face confiscation if you do not have it.
*** NOTE*** Ivory is a banned material. There are various opinions on when it became illegal in the US. Some say the 1970s Others say earlier on. You shouldn't try to sell it online and you shouldn't try to sell it without the US fish and Game permit, It can also be a felony if you get caught shipping it in the mail.
*** Manufacturing *** If you are buying used Ivory or getting old broken pieces of Ivory in the United States and are fashioning it into inlays or jewelry you will need to document the age of the Ivory you use to protect yourself. An Example would be you got some Ivory off a 1920s Piano and you made something out of it in 2012 , Law Enforcement views that as Manufacturing a Banned Material on the latest date, not when it was originally used and you can be charged for that without the documentation / permitting if you get caught.
We do not buy used ivory, we have 100s of pianos here that have ivory key covers. Rarely can it be removed and re-used. If it is curled or chipped it cannot be used as key cover material. Again Ivory is a thin veneer covering over a wood key. Piano keys are not solid blocks of ivory.
Simple ivory test : Heat a needle with a flame from a candle, lighter, stick the heated end into the key, if it melts it's plastic or ivorytine ( simulated ivory plastic) if it doesn't go in it's ivory.
1) Ivory basics are as follows. Most pianos made up until 1956 ( Pre- Ban) CITES Treaty states 1947, if the key covers have not been replaced might have ivory left on them. Ivory is a veneer only a very thin covering over the wood key. It is NOT solid ivory. Most pianos built after that date wont have ivory on them.
2) What does it look like ? Ivory keys are almost always made up of 3 parts, The front, The head ( wide part) and the Tail ( long thin part) It will be rough to the touch if it is soiled which is the point of ivory. Pianists dont like slippery keys. You will see a thin parting seam between the Head and tail and if you hold a flashlight to it at an angle there will be a grain to it like wood has.
3) Is it worth anything ? answer: Not really and it is illegal to sell. You need to obtain a permit from the US fish and game department, which could result in confiscation and a fine. .
It's the same permit as you would need to sell lets say a Zebra skin or similar animal skin like that. Used ivory can be used for inlays on jewelry or other projects but then you cant sell those either or mention "ivory" in the listings so it's pretty much a waste of time. Old ivory removed from pianos is usually curled or chipped and color matching is difficult as well.
4) Where does new ivory come from : You can still get freshly cut ivory but it comes from pre ban Museum stockpiles ( supposedly) of tusks that are sold to companies that make the key veneer. Its very expensive just for the parts as in about 1500.00 and you would need Ivory glue wafers to install them which is labor intensive.
Gluing Ivory back on can be tricky, Nothing really sticks to it, Google ivory glue wafers and use those, do not use epoxy, or other types of glue as it may work short term but will eventually fail.
5) Simulated ivory or plastic key covers are cheaper, Parts average 25- 50.00 a set and labor including the parts is usually 150.00 and up depending on location.
*** Cleaning*** If you want clean ivory the best thing I have found to date is Fast Orange hand cleaner, the kind with pumice, when it hazes you can just polish it, You can get it in any auto parts store . Take a tiny bit and put it on a white cotton cloth or rag, press the key down and rub lightly. You dont want to use water, bleach, any sprays, nothing that will get in the keyways and lock up the key. The other thing is Ivory will curl if you put water on it
Key Service: If you are looking to have your old piano keys replaced with plastic or new ivory which is cut from pre-embargo ivory tusks try www.walkerpiano.com there is a wealth of information on their website which specializes in key cover replacement and sale of used ivory.