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Last Updated: January 1, 2019
Search Google with a phrase like “is lemon oil safe for guitars” and then click on any of the search results that lead to a guitar discussion forum. Prepare yourself for some fireworks. Conversations about lemon oil often get ugly–with volleys back and forth, assumptions, anecdotal evidence, misinformation, even personal attacks.
This “Great Lemon Oil Debate” (as I like to call it) has raged for years.
It’s not likely that I’m going to end the Great Lemon Oil Debate with this article. No matter what I (or anyone else) write, this debate will continue. However, I’m hoping that the information I outline here will help you make an informed decision about using lemon oil on your own guitar’s fretboard.
So, Is Lemon Oil Good or Bad for Fretboards?
So what’s the deal? Well, it depends on what you mean by “lemon oil,” which is why there is so much arguing: neither side of the debate really understands the nuances I’m going to outline here.
When people argue about whether lemon oil is good or bad for guitar fretboards, it’s because they’re throwing around “lemon oil” as a generic term. In actuality, there is a spectrum of purity/strength we need to consider whenever the question of using lemon oil comes up.
Pure, Full-Strength Lemon Oil vs. “Lemon Oil Products”
At one end of the spectrum we have pure, full-strength lemon oil that has been pressed directly from the peels of lemons. At the other end of the spectrum, we have “lemon oil products” that usually contain only a small amount of lemon oil or, in some cases, no lemon oil at all (more on that below).
Pure, Full-Strength Lemon Oil
Pure, full-strength lemon oil, cold-pressed directly from lemon peel, is indeed bad for your guitar’s fretboard. It’s intense, highly acidic stuff, and can cause skin and sinus irritation in people who are especially sensitive to it. Despite being an “oil,” pure lemon oil’s high acidity can cause excessive drying of your fretboard and, with long-term use, can break down any adhesives that might be holding your frets or fretboard binding (if yours has it).
This kind of pure lemon oil, as well as other citrus oils pressed from peels, contains d-Limonene. D-Limonene is a key ingredient in products like Goo Gone, Simple Green, 3-IN-ONE Degreaser, etc. and for good reason. At full strength, pure lemon oil can be used to remove adhesives, grease, and even sanitize surfaces. Great for cleaning and sanitizing hard, non-porous surfaces. Way too intense for the fine wood of your guitar’s fretboard.
“Lemon Oil” Products (Fretboard Lemon Oils)
Luckily, manufacturers of the popular fretboard lemon oils understand everything I just outlined above. That’s why these fretboard oils contain very little real lemon oil. The last thing any guitar product manufacturer wants is to damage their customer’s guitars. It’s bad for business.
So, many of the popular guitar lemon oils sold by well-known guitar companies are comprised primarily of other oils–usually mineral oil, which is a pretty good (and cheap) fretboard conditioner by itself. They contain only a small amount of real lemon oil, and the yellow color comes from artificial coloring.
In fact, some contain no real lemon oil at all. Instead, they’re just mineral oil or some other other fretboard-safe oils, with lemon scent and yellow coloring added.
For this reason, most of the guitar lemon oils on the market are 100% safe when used in moderation on your guitar’s rosewood or ebony fretboard (don’t use lemon oil on maple–more on that below). The tiny bit of lemon oil they might contain will help remove dirt and sweat, while the remaining majority that isn’t lemon oil will condition your fretboard and bring back a rich luster.
So, when prominent guitar gurus like Dan Erlewine, Bob Taylor, Godin Guitars, and others recommend using “lemon oil” to clean/condition your guitar’s fretboard, they’re not referring to pure lemon oil. They’re telling you it’s okay to use one of the many guitar lemon oils out there which are made for guitar fretboards; those which contain very little (if any) pure lemon oil.
A Warning About Petroleum Distillates
The Peavey and D’Addario lemon oils have a warning on their labels letting you know they contain “petroleum distillates.” This means that any rags used to apply lemon oil need to air out in a well-ventilated area afterward, otherwise they can spontaneously combust. The Dunlop 65 lemon oil doesn’t have a warning on the bottle, but play it safe and follow the same precaution with your lemon oil rags.
So, Which Ones Contain Real Lemon Oil? How Much?
Unfortunately, I simply don’t know how much actual lemon oil is in each of the examples above, or which ones may not contain any real lemon oil at all. All I can say with certainty is that you can proceed with confidence that they won’t harm your rosewood or ebony fretboard. Many people, myself included, have used these 3 lemon oils and had really good results. As long as they’re used sparingly–only a tiny dot of oil on each fret 1-2 times a year–your fretboard will look, feel, and smell great.
Never Use Lemon Oil on Maple Fretboards
Maple fretboards are a slightly different animal than darker woods like rosewood or ebony. Do NOT use any kind of lemon oil on your maple fretboard–regardless of whether the product contains actual lemon oil or not. Instead, stick to fretboard conditioners like Music Nomad’s F-ONE Oil (may favorite) or plain mineral oil. These don’t contain lemon oil or any artificial colors that can discolor maple.
In general, oil isn’t necessary on a maple fretboard. You can get by just fine by giving it a firm rubdown with a soft clean cloth and maybe a little moisture from your hot breath, if necessary.
The next time you hear people arguing about whether lemon oil is good or bad for a guitar’s fretboard, understand that both sides have good intentions, but it’s doubtful that either understands the nuances I’ve outlined in this article.
See if you can inject some logic into the argument by asking whether they are referring to pure, full-strength lemon oil (bad), or one of the many highly diluted guitar lemon oils (good).
If you want to use lemon oil on your guitar’s fretboard, then play it safe and use those made specifically for guitars. I’ve recommended 3 good brands up above. Stay away from pure or highly-concentrated lemon oil, essential oils, or lemon oils made for furniture, floors, etc.
Follow these basic guidelines and you’ll probably be just fine using lemon oil on your fretboard once every 1-2 years, and your fretboard will look and smell great.
Do you have a strong position “for” or “against” using lemon oil? I’m also generally curious to know what you do like using on your fretboard, lemon oil or otherwise. Let me know in the comments section down below.
These sites, articles, and PDF’s all played a role in informing the research of this blog post:
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