How to Safely Remove Nail Polish from Piano Keys

Dear Home Ec 101,

Love your site! It struck me that with your knowledge of chemistry, young kids, and housekeeping, you were my best shot at figuring out how to remove lovely nail polish from nearly every key of our piano. Any ideas?

The keys are not ivory (that I can tell, I don’t know what they are) but my mother did learn to play on this piano in the 40’s. I want to cry every time I look at the bright green and bright blue (ugh!!!!!) B’s and swirly-Q’s on these keys, courtesy of my four year old. The only time I’ve really gotten courage to work on removal, I tried a q-tip with nail polish remover, but it strikes me that there are likely several types of remover so maybe I grabbed the wrong one. Help me remove the nail polish which is pretty thick on there, but not deface the keys, if at all possible?!

Thanks for all of your information. Love the way you deliver it!

Tickling the Ivories

Heather says:

This is a tricky one, removing nail polish from piano keys is not that simple, especially because piano keys that old are going to have a lot of nicks and probably aren’t exactly white any more. Anything you do to remove the nailpolish may just leave a funny clean spot.

However here are three tactics to try:

Grab a bottle of clear nail polish and a rag. Apply the clear nail polish to the annoying nail polish and give it a moment. Then use the rag and wipe the nail polish, with a little elbow grease off of the key. This tactic may take a while, so perhaps do a few keys a day.

Alternately get plain white toothpaste. Notice I said white and not WHITENING toothpaste. You want the cheap, apply the paste and gently scrub / polish the keys with a rag, then wipe off with a rag dipped in milk. The milk will hopefully neutralize any chemical reactions that could damage the surface of the keys. After wiping with the milk, I’d use a rag dampened with plain water to hopefully prevent any funky sour milk smells.

You know how nail polish wears off of your finger nails, no matter how many clear coats you use? Well, time and use will do the same for the nail polish on the keys. Additionally, you can try speeding up that process by scraping with a nylon scraper (like the Pampered Chef stoneware kind) or the edge of a credit or gift card.

Good luck and remember in 10 or 15 years you’ll be mortifying her with the whole, “Remember when you painted the keys on my grandmother’s piano?”

Parenting. Oy.

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  1. Anna on October 4, 2012 at 12:37 am

    My child, if she had done this, might be dead. Just sayin’. (and kidding. REALLY kidding.)
    Would Tickling please, PLEASE let us know if she finds something that works?

    Also, ivory keys can absorb water from a damp cloth. Even regular cleaning should be done with a very, very wrung out cloth. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to try it on real ivory.

    If ALL else fails, you can pay to have the keys re-done, but Heather’s suggestions sound pretty solid.

  2. Keter Magick on October 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    The white keys on ****MOST**** modern (1940-ish and later) pianos are coated with plastic “ivorite” but the black keys may be lacquer. Lacquer can smear onto the white keys, permanently staining them. So whatever technique you use, you should be careful to avoid the possibility of color transfer. A dry method like using a plastic scraper would be preferable, if it works. Lacquer in particular is extremely hard to clean safely, so you may need professional help if your piano’s black keys are lacquered. Do you have a piano repair company in your town? Perhaps you could call them for advice or a quote for professional cleaning (if they botch it, they’re responsible for fixing it).

    This site ( ) suggests using one of my favorite cleaning tools, the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, on piano keys. It probably won’t remove the thick layers of nail polish, but may help cleaning up thin residues or stains left behind. These can be used dry or wet, so try dry first.

    Automotive polishing compound ****MAY**** be safe to use on the white keys if they get scuffed or dulled. This is probably not true for ivory keys, so it’s important to know what material your keys are covered in. Do test patches with your Q-tips if you choose to use any liquid substance on the keys. The front edges of the keys are usually made of the same material (verify this, sometimes they aren’t), and can be used as a less-visible area to test.

    Good luck. This does not sound like fun, but it sure sounds like it has potential for future blackmail. Make an “I did this” sign. Make the guilty child hold the sign. Take lots of pictures. Threaten to post on Facebook or whatever social networking site the future child uses…. ;o)

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