How To Clean A Fretboard And Avoid Damaged Wood

What do I do to my guitar, banjo, bass, ukulele fretboard? To oil or not to oil? That is the question.

WHY SHOULD A FRETBOARD BE TREATED?

An instrument should be treated like your skin. If your skin is dry, any instrument containing any form of bare/exposed wood is likely to get dry too. Some people are more attentive to their body than others and likewise to their instruments. This is why you hear a big range of opinions on this subject. Some shower every day and some almost never touch water. Bathing tends to remove the natural oils from the skin. Typically these oils get replaced by rubbing lotion on the dry areas of the body. In either case your skin tends to get dry if the air around you is lacking humidity. Skin likes consistency and some form of cleanliness. So does the fretboard of your instrument.

Fretboard care and maintenance

Since I mentioned your body and health let's stick to that analogy. If you don't take care of your teeth they don't stay in your mouth. Frets already have cavities. Actually each fret is pressed into a tight channel (or cavity) without glue. When wood gets dry, it shrinks. As the wood shrinks this channel gets wider allowing a greater possibility for the fret to raise up out of the channel. When this happens you get unwanted string buzz, sharp edges or even worse problems. In bad cases, you will get the same note sounding on two frets. So in the case of your guitar, you don't want the cavities to get bigger as the frets won't stay in the guitar.

If your skin is constantly dry it may get to the point that it cracks. Oooooooh this hurts? It is that simple! So it goes with the fretboard wood on your banjo or whatever. It can crack too. The difference is - your instrument can't tell you when it is starting to feel uncomfortable or hurting and about to crack. While babies cry and people complain, your fretboard just stops working correctly and it may be too late.

Check to see if your fretboard has a shiny finish on it? If it does appear shiny it likely has a lacquer protecting it. Leave it alone. The moisture content of your fretboard has been sealed in. Your job is simple, play it and wipe off the dirt and salts left from your hands after each playing session. This is not only sanitary it will prolong the life of the finish since the acids and salts from your skin like to wear down the finish.

If your fretboard is bare wood with no glossy finish, a simple way to help maintain the fretboard is to play it. Since your skin secretes natural oils, you can choose to play your instrument and know that while you are playing you are also treating your fretboard. Just picture yourself rubbing in all those natural oils and your guitar is oooing and aaaahing while you massage it. Everyone likes a good neck rub now and then and so does your guitar (ukulele, bass, etc…..). Just don't add lotion to the mix for this therapy session. Massaging is only part of the solution. You should still wipe off the dirt and skin particles left behind, especially from the strings. Hand acids break down the metals of your strings and dirt clogs the wrapping so tone quality tends to diminish over time.

You can't just rely on playing your instrument. You will still have some maintenance to do. A good time to do routine fretboard maintenance is when you are changing the strings. Whether you play your ukulele, guitar, banjo, mandolin or whatever, once a day or once a month those strings loose their tone and tuning ability and should be replaced at least every 6 months. It just so happens that your fretboard should get a little drink about this often too. (Give or take a few months – depending upon the humidity conditions your music making machine resides in). Since some dirt and debris gets left behind you can also use this as an opportunity to clean the fretboard and frets.

HOW TO TREAT YOUR FRETBOARD

The items you need are; soft bristle tooth brush, a cloth just for the oil you are using, paper towels, oil (see below for type) and something to rest the neck on so the headstock is not laying on the table.

With all the strings removed from the instrument ( yes, all of them) you have direct access to the fretboard. Apply a little oil to the cloth and work in a generous amount to the entire fretboard. If you get a little on the body or finished parts of the instrument immediately wipe it off. Use the toothbrush (not your siblings) to gently clean any dirt build up off of the fretboard. Allowing the oil to soak for a while first can make this easier. Use a second cloth to remove the dirty residue if necessary. You may add more oil once the entire fretboard is clean. You will immediately notice the color of the fretboard darken if it was pretty thirsty. Allow the oil to soak in. This may take 5 minutes and for denser wood and thicker oils even longer. Once the wood has had enough it will stop soaking it in and will just stay pooled. Leaving the oil to soak in overnight is acceptable but not always necessary if you routinely treat the fretboard once or twice a year. Use paper towels and wipe off any excess oil before you put the new strings on.

It is possible to OVER oil the wood but this may be more of a nuisance than it is harmful. It is sometimes normal to have a little seepage of oil come to the top of the fretboard within the day or two after treating the fretboard. Every chunk of rosewood / ebony / maple has slightly different densities depending upon what part of the world it came from. They all react differently. (See density chart below) Denser woods may take longer to lose moisture or to soak in oil. If your fretboard hasn't been treated in many years it is best to err on the side of caution and treat the fretboard more often with smaller amounts of oil until its moisture content is stable.

WHAT TYPE OF OIL SHOULD BE USED?

Excess oil seeping from a fretboard

The best solution is to play it safe and stick within the industry. There again, every wood is a little different. I have been very satisfied with the oils made by Planet Waves and Lizard Spit. Lemon oil and mineral oil are a good second choice. Stay clear of vegetable based oils. They can make things a little smelly over time!

Another common form of fretboard care involves a more rigorous method of cleaning. Steel Wool. In some cases (let me say that again) IN SOME CASES it may be necessary to get some pretty thick build up off of your fretboard. Lets go back to the topic of human skin. Some people use soap, some use soap and a washcloth and some use soap and a loofah. Each of these methods gets you clean but the latter tends to remove more layers of dead skin. Like a loofah, steel wool removes layers. The big difference is that your skin replenishes itself. I have yet to find a fretted instrument that can heal itself by regrowing layers of wood. That tree has already been cut down. Anytime you grab for the steel wool just remember, it may look great when your done but repeated use of this method will lead to a slight scallop in your fretboard that won't magically reappear. If it is dirt your trying to remove, steel wool will do it. It will also remove the wood "one small layer at a time" if you go too far. I don't recommend you reach for the steel wool every time you clean your fretboard. Reach for that toothbrush and oil first. It is great to have shiny frets, but try to limit the vanity so your guitar won't use profanity.

COMMON FRETBOARD WOODS AND THEIR DENSITY BY REGION:

Indian .978

African .76

Bolivian .71

Indian .78

Black .620

Red .546

Silver .506

Sugar .676

If you are asking why your guitar gently weeps? It is either because your are not playing it enough or perhaps you have forgotten that cleanliness is next to godliness.