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Andrew's Tips: Cleaning Ivory

By Andrew T. Lenz, Jr., Santa Cruz, California, ©2000-2010

How to Clean Ivory on a Set of Bagpipes.

Disclaimer: The following instructions are correct to the very best of my knowledge, having consulted with two professional objects conservators from whom I requested and clarified this information. However, you proceed at your own risk, I do not assume any responsibility should you decide to use this information and something should go awry.

Cleaning Ivory

Create a very mild solution of water and dilute detergent such as Orvus brand.

Using the solution, very slightly dampen a cotton swab, a cotton ball, or a fresh cotton rag, and gently wipe the ivory surface. Dry immediately—if necessary—as any excess moisture left on the surface can cause the ivory to split!

Very slightly dampen cotton with water and wipe off any detergent residue. Again, dry immediately.

Do not soak the ivory! Also do not use ethanol (or any type of spirits), which is sometimes recommended in some older restoration guides. Also do not use vinegar or lemon juice—both are very acidic.

Direct quote from a professional museum objects conservator: "I would stick with the dilute detergent cleaning and avoid things like toothpaste. The abrasives are a problem, as well as the other components in pastes that might be difficult to get out that will harden and become unsightly."

Built-up grime in deep ornamentation can be removed with cotton swabs or by gently using pointy wooden swab stick ends to pull out the grime once it has been softened with the detergent solution. This is less intrusive and damaging in the long run than scrubbing it out with toothpaste on a brush.

Brightening ivory?

Ivory, by nature, will darken in the dark and lighten in the light. If you wish to safely brighten ivory, simply expose it to normal light levels. (Avoid dramatic temperature changes such as that which may occur with prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.)

There is a dangerous "brightening" formula circulating containing Drano (based on sodium hydroxide) and high-concentration hydrogen peroxide combined with exposure of the ivory to a UV light source. This formula has a very high pH (well above 10) and will break down the ossein in the ivory. While there may not be any immediate visual symptoms of damage, the resulting long term effects will be brittleness and cracking. As such, this harsh formula is not recommended.

Waxing ivory?

If your ivory is going to be handled a lot or will be exposed to airbourne contaminants—i.e. you play your ivory mounted bagpipes often—you may wish to wax it. A micro-crystalline wax, such as Renasissance (by Picreator Enterprises), is preferable to car waxes which may contain unknown proprietary components which may adversely affect the ivory.


Avoid handing ivory with your bare hands, natural oils from your skin may be absorbed by the ivory and cause stains. Gently wipe down your ivory periodically with a very soft cloth or dust with a soft brush. Never play your ivory mounted pipes in the rain. If they do get wet, dry them immediately and thoroughly with a cloth. Never subject your ivory to heat, such as a hairdryer, a heater vent, hot car, or extended periods of time in direct sunlight. Remember any dramatic change in temperature or humidity can cause ivory to split.

Not sure if your bagpipes are mounted with real ivory? This page can help you:
Andrew's Tips: Appraising Bagpipes

Please note: If you have some ivory object (such as a sculpture), please do not contact me about removing stains or any cleaning procedures other than what is described above. Check with The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works for a conservator near you. Failing that, telephone your nearest museum and ask to speak with the objects conservator.

Not a bagpiper? Found this page via search engine? Don't like the bagpipes? Odds are you don't like bad bagpiping. There are too many out there who don't have any business playing in public. If you heard a good piper might just find that you love the pipes: "Bagpipes—not just for funerals anymore!"

This page last updated Monday, May 28, 2012.

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