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Piano keys - Ebony?

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Forum topic by Stevedore posted 07-13-2015 05:19 PM 1958 views 0 times favorited 13 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Stevedore

63 posts in 1485 days


07-13-2015 05:19 PM

I’m about to have an OLD piano hauled away, and I’m looking to see what bits of wood I might be able to salvage & repurpose before it goes.

I suspect that the black keys are ebony, but is there any way to be sure? When I saw through one, the black color is uniform throughout, and the fine sawdust is uniformly black. It’s very hard, dense, & close-grained. If I try to shave a little off with a chisel or small plane, it doesn’t make nice shavings; they mostly crumble easily.

Does this sound like ebony? I’m thinking that even though the keys are relatively small pieces of wood, they would be useful for making splines, keys, plugs, small handles, etc.

The white key tops appear to be genuine ivory from what I can tell from internet research. I’ll probably keep a bunch of them for possible future inlay use. From what I read, it’s illegal to sell or transfer real ivory, so although I see them sold on Ebay, I’m a little too paranoid to try that myself.

Thanks for any thoughts about the ebony!

-- Steve, in Morris County, NJ


13 replies so far

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MrRon

3926 posts in 2704 days


#1 posted 07-13-2015 05:40 PM

I believe the ivory is lawful to buy and sell as long as it was originally obtained legally as in piano manufacturing. If it is real ivory, then it’s a good bet the black keys are ebony. Leave the ivory on the wood keys. It would be hard to prove to authorities how old the ivory is if in a raw state. Being attached to wood as in a key, pretty much dates it.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebony. Due to it’s rarity and high cost, I would salvage ALL of it. Musical instrument makers would pay premium prices for the stuff.

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SCOTSMAN

5839 posts in 3045 days


#2 posted 07-13-2015 05:42 PM

Will they haul it away if you Cherry Pick all the good stuff? Alistair

-- excuse my typing as I have a form of parkinsons disease

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CharlieM1958

16241 posts in 3679 days


#3 posted 07-13-2015 05:50 PM

If the piano is old, and the black keys are dark all the way through, they are almost certainly ebony.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

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tnwood

249 posts in 2547 days


#4 posted 07-13-2015 06:25 PM

Ebony sort of chips away if you use a chisel on it and from what you describe, I suspect it is ebony. I use small pieces to make handles and knobs for small items.

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Stevedore

63 posts in 1485 days


#5 posted 07-13-2015 09:11 PM

Thanks for the replies! I split one of the black keys lengthwise, and it is indeed very black all the way through, so I’m going to call it ebony.

Scotsman – I spoke briefly today with a scrapper, and he said to take whatever I want from it before calling him. He’s only going to scrap the cast iron harp; the rest will end up in a landfill somewhere.

I’ve done a little more reading today regarding the ivory keys, and NJ (where I live) has among the strictest laws in the country regarding sale or purchase of ivory. Apparently, there are no exceptions for antiques, etc. The only exception that I could see at all is through inheritance or bequest, so if I die, my children can legally possess my old piano keys, I guess.

I removed all of the black keytops from the underlying plain wood this afternoon, and will save them for some future use. I’d like to keep some of the other case components, but so much of it is riddled with assembly screw holes that I’d likely get very little usable stock for my efforts. I’ll look at it some more, though, before it goes.

Thanks again.

-- Steve, in Morris County, NJ

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exelectrician

2327 posts in 1888 days


#6 posted 07-14-2015 02:14 AM

Ebony for sure if the white keys are ivory laminated to wood.

-- Love thy neighbour as thyself

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MrRon

3926 posts in 2704 days


#7 posted 07-14-2015 06:19 PM

If you don’t salvage the ivory, it will go to the landfill anyway, so best to keep them.

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WoodNSawdust

1417 posts in 637 days


#8 posted 07-14-2015 07:10 PM

Last time the piano tuner was by I asked about the keys on my 1960s upright piano and he said they were real ivory and ebony.

I ve done a little more reading today regarding the ivory keys, and NJ (where I live) has among the strictest laws in the country regarding sale or purchase of ivory. Apparently, there are no exceptions for antiques, etc. The only exception that I could see at all is through inheritance or bequest, so if I die, my children can legally possess my old piano keys, I guess.

So can you sell a piano in New Jersey? Could a company sell replacement piano keys?

-- "I love it when a plan comes together" John "Hannibal" Smith

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Stevedore

63 posts in 1485 days


#9 posted 07-14-2015 07:11 PM



If you don t salvage the ivory, it will go to the landfill anyway, so best to keep them.

- MrRon

True enough; I think that’s the intent of the current laws. I’ll salvage what I can anyway, I just have to find the best way to remove the ivory pieces. They’re very thin, & crack easily.

-- Steve, in Morris County, NJ

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CharlieM1958

16241 posts in 3679 days


#10 posted 07-14-2015 07:34 PM

Would it be legal to sell them to a piano-playing elephant?

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Dark_Lightning's profile

Dark_Lightning

2631 posts in 2569 days


#11 posted 07-14-2015 08:53 PM

To keep yourself out of consideration for a CITES violation, you might want to cut out the part of the piano with the date on it. I scrapped out an upright (made in ‘73) which had a light colored wood for the ebony keys, dyed I think. The white keys’ covers were plastic. I did cut out some of the structural pieces, as they were made made from Port Orford cedar, and had a really nice grain structure (smelled good, too). Also, the bigger strings are wrapped with up to 3 times with copper wire to add weight, thus lowering the tone. I expect that there was about 6 pounds of copper wire there. I’m not selling it, I’ll use it for fill wire next time I weld some copper together. Your scrap guy is no doubt aware of the copper. It’s probably worth more (~$2.00/Lb) than the cast iron (~$.04/Lb), even if it is a fraction of the weight.

-- Random Orbital Nailer

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Luthierman

157 posts in 547 days


#12 posted 07-14-2015 11:14 PM

A friend of mine has salvaged the sound board out of a piano and made some instrument tops out of it. There is a lot of wood in there worth looking at. At the least it would be straight grained stuff that is stable and can be quite striking depending on how you use it.

-- Jesse, West Lafayette, Indiana

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Stevedore

63 posts in 1485 days


#13 posted 07-22-2015 09:09 PM

Just an update: I did manage to remove several good sized boards from the piano case before having the rest hauled away. The case was veneered, as are many pianos I suspect, and it appeared to be rosewood. In some places, the veneer was separating, and in others it was stained, so I ran the boards through my planer to remove the veneer, and ended up with several nice pieces of what I believe to be white oak and, of all things, walnut. It was an upright piano, and the top consisted of one fixed piece and one narrower hinged piece, both of which were walnut underneath the rosewood veneer. Seems odd that they would use walnut as a base for a veneered piece, but I’m guessing 100 years or so ago, walnut was commonly available & not as pricey as today?

Some of the boards had an edge strip of rosewood glued on them, about 1/4” thick, which I sawed off to save for whatever.

I wish I could have salvaged more of the wood, but the thing was pretty solid, with tons of glue in addition to the screws holding it together, and I just wasn’t up to the task. There were several large vertical frame pieces in the back of the case that were about 4” x 6”, but they were some kind of softwood, and as I mentioned, full of screw holes & glue. Maybe 10-20 years ago, I would have been able to invest more effort in the job.

So in the end, I have the ebony black key tops, some ivory from the white keys, a few strips of rosewood, and the oak & walnut boards I mentioned above. Better than seeing the whole thing go to a landfill, and I’ll incorporate the wood into various future projects.

-- Steve, in Morris County, NJ

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