How to Clean a Guitar Fretboard
Procedure for REALLY Funky Fretboards
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The procedure I demonstrate here should not be used on glossy (shiny) fretboards. It is for natural, satin, or “unfinished” fretboards only. If your fretboard is glossy, please skip to the end of this post and read the section titled “If You Have a Glossy Fretboard.”
Today I’m going to show you how I clean a really filthy fretboard.
I’ve talked in previous articles about how straightforward it is to clean a fretboard that isn’t very dirty–by simply wiping it with a soft, dry (or slightly damp) cotton towel between string changes, while all the strings are off. Heck, even just giving your guitar strings a quick wipe after playing helps keep the fretboard clean. If you haven’t read that one yet, check out: “How to Clean Guitar Strings.”
That’s great, but what do you do about a really filthy fretboard, where there’s actually standing dirt, sweat, and other unmentionables sitting on top of (and stuck to) the wood? Well, to demonstrate that type of fretboard rehab I need a really dirty fretboard, which I don’t see very often.
Until today. This axe just came in today for a cleaning and setup:
This isn’t the dirtiest fretboard I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely going to need more work than just a simple wipe with a damp cloth. It’s a perfect candidate for an article on how to clean a really dirty fretboard. So, today you get to look over my shoulder as I get this fretboard looking healthy and new again.
Here are all the supplies that I used for the procedure I’ll be demonstrating in this article. You don’t necessarily need all of these things nor even the exact brands I used, but for your convenience I’ve linked directly to everything on Amazon. Don’t worry, I’ll also link to these later on as they appear throughout the demo:
Two precautions before we dive in:
Okay, let’s do this!
It really helps to have some room to move and neatly organize your tools and cleaning supplies. Do this, and you don’t have to worry about the guitar sliding, falling, or banging into anything. We have a sturdy kitchen table that also just happens to be higher than normal–about stomach height–which makes it perfect for this sort of thing. On it, I’ve put my guitar work mat and neck support to create a safe, cushioned, non-slip surface to work on.
If using your kitchen table, like me, watch out for any lights hanging overhead. You don’t want to accidentally bash the headstock into it when you lift the guitar.
Loosen and remove all your guitar’s strings. Despite how it looks in this photo, I’m not clipping the strings under full tension. I loosened them all first and I recommend you do the same.
I’m using my CruzTools string cutter here, but any decent string cutter (side cutter) will work fine.
For guitars with floating tremolos, I like to block the tremolo first by putting something soft underneath it–to prevent it from tilting all the way backward into the cavity and/or resting against the guitar’s body. Here, I’ve blocked this tremolo with a large block eraser (my favorite thing to use), but even a folded-up washcloth stuffed under the tremolo works just fine. If you look closely in the photo, you can just see the eraser peeking out under the tremolo.
When we start using steel wool, little steel particles are going to go everywhere. On electric guitars, you especially want to prevent the steel particles from sticking to the pickups (which are magnetic). Once they’re on there, it’s difficult to get them all off. On an acoustic, completely cover the soundhole so no steel wool bits get inside. Be sure to also protect any metal hardware that the steel wool might touch. If possible, use low tack masking tape for this so it doesn’t damage the guitar’s finish.
You don’t need to cover the fretwire. In fact, a nice byproduct of this procedure is that the steel wool will shine the frets nicely, without you having to exert any extra effort. So, you get shiny frets out of this procedure too… for free!
Tip: If you don’t have low tack masking tape, one trick is to first stick-and-unstick the tape on your clothing 2-3 times. This will naturally make it less sticky.
Protect any metal guitar parts that might be touched by the steel wool. I didn’t want this guitar’s shiny gold locking nut to get scuffed.
Be liberal with the tape. I also covered the truss rod cavity here, since this guitar came to me without a truss rod cover. I don’t want steel wool down in there.
Remember: Electric guitar pickups are magnetic, so I thoroughly mummify them with tape to prevent steel wool filings from sticking to them. This is where “low tack” masking tape is handy-so it doesn’t pull off any of the guitar’s finish when we remove it later.
Time to get down to business! My first step is to gently scrape between all the frets with the long edge of an old plastic gift card. Scrape WITH the grain, not across. You need to be careful here, because you can scratch the wood. If you use a guitar pick or something more pointed (like the edge of a card), be sure to use lighter pressure so you don’t leave any dents in the wood.
I began this procedure without a mask, and within a few minutes found myself coughing. I don’t want to inhale someone else’s DNA, so I put on a disposable dust mask.
This photo shows you just how effective scraping is as a first step. Remember, if you use a sharp corner, or something like a guitar pick, you have to be extra careful not to scratch or dent the fretboard wood.
Particles get wedged in the crevices right next to the frets. Use the edge of your scraper to get down into these areas. Here, you can go across the grain but be gentle so you don’t scratch the fretboard. A sharp edge is better for this, but I just used what I had at the time.
In an earlier photo you saw how much crap was coming off of just one fret. When you’re done, that stuff will be everywhere, so grab a vacuum and carefully suck it all up. Or, if you’re working outside, blow or brush it off.
Be careful with these vacuum bristles. They’re okay on the fretboard, but use care if you decide to drag them over the glossy finish on your guitar’s body.
Once you’ve vacuumed off all the scraped particles, inspect the fretboard for any spots that you might have missed and re-scrape as necessary. In the photo below, the fretboard is looking pretty dang good, but you can see little bits of dirt caught next to the frets. I’ll get in there and remove that stuff with the sharp edge of a paper business card (not shown).
Technically, this fretboard looks good enough that I could stop here. However, the customer isn’t paying me for just “good enough.” Besides, there’s actually still a bit of oil and sweat down in the wood that I can see, but you can’t (due to the extreme sunlight in this shot).
So, let’s move onto the next step where we’ll get deep down into the wood to remove what’s left.
Only use #0000 steel wool for this procedure. It’s the finest grade available and won’t noticeably scratch the wood… as long as you only rub in the direction of the wood grain. If you rub across the grain, you will most assuredly leave noticeable scuffs across the wood.
So, tear off a small to medium-sized piece of steel wool:
Tear off a small to medium-sized piece of #0000 steel wool, and get ready to go to town.
You don’t need to press really hard, but do need to apply medium pressure to remove any remaining oil, sweat, and salt that’s down in the wood. As you’re rubbing, you’ll literally see the wood coming clean under your fingers. By virtue of how well the steel wool works, this procedure also removes some of the color and surface-moisture from the wood, but don’t worry, we’ll remedy that at the end.
Once again, be sure to rub WITH the wood grain here. If you rub crosswise, you’ll leave visible marks across the fretboard.
The photo below underscores what I said earlier: steel wool is messy stuff. In fact, I actually avoid using it unless I absolutely have to for a really nasty fretboard. This is why we taped-off any sensitive areas like pickups, soundholes, etc. and also why I strongly recommend doing this outside, if possible.
Steel wool everywhere… and probably on your clothes too.
Time to vacuum again. If you’re happy with your work and feel like you’ve thoroughly stripped all the dirt, sweat, and oil from the wood, then it’s time to clean up in preparation for the next step. Steel wool will be all over the frickin’ place so be prepared to not only vacuum it off the guitar but also your surrounding work area, the table, the floor, and your clothing. Make sure you clean up every last bit of it. You don’t want that stuff lingering anywhere.
Again, be very careful vacuuming on the guitar’s body, but do be sure to suck (or blow) all steel wool off the tape that is protecting the pickups or soundhole.
Don’t just vacuum the guitar. You need to clean up ALL steel wool from the surrounding areas too. You’ll find it on your work mat, the table, the floor, and your clothes.
After all that steel-wooling we’re left with a very clean but very dry-looking or light-colored fretboard. That’s the thing about steel wool: it’s a fantastic wood cleaner, but the downside is that it sucks some of the rich color out of the surface of the wood. Now, this isn’t inherently bad for the wood, but it doesn’t look great.
In the picture below, it may not be obvious just how much lighter the color of this fretboard is, but believe me, in person it’s looking pretty pale compared to what it was prior to the steel-wool job. I wouldn’t want to give it back to the customer looking like this, so we have one last step to put the finishing touch on this job.
We’re in the home stretch now. Slowly and carefully peel off all tape. Be especially careful if you used normal masking tape instead of the low tack stuff, or if you have a much older guitar with a vintage finish. Most newer guitars have thick, durable finishes that’ll withstand you rudely ripping tape off of them, but don’t make any such assumptions. Err on the side of caution.
After you’ve removed all tape, do one last inspection for any steel wool particles. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll always vacuum the guitar’s pickups (if applicable) one last time, even if I can’t see any obvious steel wool filings.
Go slow and be careful, especially if you have an older guitar with a vintage finish.
This is one of the most satisfying parts for me: seeing the rich color brought back to what looks like a dry, parched fretboard. There’s some debate about whether fretboard oil actually does anything beneficial for the fretboard or if it’s just cosmetic, but I’ll let others argue about it. I apply fretboard oil after this kind of intense cleaning because it makes the wood look great again, and owners appreciate it.
Here, I’m applying only 1-2 drops of Music Nomad F-One fretboard oil to a soft cotton cloth. My favorite general-purpose rag for this kind of stuff is a cotton cloth baby diaper. Super soft and durable as heck:
Roughly 1 drop of fretboard oil per fret is all that’s needed. DO NOT over-saturate the fretboard. We’re simply trying to bring some color back into the wood.
The direction you rub doesn’t matter when applying the oil, and you don’t need to rub hard–you’re not trying to force the oil into the wood. Just get one fret covered and then move onto the next fret. Don’t wipe the oil off yet, because we want it to sit for about a minute. So, just keep applying oil to each subsequent fret. If the rag starts to get dry, apply 1-2 more drops of oil to the rag and keep going until every single fret has a thin coat of oil on it.
I’ll say this again: don’t go nuts and try to drown the fretboard. You just want the fretboard shiny with oil, not soaked.
Completely coat the fret with oil and then move onto the next one without wiping it off.
I paused to snap this pic after applying oil to just the first 4 frets. Now you can clearly see how dry frets 5-9 look after being cleaned with the steel wool. I’ve not yet applied oil to those frets.
Now that you’ve applied oil to every single fret, go back to the first fret and begin rubbing off all the excess oil. Just light pressure here–more of a buffing motion than anything else. Rub in the direction of the wood grain.
Buff off any excess oil. We don’t want any left standing on the wood. When you’re done, the fretboard shouldn’t feel oily to the touch.
After I buffed off all the oil from my first pass, I felt like the fingerboard could use just 1 more application. So, use your best judgement here. Usually, one application is enough to last you for a year or more, but if you think the fretboard needs one more coat then go for it. Just follow the same guidelines: use a tiny amount of oil, then remove all excess. You’re not trying to marinade the wood.
That’s right, you’re all done. If you followed this procedure then you’ve successfully restored that nasty fretboard to its former glory. It should now look great again and feel great to bend on. Your strings will last a bit longer too, because when you’re fretboard is really cruddy your fingers naturally transfer some of that junk onto the strings as you play.
I won’t bore you with pictures of me cleaning up the rest of this guitar and stringing it back up. Besides, I’ve got my work cut out for me now, as this guitar needs new tremolo springs and a full setup too. It hasn’t had a thorough setup in years.
If you’re reading this section, I’ll assume you saw the warning at the top and skipped here. Here’s the deal: those of you out there with glossy lacquer finishes on your fretboards can’t use these techniques. If you do you’ll scratch and/or knock the high shine off the lacquer. The steel wool will essentially turn your glossy finish into satin (non-glossy), and not really in a good way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a demo for the glossy folks yet, I’m sorry. However, the good news is that cleaning a glossy fretboard is fairly straightforward. Assuming the gloss is still fully intact (you haven’t worn through any areas yet), you can essentially clean a glossy fretboard with a slightly damp (with water) cotton cloth and some elbow grease. Once you’ve removed all the gunk you can finish it off with a good guitar polish. It’s lacquer after all, just like the body of your guitar.
Have you ever cleaned a really cruddy fretboard? If so, what’s your favorite method? There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so I love hearing what other’s like to do (and what products they use).
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