In the early years of the piano, the keys were made from sugar pine wood, while the black keys were made from ebony wood. As the piano grew in popularity as an instrument, builders began to use ivory to give the top of the white keys a smooth and luxurious look.
The problem with using ivory for piano keys is that they come from an elephant's tusk, which brings into question the morality of using elephants negatively, especially since now they are endangered due to high ivory trade levels in the 19th and 20th centuries. The sale of ivory is now banned in most countries.
Pianos are now made from plastic almost exclusively. The popular piano brand Yamaha came up with a plastic called Ivorite that looks exactly like ivory without the worries of endangering precious animals. Legal ivory can still be obtained, but it is very rare to be able to get your hands on it, and probably not worth the trouble. Plastic also lasts much longer than ivory which chips and starts looking old with age. Ebony timber can still be used for the black keys since it doesn't come from an animal.
Other examples of natural materials that companies use include a material called 'vegetable ivory', which comes from tagua nuts. Vegetable ivory has been used to make piano keys, dice, knife handles, and chess pieces. The only problem is that tagua palm can take up to 15 years to mature, so it's hard to come by compared to plastic.
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Ivory keys tend to get discolored easily as time goes by. You'll notice a piano made with ivory keys turning yellow or brown over the years and possibly chipping at the top of the white keys to expose the wood. You can also tell that your piano has ivory keys if you look at the keys very closely and see that ivory has a pattern similar to a fingerprint, while plastic keys are completely smooth.
If you have an old piano with ivory keys that have begun to change color, make sure you don't try to clean it with plain soap and water since that will do more damage than good. Try cleaning the ivory with something naturally acidic, like diluted lemon juice. You can also try toothpaste and milk for cleaning the ivory keys.
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