36. Piano Key tops- White and Black Replacement
We now offer a complete Key Top Restoration Kit
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.
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, buy a tube of GE white (white only) silicone at the hardware store. It does not hold as well as the PVC-E glue, but I have had only two come off in 20 years with silicone. If it comes off later, you can easily clean away the old glue and glue it right back on.
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 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 surfacel. 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 top surface of the wooden key and press it down firmly. (If using one piece tops with fronts, 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 keytop on the key & press into place, pressing firmly with your thumb on the front (for one piece tops with fronts attached) and then traveling back to the back edge of the keytop.
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 whole mess of wood, plastic, and rubber bands 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 :-)
Lay it down very carefully without tension against the plastic key top-- in other words, not resting on the new key top. Also, beware of little people (and some grown up trouble makers) who just HAVE to pick everything up and feel it. They claim they are, "just looking at it." I find this bizarre since looking is generally not done with the finger tips. Oh well, such is life.
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.
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.
Black key top replacement
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 new 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 on Glue Tape 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
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.
you may be able to do things your tech cannot do. I must note though, it is a
HAPPY ENDING TWO: From Jack and Faith Younse
On to task 37.
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