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In terms of playability, a guitar’s neck is the most important component of a guitar. It’s the primary interface, and if there are problems (e.g. uneven frets, too much / or too little neck relief) the guitar will ultimately be more difficult to play.
However, it’s not only neck relief and the condition of your frets that can affect the playability of a guitar, the finishing products you apply to your neck and fretboard can also have an impact.
In the following short guide, we’ll take a closer look at the finishing products we recommend for both the fretboard (including the different types of fretboard timbers available at guitarkitworld.com) and neck that will help not only make the guitar more playable but also seal and protect the fretboard and neck.
In terms of materials used for constructing guitar necks, denser hardwoods (deciduous trees) are favored due to their ability to withstand the tension placed upon the neck. For example, when tuned to standard tuning a guitar neck may experience up to 200Lbs of direct tension from the strings.
Maple is the most common option, due to it’s high density and strength, however Mahogany (both hardwoods) is also commonly used.
There are a number of different materials used for manufacturing guitar fretboards. At guitarkitworld.com you can choose from:
Recommended: How To Maintain Your Fretboard
Unless you are finishing a maple neck and fretboard in combination you should also mask off the neck, taking care to prevent the fretboard from absorbing the materials used for sealing the neck.
First run a length of painter’s masking tape down each side of the fretboard, taking into account the edges of the fretboard and then run another line of masking tape down the middle of the fretboard.
Be sure to press the tape firmly, however work in small increments to ensure you have good alignment with the edge of the fretboard before committing the tape to the fretboard.
If you do end up with reside on your fretboard, considering the density of rosewood, ebony and similar materials in most cases you should be able to scrape/or wipe away any finishing or masking tape residue without much effort.
Recommended: How to Fix Uneven Frets
When deciding on the finishing product for your guitar kit’s neck, you should consider both the back of the neck and the headstock.
The products you use to finish the headstock can be selected purely based on aesthetics as it will have no bearing on the playability of the neck. I like to finish headstocks in either a tinted gloss (Fender® style guitars) or solid color e.g. black (Gibson® style guitars) followed by a clear coat as this not only looks great but helps protect the headstock.
Whenever we play the guitar our hands are constantly coming into contact with the neck. Because of this the back of the neck should also be sealed to protect it from oils and grime from our hands which over time can otherwise build up causing the neck to feel sticky, and cause our hands to drag when playing, among other potential issues.
You can use a number of different finishing products for the back of the neck, it’s really the end result e.g. the smoothness of the finish that will be the most important factor with regard to playability.
I generally use a wipe-on oil based product e.g. true oil or boiled linseed oil making it easy to apply. There’s no reason you can’t use nitrocellulose lacquer, (you will need to wait for it to cure at least 14 days) or a polyester finish however (I have also used wipe on poly a number of times on kit guitars with good success).
If applying a wipe-on finish you can apply this using wet and dry sandpaper (1200 grit, followed by 1500 grit), followed by super fine steel wool. Rub back the back of the neck until it feels silky smooth and fast. If spraying your neck you will need to wait for it to cure before sanding to a smooth fast finish.
The products you use (or ultimately don’t use) will be determined by the material your fretboard is constructed from.
Below are some recommendations for each fretboard material available from guitarkitworld.com
Rosewood, Ebony and Pau Ferro are very similar in terms of overall density and hardness, making them ideal for guitar fretboards. They won’t stain if unsealed, so in most cases are left unfinished (Rickenbacker® being the exception who do seal their Rosewood fretboards).
To really bring out the best in all three timbers, sand to a very fine finish (at least 800 grit) and treat with a fretboard conditioner as needed (I apply fretboard conditioner whenever I change strings) to prevent the timber from drying out.
Recommended: Engineered Ebony Fretboards
While a composite material, engineered timber shares similar characteristics to Rosewood and Ebony (the image above shows an engineered ebony fretboard) and is usually treated in the same way. While you can apply an oil to seal the timber it’s unnecessary for the most part.
Unlike Rosewood and Ebony maple fretboards do require sealing. In most cases this is in the form of Nitrocellulose Lacquer. If your neck is maple along with your fretboard you can finish your neck and fretboard at the same time.
If using lacquer, you will need to apply your finish and then cut away the build up on top of the frets, so the fret wires are exposed. If you are planning on levelling your frets afterward this process will usually remove any excess on the fret wires.
When finishing your kit guitar, it's important to consider both the aesthetics of the guitar and the protection the finishing products you apply provide with regard to moisture and impact.
This is why in many cases automotive products (nitrocellulose lacquer) are often recommended for guitar kit bodies. However, when it comes to guitar necks, playability is every bit as important.
So, while you may be tempted to apply a thick glossy finish to your neck for aesthetic reasons, limit this to the headstock only. Remember the back of the neck and fretboard will ultimately dictate how fast the neck feels. So, be sure to aim for a thin, smooth finish and unless finishing a maple fretboard you can safely leave most other fretboard materials unsealed, provided you regularly maintain the fretboard to prevent it from drying out, leading to problems such as loose fret wires and at worst cracks appearing.