Harmony Piano Tuning

                      The website of Chris Lawson, Piano Tuner & Technician

                              Serving Greater Geelong & Western Victoria

Pianos & Piano Tuning - Environmental Issues

This is a time when we all need to take stock of our impact on the environment.

Pianos (and most acoustic music instruments) are generally built to last, and their environmental impact is relatively low. Pianos also have a high degree of repair-ability; replacing a broken string or a hammer shank is a relatively simple matter. If major work is needed (eg new sets of hammers, or bridge repair work), these repairs should last for decades (unlike so many electronic gadgets – where if something  malfunctions, it is cheaper to throw it out and buy a new one! Shame on our throw-away society!). Of course, the cutting down of a certain  number of trees is unavoidable for piano manufacture. The extent to which this impacts the environment may depend upon whether or not this wood was obtained from sustainable plantation forests.

      The main types of wood used in piano manufacture are Spruce, Rock Maple, Sugar Pine and Birch. Sometimes wood such as mahogany, and black walnut are used (mainly for high-grade pianos, such as Steinway). Most of the wood species used in piano manufacture are abundant, and are sourced from plantation and renewable sources. The major exception to this is ebony.


     The use of ebony in pianos is almost as controversial as ivory. In the past, various species of ebony were used for the sharps on pianos. Various species of ebony are native to Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Africa and Mauritius. Many of the naturally occurring ebony forests have been decimated in these areas. Despite laws which make the trade in ebony illegal, a large black-market trade in illegal ebony operates out of various African countries. In Sri Lanka, the marketing of ebony is strictly controlled.

Alternatives To Ebony:

     There are two main alternatives to ebony: conventional wood (dyed black), and various plastics and synthetics. These have proven to be more than acceptable replacements, and are improving all the time.


When it comes to pianos, ivory is, without doubt, the most controversial material – and understandably so.

     In the past, elephants were slaughtered to provide ivory for the tops of white piano keys (ivory was also used for many other products, such as knife handles) Most nations have now banned trade in ivory products. Unfortunately, there is still a huge black-market trade in ivory, sourced by illegal poaching.

Alternatives to Ivory:

      Thankfully, piano manufacturers ceased using ivory on piano keys some decades ago. Today, there is a great range of synthetic substances used for key tops. These vary in quality and cost of course; but they are all perfectly adequate; some of them are of very high quality, and they are all far cheaper than ivory (not that cost should be the determining factor). For around $30 US, you can obtain a complete set of very attractive key tops which have a wonderful, pearly finish.

Legal Ivory

     Old, second-hand ivory which pre-dates the prohibitions and bans which now exist around the ivory trade - is still available. Some take the view that as it is available, why not use it. Others (myself included) believe this to be highly questionable.

Where does legal ivory come from?
Probably the most common source of ivory for piano technicians are keytops from old pianos which pre-date the various international bans. A well-known German manufacturer recently had one of their historical pianos renovated using legally obtained ivory.

Other Ivory: Questionable Sources

     Ivory obtained from other sources is much more questionable. Given the widespread trade in illegal ivory (and a whole host of other poached items, such as rhino horns, zebra tails, leopard skins, and hippo hide), my own view is that the safest course of action is to give ivory – of any sort – a wide berth.

Final Comment:

     The above is obviously a very brief discussion of environmental matters – we’ve only touched on a myriad of issues. This is not an environmental website, but I would welcome any additional information about materials in pianos and the relevance concerning environmental impact.

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