Real Ivory on piano keys?

Posted by: peterws

Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 04:30 AM

Who really thinks about this? Is it true, (in which case elephants would have to be managed better than they are now)or is it an ivory substitute? And what is the point in a piano key made in wood, overlaid (glued) with ivory? Production wise, not a lot.

Plastic keys are used on digitals mostly. They`re not clever, but would be OK if they had a knobbly surface or something for a bit more grip. And there`s no reason on earth why they shouldn`t be used in acoustics too, imnsho. . . .
Posted by: David Boyce

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 09:04 AM

Two separate but related issues here: Key covering materials, and key materials.

It's possible that in time a composite material may be found that works well for keysticks, giving the right weight and springiness and strength, and available at the right price. There would surely be no objection to that. The plastic keys in the Lindner pianos didn't generally themselves break - it was the metal leaf springs. But the Lindner keys didn't feel nice.

Comparisons with electronic keyboards are perhaps not that helpful, as they get a different kind of use (and don't last very long compared to a piano)

For key coverings, modern plastics materials are really very good. Most people don't realise too, how far back celluloid plastics go - you can find 1890s pianos with celluloid key coverings.

There is also a small and perfectly legal trade in extinct wooly mammoth ivory!
Posted by: Emmery

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 09:33 AM

We will likely have full carbon fiber keys in the future as new techniques of weave, vacume forming develop. Square carbon fiber tubes are already available in industry, they simply need to be attached on either side of some synthetic central pivot point.
It is very difficult to simulate the texture and structure of the naturally formed v shaped Schreger lines of elephant ivory. There is a slight difference in density between the alternating lines and as real ivory wears, it keeps the texture consistant. Although some synthetic keytops are made to simulate the porosity of real ivory, I really have not found them to measure up on their ability to absorb and dissipate sweat like real ivory and still not feel somewhat slippery. I love the way ivory keys feel under my fingers, nothing quite like it.
Posted by: Supply

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 12:18 PM

Originally Posted By: peterws
Who really thinks about this? Is it true, (in which case elephants would have to be managed better than they are now)or is it an ivory substitute? And what is the point in a piano key made in wood, overlaid (glued) with ivory? Production wise, not a lot....

1) Many people have been thinking about it ever since the first synthetics were used for keys, well over a century ago. No new pianos have had elephant ivory for decades. The first synthetics were celluloid, in the 1870s, followed by Galalith and then petro-chemical plastics later on.

2)There are many very good reasons to have a thin, key covering of a hard, dense material. Key sticks have to be strong, but also light, to reduce key inertia. For that reason, they are made of a light wood - spruce, pine etc. Early key coverings, made of a thick hardwood veneer, mother of pearl or ivory protected the key stick from wear, felt better during playing and looked nicer than the softwood key stick. That still applies today, except that plastics have replaced ivory. Hardwood keytops are still found on many keyboard instruments (harpsichords, organs etc). Some pianos still use wooden sharps.

3)This makes absolute sense, production wise, otherwise some of the thousands of piano makers over the centuries, up until today, would have tried something different.
Posted by: Olek

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 12:22 PM

BTW it is amazing how celluloid restst to time...

I have read it was avery expensive material, used to make bowling and billard bowl, and glasses, etc...

WHat I seem to notice is that a celluloid covering can be glued only on its external part, then there is no risk of cracking when the wood of the key swell. (Ivory can crack for that reason)
Posted by: Emmery

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 01:00 PM

Celluloid is a huge fire risk. Many a home and venue have burned down from an accidental flame/cigarette or other source lighting it. I was stripping some keys of celluloid years ago and tossing them in a large jar outside. Somebody threw their cigarette butt in with it and it turned into a flame thrower in a matter of seconds.
Posted by: Del

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 01:51 PM

Originally Posted By: peterws
Who really thinks about this? Is it true, (in which case elephants would have to be managed better than they are now)or is it an ivory substitute? And what is the point in a piano key made in wood, overlaid (glued) with ivory? Production wise, not a lot.

Plastic keys are used on digitals mostly. They`re not clever, but would be OK if they had a knobbly surface or something for a bit more grip. And there`s no reason on earth why they shouldn`t be used in acoustics too, imnsho. . . .

There is no good reason for insisting on ivory as a key covering material on piano keys. The simple plastic keycoverings that have been used for some decades on piano keys are quite good. If one doesn't like the feel of the acrylic plastic keycovers there are alternatives. The so-called "mineral plastic" being one. As well, both Yamaha and Kawai offer keycoverings that simulate the look and feel of ivory quite nicely.

There are many reasons why all-plastic keys are not used in pianos. At least 88 of them for each model of piano any particular pianomaker builds.

Digitals (and organs) can easily use all-plastic keys because their keys are very simple and repetitive shapes. All of the Fs are the same just like all of the Cs are the same (except for the one at the end). So all that is needed is one F mold and that key will work for any F in the instrument. Want to change models? No problem, the mold for the F will still work.

Not so with piano keys. Each key in the keyboard is different because the flare of each key is different. And each keyset for each different model is different. A separate mold would have to be made for each key of each keyset. For a company like Young Chang that would mean making at least 14 different sets of molds with each set consisting of 88 different molds.

A secondary problem is with the material itself. Keys for electronic keyboard have very little stress applied to them. Piano keys, because of their length and their flare, are much more highly stressed. They have to be reasonably stiff and resistant to bending. There are, of course, plastics or composites that are at least as strong as the woods being used but these are not cheap materials.

So, yes, plastics or composites could be used to make piano keys of reasonable quality but the cost would be extremely high.

ddf
Posted by: rysowers

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 03:25 PM

There is plastic and then there is plastic. I can certainly tell the difference between keys that have the inexpensive supply house "molded plastic keytops" and the so-called "German Keytops" that cost about twice as much per set (wholesale). the German material is harder and has a more authentic look and feel than the less expensive material.

Plastic is a very generic term for a category of materials that have a wide range of properties and applications.
Posted by: Silverwood Pianos

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 03:47 PM



I can imagine the day when there will be a material that can be sprayed on and then forms the key top directly on the wood.

Surprises me that key sets have not followed the tennis racquet industry which changed from wood to Kevlar braids and other materials.
Posted by: David Boyce

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/19/13 08:21 PM

Jurgen, I didn't know about Galalith, and have now looked it up. Interesting! I see that it was produced until the 1960s in Brazil.

"Celulloid" of course became an nickname for movie film. Early transparent movie film stock was cellulose nitrate which in time becomes spontaneously combustible, as well as being highly flammable at all times. A childhood memory of my mother (1926-2010) was being in the cinema and the film catching fire and breaking, and the flames in the projector being projected onto the screen!

Bone has also been used as a key covering material and has some properties like ivory, I understand. But I heard somewhere that it stains or doscolours too easily with use.
Posted by: musicpassion

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 03:25 AM

Originally Posted By: David Boyce

Bone has also been used as a key covering material and has some properties like ivory, I understand. But I heard somewhere that it stains or doscolours too easily with use.

Some pipe organs use bone converings. I've played a number of organs with bone converings and they felt very good. The ones I've played weren't stained, but that's not enough data to answer the question of whether it is possible.
Posted by: JohnSprung

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 04:27 AM

I wonder if anyone has investigated ceramics. There are some really exotic things in that area from valve parts to computer discs.
Posted by: Supply

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 11:30 AM

Originally Posted By: David Boyce
Jurgen, I didn't know about Galalith, and have now looked it up. Interesting! I see that it was produced until the 1960s in Brazil...
Anyone working on old pianos, such as yourself, will probably have encountered Galalith. It just doesn't say it on the keys... wink
Posted by: Zeno Wood

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 11:43 AM

I've never worked on an old piano such as David Boyce, so I wouldn't know.
Posted by: Supply

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 02:03 PM

Zeno,
your post had prompted me to open an EDIT window to change my sentence, but then I thought, "What the heck, David has probably been called much worse in his life". So I'm letting it stand. (Sorry, David)
Posted by: Zeno Wood

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 02:11 PM

I'm glad your standing you're ground. When I have nothing constructive to add I turn into the grammar police.
Posted by: Silverwood Pianos

Re: Real Ivory on piano keys? - 01/21/13 02:35 PM