A piano might look like a sturdy instrument compared to a guitar or a set of drums, but some of its components are actually quite finicky in terms of upkeep!
In order to enjoy many long years with your piano in peak condition, you should familiarize yourself with the best ways to care for its keys.
Take a look at these useful tips on how to clean piano keys so that you can keep your instrument looking its best!
Know the makeup of your instrument.
Plastic and ivory piano keys each have their unique pros and cons when it comes to the experience of playing the piano. However, today we need to focus on how the difference in materials translates into different cleaning methods. Ivory and plastic keys have different needs when it comes to cleaning and upkeep, and familiarizing yourself with those needs will help you avoid causing any damage.
Ivory keys require more of a delicate touch than plastic ones do, since they’re porous and much more sensitive to moisture and harsh cleaners. For ivory keys, use a barely-damp cloth with an extremely diluted dish soap solution. That will be enough to remove the grime–there is no reason to turn to chemical cleaners that run the risk of either eating away at the surface of the keys or leaving an unwanted film behind.
Simply follow up with a damp, soap-free cloth to make sure there’s no residue left, carefully dry each octave before you move on to the next, and you’re good to go!
Plastic piano keys are decidedly more durable than ivory ones in many ways, but you should still avoid using any harsh cleaners. While plastic keys are obviously more moisture-resistant than ivory, they’re actually more likely to sustain extra wear and tear if you use soap! Instead, opt for a gentle vinegar solution made with warm water to clear away grime.
Make sure you’re using the right cloths.
Now that we’ve covered the differences between how to properly handle ivory and plastic piano keys once you’re in the thick of things, let’s back up a bit and take a look at the types of cloths you’ll need from start to finish.
No matter which type of piano keys you’re dealing with, you’ll want to dust the keys before you bring moisture anywhere near them. Dust is much easier to remove when it’s dry! Make sure you’re using a high-quality dusting cloth that performs well. Flannel is a nice choice, and microfiber is another great way to go.
A crucial detail to remember when it comes to cleaning cloths is the color. If you use a colored cloth for cleaning, make sure it’s light in color. You should also make sure that it’s been through plenty of washes so that there is absolutely zero chance of the dye bleeding onto your piano keys. The white keys are surprisingly easy to stain, and once they do, it can be a nightmare to get them pristine once more without causing any damage.
Sometimes, you can use the same cloth for both jobs: Dust first while the cloth is dry, and then rinse and wring it out to carry on with the rest of the cleaning process. But if your dusting cloth is colored, then you’re best off getting a separate, non-dyed white cloth to clean your piano keys with after you’ve dusted them.
It’s best to have separate cloths for cleaning black and white keys as well. Last but not least, don’t forget to have a clean, dry cloth on hand to dry your keys as soon as you’ve cleaned them!
Be very careful about moisture and avoid water damage.
Speaking of drying off your piano keys: Nothing spells destruction for a fine instrument like moisture damage. Excess water will warp, buckle, and deteriorate your piano, and you need to be extremely careful how you handle it while you clean!
The best rule of thumb to keep in mind is that, no matter what kinds of keys you have, the cloth you use to clean them should be barely damp–never wet. If you can get a stream of water when you wring out the cloth, then it’s too wet. You want the dampness of the cloth to lift grime off your piano keys without leaving any water behind.
When you try to clean your keys with a cloth that’s too wet, the pressure will squeeze excess water in between the keys and down their sides. You never, ever want this to happen. This is the same reason you should avoid spray cleaners: Aside from the fact that they usually contain harsh chemicals that you don’t want on your instrument, there’s no good way to control the amount of moisture you get from a spray bottle.
Remember to clean your keys only one octave at a time, keeping a dry cloth handy to wipe each octave completely dry before you move on to the next one. In case of a mishap, press down the keys on either side of the wet one and quickly use a cloth to dry its sides.
Periodically disinfect your keys, especially if you share your piano.
If you share an instrument with family members or provide lessons, it’s a good idea to disinfect your piano keys now and then to avoid transmitting bacteria and illnesses. But don’t even think about reaching for something rough and chemical, like bleach wipes!
A solution made from water and white vinegar is a great option for disinfecting your plastic piano keys without causing any damage. The ideal ratio for cleaning your piano keys is to mix one part vinegar with four parts water. This ratio is effective at cleaning the keys, but not acidic enough to damage them.
It’s best to avoid vinegar altogether when dealing with ivory piano keys and stick with antibacterial soap and water instead. You can use plain, old Dawn dish soap if you like, or you can opt for a nice vegetable-oil soap. Either one should work just fine without damaging your keys, as long as you use a small amount.
Spray disinfectants should be avoided since, as previously mentioned, it’s next to impossible to control where moisture gathers when you’re using a spray. Most spray disinfectants also contain unnecessarily harsh chemicals that will leave an unwanted residue as well.
Take a look at this video where an expert goes over cleaning tips for piano keys:
Know what NOT to do.
Having a good knowledge of what you shouldn’t do while cleaning your piano keys is just as crucial as knowing what you should do! When you sit down to clean your beloved instrument, make sure you keep these tips in mind so that you can avoid making common mistakes that can damage your piano keys.
1. Don’t use the same cloth to clean white keys after you’ve used it to clean black keys.
This might sound overly picky, but you’d be surprised by how easy it can be to stain white piano keys! The paint on black keys can sometimes rub off a bit on a damp cloth and then transfer to the white keys, causing unwanted stains and smudges that are tricky to remove.
2. Don’t use rough circular or scrubbing motions.
When you clean your piano keys, use a gentle brushing motion from the back of the key to the front where you press down while playing. Repeat this motion, going the same direction each time, to effectively clean your keys without scuffing them up. Using rough scrubbing motions not only puts unnecessary strain on your keys, but it increases the risk of wetting the sides of them as well.
3. Don’t use paper towels to clean the keys.
It might seem like a good idea to use paper towels on piano keys since you can throw them out when you’re done and avoid rubbing your keys with an increasingly dirty cloth. However, paper towels leave lint behind, and it’s hard to know what kinds of chemicals they were treated with. It’s much safer to use a clean, soft cloth.
4. Don’t succumb to the temptation of chemical spray cleaners and disinfectants!
It’s impossible to stress this point enough. You might be sorely tempted to grab alcohol wipes or disinfectant sprays once you’re done cringing at the sight of someone touching your piano right after coughing into their hands. This is completely understandable, but there’s simply no way around the fact that the risks of spray cleaners outweigh their benefits.
Not only can spray cleaners damage your keys, but they can damage or leave a residue on the wood finish of your piano as well. Stick with a vinegar solution or soap to disinfect your keys, no matter what!
5. Don’t get in over your head.
While it’s understandable to want to save money or quickly get a cleaning job out of the way, certain types of messes can be too much for the average person to handle. If your piano is an antique, is stained or damaged, or has gone a long time without a thorough cleaning, then you should consider calling a professional. Getting your piano professionally serviced is a wise choice in special cases or in situations where a mess has gotten out of hand!
Piano keys are more delicate than some people think, and they must be cleaned with care! Make sure you have a clear understanding of what types of keys your piano has, and clean them accordingly. No matter what types of keys you have, dust them from back to front before you do anything else.
Then, dampen your cloth with a vinegar solution for plastic keys, and warm, soapy water for ivory ones. Make sure your cloth isn’t too wet, and never let water seep between the keys. Clean the keys one octave at a time, making sure to dry them thoroughly before moving on to the next octave.
Additionally, remember that prevention is a great idea, and only touch your piano with clean, dry hands. Learning how to clean piano keys will keep your instrument looking great for years to come!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.