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When we play guitar, our hands are constantly coming into contact with the fingerboard. Over time due to natural oils, sweat and dirt from our hands the fingerboard will start to build up with gunk and grime that can affect the performance and playability of the guitar, not to mention, in some cases result in damage requiring expensive repair work.
This is especially the case if you don’t clean your hands before you play, don’t wipe down the guitar after you play, or gig regularly under lights causing you to sweat.
Some of the potential problems this can lead to include:
The other problem that can occur for specific types of fingerboards (unsealed) is that they can lose moisture and start to dry out. This can result in the fingerboard contracting which in turn can affect the playability of the guitar by:
Considering the small amount of time needed, relatively low cost and lack of expertise required to maintain your fingerboard it’s something I recommend every guitarist learn, which we’ll cover below.
I clean my fingerboard every time I change strings on any of my guitars. In most cases this simply involves a wipe down with warm water. However, 1-2 times per year I'll clean the fingerboard using a fingerboard cleaner and rehydrate the fingerboard using a conditioning product.
The cleaning and conditioning products and regularity of your fingerboard maintenance schedule mostly depends on the wood the fingerboard is constructed from, how much you sweat, and your local environment.
For example, guitarists who are prone to sweaty hands, or live in tropical areas with higher relative humidity and greater exposure to sea air may experience a higher rate of corrosion than others who live in low humidity environment. This can depend on the material your fret wires are constructed from also.
Alternatively, if you live in a particularly dry region you may need to condition more often to prevent the fingerboard drying out.
We’ll address both sealed (maple) and unsealed (rosewood, ebony, cocobolo, zircote, and engineered timbers) finger boards below as sealed and unsealed fingerboards have different requirements.
But first, we’ll need to remove the strings.
Remove the guitar's strings by first loosening the tuners and then cutting the strings near the middle, so you have straight ends that are much easier to pull through your bridge or tremolo block.
Maple fretboards and necks are usually sealed with a varnish or lacquer. This prevents gunk and grime from being absorbed into the pores of the timber. As the wood is sealed, maple fingerboards don’t require conditioning. However, they can still build up with gunk, particularly around the fret wires which can result in some of the problems mentioned above.
When it comes to cleaning maple fingerboards I recommend simply using warm water, or if you prefer a dedicated guitar fingerboard cleaner. You can also use lighter fluid (Naphtha) as this won’t damage the finish. Just take care to project yourself from the fumes.
Seek advice first if considering any other cleaning products, as they may have the potential to damage the finish on your fingerboard and neck. (You have been warned).
Be careful when cleaning your maple fingerboard to use a non-abrasive cloth. Don’t use anything abrasive e.g. fine grade steel wool as this will haze the finish.
Also, take care not to over-buff the fingerboard or back of the neck (the fingerboard and back of neck will be finished with the same product) or this may start to create more of a gloss finish, making the neck slow and sticky which may begin to cause your hands to drag when playing.
To clean in and around the fret wires, use a brush e.g. toothbrush or scrape the gunk away using a toothpick. The warm water, or cleaning product you previously applied will loosen the gunk and grime and should be easily removed with minimal effort.
Using fine grade steel wool for older/grungier fingerboards
Rosewood and Ebony are very dense, oily timbers, making them ideal fretboard timbers. Due to their density they are typically unsealed.
They are by far the most common unsealed fingerboard materials, however other timbers similar in density and characteristics are also used including Cocobolo and Ziricote (not to mention composite materials) and are cleaned and oiled in the same way.
If the board is particularly dirty you can use super-fine grade steel wool, this will also allow you to polish the frets at the same time. But steel fibers will be drawn to your pickups as they are magnetic. So first, using painters masking tape, mask of the pickups.
If using steel wool work with the grain. Try not to work across the grain as this may leave visible marks, especially if using something more abrasive than super-fine grade steel wool.
Using a dedicated fingerboard cleaner and conditioner
Personally I prefer to use a cleaning and conditioning product. As I maintain my fingerboard regularly and there generally isn’t a lot of build up to remove.
F-one oil from Music Nomad is a cleaning and conditioning product and is my preferred option. A little goes a long way, so a bottle should last you for years. You can use a product like this on older/grungier finger boards also, but you may need to apply 2-3 times to get the full benefit.
There are other dedicated products available, most of these are labelled as lemon oil but are just lemon scented mineral oil. Genuine lemon oil is highly acidic and shouldn’t be used on a guitar’s fingerboard.
To use, first apply directly to the fingerboard, just a drop per fret should suffice and then taking a non-abrasive cloth begin to work the product into the fingerboard.
Let it sit for a few minutes, or longer if the fretboard is particularly dirty and then simply take clean cloth and buff it out.
Once done, inspect the guitar visually (It should take on a darker appearance) along with running your hands over the fingerboard, which should feel much cleaner and nicer to handle.
If you don’t have the luxury of using a two-in-one product like F-one oil. Once the fretboard is clean, you should condition the fretboard to rehydrate the wood. You can usually tell with darker fretboards when they could benefit from conditioning as the wood will begin to look a little dull.
Conditioning the fretboard is a relatively simple process, but you can run into problems if using the wrong product. For this reason, I recommend buying a dedicated guitar fretboard conditioner. If tempted to use another product check the label first to ensure it won’t damage the finish (if you happen to spill some on the guitar body or headstock) or leave a waxy residue, which is far from ideal for playability.
Aside from a conditioning product, you will require two rags, one for applying the conditioner and one for removing any excess after it has had a chance to be absorbed by the fingerboard.
Start by dripping a small amount of conditioner directly on the fingerboard and begin to work the conditioner into the wood, ensuring your cover the entire fingerboard. Let the conditioner soak into the wood for a few minutes, and then take your clean cloth and begin removing the excess.
Once complete you are done and can safely restring the guitar and enjoy the enhanced playability of having a newly cleaned and conditioned fingerboard.
It’s always best to remove the strings first before cleaning your fretboard, but there are products now available that will clean your fretboard with the strings remaining on, allowing you to also clean your strings.
The Music Nomad All In One String, Surface and Hardware Cleaning Tool is one such product but there are others available also, so check with your local music store if this is something that interests you.
Once you are done cleaning your fingerboard you can also polish your fret wires using super fine grade steel wool. This will not only lift the appearance of your fingerboard but also allow the strings to more easily glide over the frets when bending notes.
Ensure you have either masked the fretboard first or are using fretboard guards to protect the fretboard’s finish. And as already discussed, I’d also recommend masking off the pickups and electronics to prevent steel wool fibers being drawn to the pickups (pickups are magnets).
Once the fretboard is protected take a small section of super-fine grade steel wool (0000 grade) and begin lightly polishing the fret wires, if especially tarnished you should begin to notice a difference quickly.
Polish all frets, taking care to protect the fingerboard. Once done be sure to carefully remove any steel wool residue from the fingerboard.
Some aspects of working on guitars such as wiring and finishing can be challenging, but fingerboard maintenance is one of the simplest, and cost effective ways you can keep your guitar playing and looking great.
It’s something I highly recommend doing, and if you follow the steps above you should be able to convert your dirty tired looking fretboard to almost brand new again with minimal effort or expense.