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36. Piano Key tops- White and Black Replacement

We offer white key tops and sharps of top quality plastic, as well as real ebony sharps.
For antique restoration, we have used ivories available in very good condition.

We now offer a complete Key Top Restoration Kit



We take NO responsibility for what you do with the key tops we sell you. The following instructions are not a promise of any sort that your experience will be a success or that you will not have issues and troubles handling the piano and installing the new parts. This statement is here because some people do not take responsibility for themselves and blame other people when they have problems or make blunders. So, the following instructions are dangerous and should be ignored UNLESS you take full responsibility for your use of our products.


This is a task many piano owners have done themselves. I shall try to help you to get perfection. This task is really one of the most practical for the do-it-yourselfer since so much money is saved-- as much as $500.

If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit-- Special instructions for you are in this color and font in the flow of text below.

If you are also going to use the Key Lever Felt Restoration Kit to restore the whole key levers, I suggest you do the key button and front pin felt work before you do put the key tops on. Do NOT level the keys until you are done putting on the key tops. If you are using the Key Lever Felt Restoration Kit, do NOT level the keys until the both kits are applied to the key levers. See instructions for using the Key Lever Felt Kit. Order the Key Lever Felt Kit here.



Cleaning Key Tops

A customer reports that he brought old badly yellowed key tops back to only a light off white shade with "Quick Bright" from the hardware or grocery store. You can experiment with very light doses of bleach also, but beware of bleaching the sides of the key. Also, too much moisture will warp ivory, and it will never lay down again. Real ivory can be cleaned with key buffing compound, which we sell in our Catalog online, and you can buff the ivory with 0000 steel wool. Buffing will leave the ivory key top at just a bit more dragging effect than the musician finds is ideal. But, many musicians like too much drag rather than too little.

Chipped ivory can be filed to remove the overhang, but if you do this do all of them. Also, it is a very hard thing to fill the chipped out bits and have a perfect looking job, both in color and smoothness. I have yet to learn what is ideal to fill these chip notches. It is also acceptable to simply file the front overhang off. This shortens the keys a bit, but the blessing of not being nicked all the time, as one plays, is a real improvement.

Sharps can be cleaned, if they are ebony, by buffing them with 0000 steel wool from any hardware store. Do not stain or put anything on real ebony. Ordinary hardwood sharps can be stained after buffing, or they can be painted. The results of painting are not often very satisfying.

If you replace white keytops and not sharps with new, you will very likely be disappointed in the sharps. This is done pretty often, and I would suggest you do both whites and sharps. We do supply new ebony sharps if you have the cash.

Also, see our Cleaning and Polishing Supplies in the Online Catalog.


White key top replacement

Open the piano (Chapter Five), and take all the white keys out. If the numbers which are stamped into the key wood are hard to read, and you cannot tell "8"s from "3"s, mark them again with a felt pen before taking them out. If spinets keys have only two lines to match the keys, number them with a pen anyway.

If you have a Grand Piano, follow the instructions in Chapter Five up to the step of removing the action, but you will have to remove one more item not discussed in Chapter Five. Once you have the action removed and on a work area, locate the three, four, or five metal brackets which hold the hammer rail. The brackets will stand vertically and have two feet, front and rear. Really old pianos may have wooden vertical mounting brackets. In each foot of each bracket is a screw holding it in place. Remove all the screws in these brackets. Lift the whole hammer rail and brackets off and store it in a very safe place where no one can play with it. It is VERY vulnerable to damage. Now, the key levers can be removed according to the following instructions.

You should have a full set of new white key tops that you ordered through your tuner or my Online Catalogue at the back of this book. I strongly encourage you to buy the key tops with the front molded onto the top. This "L" effect will help hold it on better. There is the proper amount of overhang included on these keys.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NEW IVORY.  International law forbids the killing of elephants.  Furthermore; real ivory is now very undesirable since new type plastics have been invented.


A customer sent mail asking how to remove old plastic key tops which were very tightly glued on. Without special power tools this is a troubling task.

I suggested she use an old clothes iron and heat the plastic at medium heat with the iron until it melts or comes off. She tried it, and it worked:

"I just called and spoke with you about getting the white ivories off a few minutes ago. The iron trick that you told me about WORKED! Once it gets hot enough, it slides off in one piece."

I was delighted because I was only guessing that this would work. We learn a lot here from our clever customers :-)

So, you need to get the old ivory off of the white keys if it is in suspect condition. Find a thin blade to slide under the ivories from the front, or start in the rear of the narrow part of the key tops. Try to avoid going downward into the grain of the wood. If you do, you can fill the lost wood with Weldwood wood filler from a local hardware store and file and sand it smooth again.

Old ivories are also removed by some technicians by using a small propane torch and heating the key top ivories just enough to release the glue underneath. Be careful though about the key fronts. Some were made of cellulose, and it is very flammable.

I will buy all the good ivories that are not chipped or broken at $5 per dozen if you mail them to me-- even discolored ones. Only send the wide front ends, not the narrow shank pieces. Don't try to clean them up. They break easily, and I have a way to clean them up.  They have NO collector's value as some folks imagine.  They are only useful to piano owners who want to replace one or two real ivories. SEND MAIL for details.

Next, clean all the white filler and cloth off of the key tops. If you leave it on, it will make the new tops cock eyed, and the key tops will not be lever. Scrape the sides of the key fronts to get all the finger crud off. This is cosmetic, but it will be much more noticeable with the new tops on.

Last step in preparation is to remove the white piece on the fronts of the keys.  Do not remove them, of course, if you wish to only put on the tops without the fronts molded to the tops. It is cellulose on old pianos, so just carve it away, and clean the front down to wood. You may find this the most frustrating step in the whole process since the cellulose is often very well attached. One fellow burned them off since cellulose burns very well. Be very careful as you get to struggling with the knife and the fronts. We have had several people cut themselves rather badly doing this. Another way to remove the fronts is with a bed sander, preferably the disk type. You can zip them off in seconds and keep the front of the key lever from being damaged.

Notice that the key notation of each key top is on the back end of the key top. Follow this marking strictly. A key top for two notes may seem to be interchangeable, but you will regret not using those guides. Also, notice that the keytops on the extreme right and left end of the scale are special in width. This is rather obvious. I just like to mention obvious things since one is apt to be correct making such speculations. :-) Hey, when a Senator makes the most obvious comments, the crowd swoons with delight. Cut me a little slack too, OK?

If you are not using the Key Top Restoration Kit, we recommend that you purchase Glue Tape (our part# FC-001). See the note in the box below.


We now include Glue Tape in our Key Top Restoration Kit. It holds, better, is much less messy, and does not require clamping. There are instructions for using the glue tape included in the Key Top Kit.

When using the glue tape to attach the sharps, you may find it necessary to lightly sand the bottoms of the new sharps to make sure they are perfectly straight and flat. Be sure to apply the stain, if you are using it on the wooden key beneath the sharp, first, and let it dry thoroughly BEFORE gluing on the new sharp.

You will be able to carefully lift up the keytop you have applied with glue tape if you need to reposition it immediately after putting it on, but do it carefully so as to not break it. Our kit offer includes one free replacement key top for any one you spoil.




If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit, first apply the Glue tape according to the instructions in the kit. If for some reason you do not have the instruction sheet, follow this procedure:

First, be sure that the top of the wooden key is free of old glue globs. You don't need to sand it smooth; in fact be careful if you do need to remove some residue that you don't change the plane of the top surface. If you need to sand, turn the key upside down & sand against sand paper that is on a workbench surface.

Now apply the glue tape to the tope surface of the wooden key and press it down firmly. (If using one piece tops with fronts attached apply it to the front of the key as well.) Use the knife provided in the kit to trim the tape even with the sides of the key. Remove the protective backing strip . Line up the new keytop on the key and press into place, pressing firmly with your thumb on the front (for one piece tops with fronts attached) and the traveling back to the back edge of the keytop. Some overhang may be there, but you will address that later, as instructed below.

Let the finished keytop sit overnight before you file the sides or handle the key levers for installation.


Let the finished key top sit over night before you file the sides or handle the key levers for installation.

You will see that each new key top has the notation of the note in the chromatic scale on which is belongs. Any C key top can go on any C except the extreme right hand, last note, key lever. That last key lever takes the C-C key top. The extreme lest and last note is A and takes the A-A key top. If you are not familiar with the chromatic scale, use this graphic for reference. BEWARE: Two key tops look very similar, but they are NOT. Be very sure you get the key top notation matching the key lever of that note.

The new key tops WILL hang over the edge of the wood key slightly. Don't worry, you will file this off AFTER the silicone has dried, but PLEASE take your time and make sure the new white top is centered so that the overhang is equal on both sides. This is important.  DO NOT adjust the key top so that the rounded edge is flush with one edge of the key.  It will make for hard finishing work later. 

After you are sure you have it right, hold the key about eight inches from your nose, and look it over from every angle. Look for the slight misalignment that must be there. Don't be easily satisfied. Look for termites also. What better time than now to catch any of these beasties walking about on your keys. Hey, if you want formal instructions, go to Harvard :-)

You may want to do several a night after work rather than all at once. That way you can concentrate on the job and be a perfectionist at it. Hurrying will get you poor results.

Once you have several (or all) of the whites glued on, you now need to dress the edges.

Step One- Find a medium size fine toothed flat file. File the "notch."   (Study the diagram carefully as you go through this process)  The "notch" CANNOT be left undone since it is essential so that the front of the sharp does not hang up in the notch. Be sure to file the key DOWNWARD and at an angle matching the angle of the notch. If you file UPWARD, and is you used silicone glue, you will probably knock the new key top off. Filing up also could leave tiny tails. File the plastic flush with the wood in the notch.

As you file the "notch," DO NOT glide sideways into the long side of the key top. You could have another notch in that side which you cannot get out.

Step Two- File the long edges and side of the head of the key flush with the wood sides. Remember-- DOWNWARD please. Also, beware of digging into the notch and making it uneven.

Step Three- Round the long edges you just filed flush. A square edge will irritate the musician. Use long even downward strokes so that the edges are straight and smooth. Let the file drift from one end to the other of a long side, whether the head or the tail of the key, so that the edge is evenly rounded over its whole length. Be sure the file is double cut, not single, so that you do not make trails as you move the file. The round edge should be quite modest-- just enough to keep the pianist from catching the fingers on the sharp edge.

Step Four- Last, file the front overhang corners rounded. Again, be conservative, and use your first one done as an example for all the rest. If you need to slow down on this step, use emery boards normally used for finger nail work.

You may have to dress the "notch" slightly, when you are all done, to get a neat appearance.

Now, put the white keys back into the piano with the sharps. Do any of the keys drag on each other? If so, do a little filing, observing the rules above, to make things fit.



Do the new key tops hold the key lever down at the name board felt? This is because the plastic key tops are thicker than original ivory. The top of the key should be just barely touching the name board felt. You will need to remove a paper shim or two from the center pin felt bushing and a paper shim from the front rail felt bushing. This will drop the key lever slightly so that it has enough key drop. If you bought the complete Key Top Restoration Kit, you will have a key dip gauge with which you may lever the keys. See The Key Leveling Section


Save some money on your key tops-- We will buy them.

We buy used ivory key tops. They must not be curled or chipped.
They can be yellowed, but no stains, crayon or pen marks, or gouges on the tops.
Be sure they are real ivory and not imitation ivory made of plastic. You can determine
this by getting a reflection of the key top in the light. Real ivory will have a random
pattern of the grain in the ivory.

The HEAD of the key is the wide front area.
The TAIL is the narrow strip behind the wide front piece.

HEADS: For perfect ivory with no glue on the back and light in color--
We pay $ 2.00 each.

HEADS: For unchipped and uncurled ivories which still have glue and wood bits on the back,
or are very dark from age--
We pay $ .50 each.

TAILS: Check to see if we need any at this time--
We pay $ .25 each

SPECIAL: The TAILS on the lowest and highest note--
We pay $ 2 each


SEND MAIL for instructions.

To remove the old ivories without breaking them, slide a very thin blade under them and work it around.
Try not to get into the wood under the ivory. Do not buff the ivory with abrasives or steel wool. We will
return them to you. This ruins them. Let us clean them up if you are in doubt.


Black key top replacement


I had apprehensions about the removal of the sharp keytops. I did one using the recommended method plus a heat gun, and it took quite a while to get it off, and resulted in some wood damage.

I related this to my piano technician, who I'd called in to do some minor repairs and regulating on the piano action. (Note: From past work as a servicing person, the last thing I want to work on is a device which the owner, who didn't know what they were doing, got into first and made a mess, then called in the expert to straighten it out. When I know I don't know what I'm doing, I'm happy to defer to the experts.)

Anyway, he said, getting off the sharp keytops is the easiest part of the whole job- and proceeded to show me. The technique is to lay the sharp key on its side on a hard surface with a square edge, with the keytop hanging over and the glue joint even with the edge of the surface. A rap on the keytop with a light hammer, and it pops off clean! I did the whole set, including sanding the old glue off, in about half an hour. Only a couple of keys showed the least bit of wood damage, and that was under the new keytop where it won't show. (It might not work where the keytops being replaced are themselves replacements, secured with a modern glue. These originals were on with hide glue, and we all know what it does best- separates cleanly.)

When it came to installing the new sharps, I noticed that their bottoms were not flat; I had to touch them all up on my belt sander to get a proper mating surface. Once that was done, they went together very nicely.

Thanks for the tip from Dan Harrett

Blacks are much easier to replace, and they give a really clean look if they are new. Do not try to do the sharps while they are in the piano. The only time I suggest you keep the old sharps is if they are ebony. Ebony is so rare and beautiful that I simply buff them with 0000 steel wool and put them back. Ebony comes from the high altitude forests of Africa such as the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ruinzori Mountains between Uganda and The Congo. The beauty of ebony is beyond anything I have seen in any other wood. But then, I am prejudiced-- I grew up in those African hills.

Removing the old blacks, or sharps, is harder than removing the ivories. This is because the wooden sharp is glued directly to wood without the layer found between the ivory and the wooden key lever. So, you will again need to slide a very thin blade under the sharp and try to work the blade along under the sharp until it pops off. It will be much easier to catch the wood of the key lever and start down into the grain of the key lever wood. Just be sure you are working with the grain, not against it. If a piece of wood comes out of the key lever, use the Weldwood from the hardware store to fill it. File and sand it level.

If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit now is the time, after the sharps are removed, to use the Oil Dye to stain the side of the sharp key levers. Sand or clean the surface first. Coat the wood again at the front. This prevents bare wood from showing when a white natural is depressed. It is distracting to the musician, and a bit ugly, if the natural wood shows at the front of the sharp lever. Be sure to allow the dye to dry thoroughly before gluing on the sharps.

You should have a set of sharps you ordered from my Online Catalogue. There is no order to the sharps. Just make sure that the front of the sharp does NOT hang over the front of the wood. (See diagram) This time, you can glue them on with either Glue tape or a glue such as Liquid Nails.  Also, make sure they are straight on top of the wood. Do not clamp them, but set them carefully level so that they will not ooze to the side as they dry.

If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit use the glue tape to attach the sharps. See the note in the box above.

After they are dry, use a black permanent felt pen to touch up the black dye area of the wood of the key lever so that it is all black when a natural key is depressed when playing the piano. When you put all the keys back, if the blacks and whites rub a bit here or there, DO NOT file the sharps. Work the white key down, or tap the key lever center pins right or left very slightly to make clearance.

If you don't feel like you can do this task, we can find you someone who will do them for you.

If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit and you ruin a key top, call (715) 803-4556 Mon, Tue, Thur, or Fri, 9-5, and we will send you a replacement for the cost of shipping.

If you are using the Key Top Restoration Kit, AND, if you have the Key Lever Felt Restoration Kit, and if you have finished that task and the key tops, you should use the leveling tool, SH255, and the sharp leveling adapter, to level the keys. Do not use the key leveling wood block if you have part SH255. If you are ONLY doing the Key Top Restoration, GO TO KEY LEVELING, and follow the instructions which include the key dip, or leveling, wood block in your kit.


Key Top Repair of Ivory

You can use our Ivory Chip Fill Kit to repair chips in your ivory keys if
you want to preserve your ivory keyboard. The kit will work on any chips,
including corners.
It involves mixing powder & resin to approximate the color
desired, and then filing and sanding after the fill hardens. Complete instructions
are included with the kit, which is found on our keytop page.






HAPPY ENDING ONE: Owner rescued keyboard a piano technician ruined!

We sent a fellow the parts and tools to cover his key tops. We helped him with a very ugly situation, and he used Steve's instructions to to the key tops. Here is the letter we received later.

Steve -

A while back, we had the keyboard on my mom's piano re-done, and it went very poorly. Basically the guy went out of business when he had the keyboard, and he slapped things together and basically ruined the keyboard. Some of the keys were busted, and they were all planed off to varying degrees, some as they should be, and some were planed down maybe an 1/8 of an inch or more. On some keys the sides were nipped by they planer as well. I have no idea what kind of bedlam occurred with the keyboard.

Quite some time ago, I purchased some keyboard rebuilding parts from you, and you gave me some advice on performing the rebuild. I finished it only last weekend. (Well, not quite, over the past week my mom found 3 keys that are slow, but will be easily adjusted this weekend.) I have attached a photo of the finished product. It ain't perfect, but it works great, and looks like a piano again.

Thanks for your help.

George S________

So, you may be able to do things your tech cannot do. I must note though, it is a rare
thing to find a piano technician who would do the destruction this idiot did. I have had
to withhold the last name of George lest the tech involved sue me. An idiot like that
would certainly do so in a flash.


HAPPY ENDING TWO: From Jack and Faith Younse


I talked to you about three weeks ago about replacing the key covers on our Chickering piano. We had ordered the covers earlier.

I just wanted to let you know what success we had. No problem taking the piano apart. Some of the screws had rust on them. It was my job to clean them. I used Birchwood Casey Blue and Rust Remover that is used on guns. Then I oiled only the tops of the screws. It was also my job to clean everything. This I did while my husband worked on the keys.

We have a wood shop so we had a great place to work. Jack used three different sanders to finish the keys. We finished everything yesterday and put the piano back together. No problem! It is slightly out of tune but I will have it tuned in a few weeks.

What joy I had yesterday to play some of my favorite hymns! Many thanks for your service to piano owners.

Also, you might be interested in knowing that Jack and I belong to Prestonwood Baptist Church, a church with twenty thousand members. I sing in the choir and Jack plays in the church orchestra.

God bless you and your family!

Regards, Faith and Jack Younse





 On to task 37.