There are 2 types of guitarists, those who just like to play their gear, and those who make a point of meticulously maintaining every single element of their rig. If you fall into the latter camp, there’s a good chance you already know how to clean a fretboard, but if you’re newer to guitars, or you’ve recently decided to start taking better care of your gear, you might be wondering how and where to start.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the process for cleaning fretboards of all kinds. We’ll look at the products you’ll need, and the steps to take to clean and condition what is one of the most important components of any guitar.
Keep on reading to learn more about how to clean your fretboard!
- Why Do I Need to Clean My Fretboard?
- Do Different Fretboard Materials Require Different Cleaning Procedures?
- What Supplies do I need to Clean a Fretboard?
- How to Clean a Maple Fretboard
- How to Clean a Rosewood Fretboard
- Final Thoughts on Cleaning a Fretboard
Why Do I Need to Clean My Fretboard?
Guitarists need to keep their fretboards clean because it improves tone and playability. Dirty fretboards not only look unsightly, but they will continue to accumulate grime over time, resulting in a deadening of your tone. Not only that, but the dirt will pass on to your strings and reduce their lifespan, costing you more money over the life of your guitar.
Do Different Fretboard Materials Require Different Cleaning Procedures?
The way you clean and prepare your fretboard will vary depending on what kind of wood it’s made from. Porous, unfinished woods like laurel, rosewood or ebony require very different treatment to a glossy finished maple board, for example.
What Supplies do I need to Clean a Fretboard?
Cleaning a fretboard is a fairly straightforward job, but to do it right there are a few items you’ll want to have to hand.
- Lint free microfiber cloths (dirty and clean)
- Cotton swabs
- Soft bristle brush
- Lemon oil or your preferred fretboard conditioner
- Maple specific fretboard oil
- Wire wool
- Fretboard guards
- Compressed air
- Neck support
How to Clean a Maple Fretboard
The process for cleaning your maple fretboard will vary depending on whether it is finished or unfinished. Finished glossy maple boards are undoubtedly the easiest to look after, while unfinished boards require a more delicate touch.
Finished Maple Fretboards
Step 1 – Remove the Strings
If you’re trying to deep clean a fretboard, there’s no good way to do it with the strings still in situ. You can always kill 2 birds with one stone any time you’re replacing your strings. Lay your guitar down on a covered work bench and support the neck with a neck rest, or if you don’t have one, a pillow will work just fine.
Step 2 – Take off Large Dirt and Debris
Using your soft bristle brush, gently scrub the fretboard to remove any large pieces of dirt or any debris. Be sure to pay attention to where the frets meet the fretboard, and the corners of the nut.
If needed, use a cotton swab to get into tighter areas that the brush can’t reach.
Step 3 – Polish the Frets
This is an optional step, but if you’re planning to polish your frets, this is the time to do it. Take your fretboard guards and place over the fretboard. Next, take your wire wool and very gently polish the fret surface.
Step 4 – Wipe Off with Your Dirty Cloth
Using your designated dirty cloth, give the entire fretboard a good wipe down to remove any dirt that you loosened with the brush, wire wool, and cotton swabs. Use a clean section of the cloth for each pass to avoid spreading dirt around the fretboard.
Step 5 – Deep Cleaning
Next, add a small amount of guitar polish to a clean, dry cloth and give the entire fretboard a rub. If there is excess left on the fretboard, you’ve used too much – in any case, wipe the entire surface dry with a clean cloth.
Step 6 – Restring
When you’re done with the cleaning, you can restring and then you’re ready to play.
Note – If you’re cleaning a finished maple fretboard with a finish that has worn away with play in certain areas, you need to treat the entire fretboard like an unfinished maple board.
Unfinished Maple Fretboards
The procedure for cleaning an unfinished maple fretboard is identical to that of a finished board, apart from one key difference. Under no circumstances should you use lemon oil, or any other oil or conditioner with citrus or other acidic properties. This can seriously damage the wood.
Instead, use a maple fretboard specific oil or conditioner. They are typically made with seed oils, and are designed to replicate the kind of natural oils found in maple wood. If you don’t have any such oil to hand, stick to a dry clean and only consider conditioning the board once you have the right oil.
How to Clean a Rosewood Fretboard
This section applies to rosewood, ebony, laurel, purpleheart, jatoba, or any other kind of porous dark hardwoods used for fretboards. In any case the procedure is identical, as are the tools and supplies for completing the job.
As with any maintenance job, be sure to lay down your guitar on a safe and sturdy work bench, preferably with a neck support, or alternatively an old pillow you don’t mind getting dirty.
Step 1 – Take off your Strings
Removing the strings from your guitar will allow you to properly access the entire fretboard – a must if you’re trying to get a true deep clean.
Step 2 – Brush Away Larger Dirt
Using up and down strokes with the grain of the wood, gently brush the fretboard from top to bottom to remove any caked on dirt or grime.
Step 3 – Tackle the Smaller Dirt
With a Q tip or cotton swab, scrub the corners of each fret, as well as the corners of the nut.
Step 4 – Shine the Frets
This step isn’t always necessary, but again, if you’d like to perform a thorough job, it’s a good idea to polish your frets while you have the guitar broken down for cleaning. Protect the wood with a fretboard guard and take your fine wire wool and using side to side strokes, gently polish the surface of each fret.
Don’t apply much of any pressure to avoid creating flat spots or creating a height difference between frets.
Step 5 – Wipe Away Any Debris
If you’ve polished the frets there will likely be some metal dust, but even if you haven’t, when loosening the dirt earlier on, there will likely be some errant particles left over on the fretboard. Using a designated dirty cloth, give the entire fretboard a dust off.
If you have compressed air to hand, whether canned or supplied from a compressor, this is great technique for clearing away loose dirt.
Step 6 – Condition the Wood
Take a clean microfiber cloth and apply a dab of your favorite fretboard conditioner to it. Feel free to use lemon oil or other citrus oils here, as they won’t damage the wood, and they smell great. Otherwise, it’s fine to use any other kind of fretboard conditioning oil.
Rub the oil into the entire surface of the fretboard and immediately wipe up with a clean, dry cloth. There should be no visible moisture left on the surface. You can rub in any direction to ensure that the oils are totally absorbed into the grain.
Step 7 – Time for Fresh Strings
Now that your fretboard is clean, restring the guitar with a set of your favorite strings, and you’re once again ready to play.
We’re often asked about how to clean fretboards, and to make life easier we’ve provided the answers to some of our most commonly asked questions here.
Can I use water to clean a fretboard?
We definitely advise against using water to clean any component on a guitar. While it might not damage properly finished maple boards, even the slightest damage to the finish might allow water to come into contact with bare wood, which can cause it to swell, irreparably damaging it.
How do I Clean Stains from a Fretboard?
When it comes to keeping fretboards looking clean, prevention is better than cure. Try to wipe down your fretboard after every use – this will help to prevent the accumulation of stain causing dirt in the first place.
If your fretboard is already stained, the only real way to get rid of those marks is to abrade the surface, but taking material away is always a risky job, and if the stain is any deeper than the surface, you might find that it cannot be cleaned at all.
Is it OK to use WD40 to Clean my Fretboard?
WD40 is a lubricant oil, not a conditioning oil, and you should never use it on any non-metal guitar components. It might be ok in small quantities on saddles, roller string trees, trem systems or other moving parts, but keep it away from wood, particularly unfinished wood, at all costs.
Final Thoughts on Cleaning a Fretboard
Like any guitar maintenance task, cleaning a fretboard is a simple affair if you prepare yourself properly and use the right tools and supplies. Taking shortcuts can result in damage to one of the most critical components of your instrument, and cause irreversible damage.