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How Do You Clean a Piano? Very, Very Carefully

Damon Groves

To mark National Piano Month, we asked our Facebook fans to submit their piano-related questions for Damon Groves (pictured), The Royal Conservatory’s Concert Piano Technician and a member of The Conservatory’s Piano Technology team. In this first of two posts, Damon shares responses to your cleaning questions, including advice on dealing with the dilemma of dust.

Kaoru Sato Miller: How do I clean inside my grand piano?

Damon: The short answer is very carefully. Piano technicians have special tools for cleaning grand pianos. One of the tools is called a soundboard steel. It is a very thin, malleable piece of steel that can be inserted in between the strings to clean the soundboard. We attach a cloth to one end of the soundboard steel and carefully dust off the soundboard. I have used a vacuum, too, but very carefully. Stay clear of the dampers- the little, black pieces of wood above the strings. Dampers are very sensitive and you don't want to touch them (or even worse, vacuum them). Keeping the lid closed is a great way to keep dust out.

Piano Playground Studio: Is it harmful to my piano to take the keys completely off and clean under them? My piano has no keyboard cover so there is no way to prevent dust from falling heavily on it. I had a tuner who took the keys off every time and we vacuumed underneath. He moved away and now I have a new tuner who says the keys should never be disturbed that much. I'm wondering what is correct.

Damon: Piano keys are made to be removed from the key frame. This is easier to do on an upright than a grand. Either way, you must be careful not to damage the keys or any other part of the piano action. Removing keys is necessary for cleaning and other maintenance, and should be done by a willing piano technician. 

Amie Webster: What is the best way to clean a polished ebony finish on a piano?

Damon:  Some piano manufactures include a micro fibre cleaning cloth with their pianos. You can purchase one of these at an electronics store (also used for cleaning computer monitors and fancy TV screens). Or, you can use a clean, soft, cotton cloth and lightly dampen it with water and a very small amount of liquid dish soap. Do not use too much liquid. Be very careful and do not rub too hard. Pieces of dust and other debris can actually leave fine scratches in the finish. Always wipe in a certain (and consistent) direction. If it's your first time trying this, perhaps try an area of the piano that is inconspicuous. If you do leave a scuff, then it won't be seen.

Nadia Brown: I've recently bought a second-hand upright piano, after a several decade long hiatus. How do I keep the keys clean without damaging them? Some of them have some marks on them and are a bit dirty. Thank you!

Damon: Hi Nadia. This depends on whether your piano has ivory or plastic keytops. You can tell them apart because ivory has a grain, similar to wood, that runs in the direction of the key (front to back). After time, ivory also becomes slightly misshapen, developing cups and warps, whereas plastic is always smooth and flat. 

Ivory is a natural substance and will discolor over time, usually turning yellow. It is very delicate; I suggest having a piano technician, or someone with experience, to try to clean the ivories. It can be whitened to some degree by sanding with very fine sandpaper (400 grit) or cleaned with #0000 steel wool. If you do have ivory key tops, leaving the key cover open may actually help! Sunlight bleaches ivory. 

Plastic is much easier to clean. Although there are special products made exactly for this, you can try lightly dampening a clean, soft cloth with water and a small amount of liquid dish detergent. You may even use a glass cleaner like Windex. Just do not spray anything directly on the keys. Below the key top is a wooden key, which will absorb any extra liquid, so be careful not to use too much.

Interested in learning more about the inner workings of the piano? Join a free, hands-on workshop taught by members of our Piano Technology team. Workshops are held once weekly during our fall term. Contact Damon for more information. 

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Damon Groves, member of The Royal Conservatory's Piano Technology team, answers your piano-related questions.