How to replace piano keytops

Posted by Sarah Czarnecki on

Over time, piano keytops can become worn, broken, or even fall off entirely. This is especially apparent with antique pianos which use real ivory. Keytops that have become damaged, faded, or warped can be replaced at home or in the shop.

Simply pry them up, smooth them down, and stick them back on.

Just kidding, there's a lot more to it than that! Replacing keytops is a delicate process that requires a deft hand, lots and lots of time, and quality products. Read on for a detailed guide to replacing your own piano keytops.


image Schaff

Before we begin, understand your end goal. Are you replacing a single piece of damaged ivory, replacing a few plastic pieces, or redoing all 52 natural notes?

Real ivory is noticeably thinner than their imitation counterparts. Ivorite is slightly thicker than the real deal ad plastic is the thickest. This means that if you are replacing ivory with imitation, you will need to grind down the key quite a bit. Remember to account for the key front if you are planning to replace that piece as well. If you're replacing ivory with ivory, you will need cement wafers instead of PVC-E glue. You'll still need to sand down the key, but not as much. Measure, compare, and plan ahead.

A note about ivory. If your ivory has been ruined by age or use, it's okay to discard it. It has zero resale value. Remember, ivory is made of the same biological material as human hair and fingernails, so it does have a lifespan and can't be expected to last forever. It can peel, chip, and crack. If the ivory you've removed is in good shape, you may donate it to your local piano technician for salvage. This is how most of today's ivory keytops are sourced. Contact your local technician for reclaimed ivory, because we do not sell or trade natural ivory keytops.

If you're replacing just one or two busted keys, the most important thing is matching. Match the colors, thicknesses, materials, lengths, and shape. Browse our collection of keytops or collect reclaimed keytops from your same make and model. If you can't find an exact match, be prepared for customization. 

When replacing an entire set of white keytops, understand that the job ahead of you is not a quick project. Proper keytop replacement is a delicate job which requires patience and precision. After all, the keytops are one of the first things you'll see when opening your piano. You'll be touching these keys every time you play, and if they're "off" or improperly adhered, it's going to drive you bananas. If you make a mistake, you can always start over, but the process is involved, so we recommend you steel your nerves before attempting keytop replacement.

If all this sounds too daunting, contact us for custom keytop replacement services.

Ready? Good! Let's get started.

This piano could really use some TLC!

Replacing Keytops

Difficulty: Challenging

Materials Required:

- Replacement keytops 

- PVC-E glue

- Brush for applying glue

- Sharp blade or chisel

- Level

- Sandpaper (coarse and fine grit)

- Belt sander

Additional Materials for Salvaged Ivory

- Cement wafers 

- Sharp scissors

- Tweezers

- Key clamp

image Schaff

First, you'll need to take the key out of the piano. Remove the fallboard by so that it doesn't fall down on your hands as you work. Take away any other cabinet parts that are in your way. You can put them back later. You may need a screwdriver to complete this step. 

Now that the keys are free for you to work on, carefully lift them out. The key is just rested on a pin, not screwed in anywhere, so pull it straight up. If you've done this correctly, your piano now looks like it needs to go to the dentist.

Use your blade or chisel to pry up the keytop from the wooden key. Be careful not to damage the wood. Some technicians say using a clothes iron on the steam setting above a rag will help loosen the glue. This is a touchy trick, but if it's really stuck on there, you might give this a try. 

If you have real ivory keytops, there will be two pieces to remove: the head and the tail. The heads are much more likely to be damaged, so you may be able to leave the tail where it is. If you the head is missing entirely, move on to the next step.

When you've gotten the keytop up, use sandpaper to scrub away the glue or old cement wafers holding the ivories in place. If you're using salvaged ivory, remember to get the cement off this piece, too. Now you'll need to mill the wooden key so that the new keytop is at the correct height and everything adheres nicely.

Preparation is key. The better the key is prepared for the keytop, the better your final results. The key must be absolutely level and flat, so don't rush the prep step.

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Important! Always wear protective gear. Wear safety goggles, earplugs, and a pair of gloves protect you from sanding yourself.  

If replacing plastic with identical plastic, you may be able to just use fine sandpaper instead of milling. Grinding down the keys unnecessarily or unevenly will only result in tears, so measure measure measure. 

Imitation ivory and plastic keytops are thicker than antique ivory veneers, so you will need to grind down the key. Use a belt grinder for this task. Disc sanders and band saws will do the job, but you won't have nearly as much control. Grinding down the key by millimeters or even fractions of millimeters is all you're going for. All you're doing is removing roughness, old glue, and bringing the height of the key down just enough to keep the keytops aligned. Do it, but don't overdo it.

Measure the keytops to make sure they are even, flat, and will align perfectly with the key. Test fit the keytop in its proper place (without gluing) and ensure everything is even using your level. You may need to sand the keytops or file them down to fit. 

Everything perfect? Good, now it's time to adhere the keytop.

image Schaff

Imitation Ivory or Plastic Only

Now brush a small amount of PVC-E glue to the wooden key and the bottom of the keytop. Only use a small amount of glue and make sure it doesn't spill over the edges of either the key or the keytop. 

When the glue is tacky and no longer soggy, align the keytop with the key. Let me emphasize that. Align the keytop with the key. If these are not exactly right, you'll have to start over. When you're sure it's perfect, press the keytop into place and hold it firmly for about a minute. You may wish to use a key clamp.

Natural Ivory Only

When working with salvaged ivory, you'll need to prepare both the key and the ivory keytop. Use coarse sandpaper to break up old glue, then use fine grit to smooth the surface. Use your chisel to clear away old glue from the tip of the tail if it is still adhered to the key.

Prepare the cement wafer by measuring it against the key and keytop. These wafers are usually oversized, so use sharp scissors to trim it down to size.

Soak the cement wafer in water for 30 seconds, then carefully apply it to the key with tweezers. Align it flush with the tail to ensure that there's no gap when you stick on the head. Make sure there are no wrinkles or bubbles in the cement.

When you have the piece aligned just right, press it down firmly then use your ivory key clamp. Heat the clamp with a heat gun or other temperature source before putting it in place. The cement will bubble out of the edges a little bit -- that's okay. You can clean it up later.  Let the clamp cool naturally. This could take up to an hour, so be patient! This extra step may be time-consuming, but it is important since it prevents any slipping and ensures that there's no unsightly gap between the head and the tail.

All Materials

When the adhesive is dry, buff the edges to clean up any excess glue and smooth out rough edges.

If the new keytop is a bit too long and has excess lip hanging over the front edge of the wood, file it down or sand it. This is common when using ivory, since each piece is totally unique. For ivory, use a wide sanding block to even out the keys all at once. Sanded keys may not retain their rounded edges in the front, so carefully use sandpaper to smooth them out. 

Cleaning the edges and sides of the keys is important to the final look and function of your piano. Use your sanding block, razor knife, or machinist's file to carefully clean away excess glue and final fit the edges of the keytop to the key. We prefer a machinist's file for those hard to reach inside corners. File gently, check often. This is the artistic part of the job, so have fun with it and take your time perfecting your work. 

And there you have it! One replaced keytop! 

If this seems like it's out of your league or just too big a job to handle, leave it to us. Contact us for custom piano keytop repair service.

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