Proper Fretboard Maintenance - A Step-by-Step Guide

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Proper Fretboard Maintenance - A Step-by-Step Guide Image

If you’re like most of the guitar players I know, the maintenance of your guitar comes second to playing it.  Who can blame you?  I know it is significantly more enjoyable to play a guitar than to work on it.  However, spending a little bit of time on your guitar will keep it playing great – and looking great – for years to come. One of the major things I see missed on countless guitars is a properly kept fretboard. Taking no more than a few minutes every time you change the strings can make a world of difference for your guitar.


“But how?” I hear you asking; “Why would I do anything at all?”.  It’s a good question; I don’t inspect my guitar finish for flaws (unless I drop it). However, the fretboard is a different story.  ALMOST all fretboards that you can buy today are unfinished. While every other part of your guitar is generally covered in some sort of protective coating, that fretboard is a bare piece of wood being used and abused and exposed to the elements.  You want to keep that bare wood in the best shape you can.  Otherwise, you can end up with a dirty, greasy fretboard that doesn’t look good and doesn’t feel nice to play.  If, like me, you live in a climate that can get very dry, it’s possible that your fretboard will crack or shrink drastically. In the following steps I’ll explain how you can help your fretboard age gracefully.


Before we begin, I will say that the process is largely the same for an acoustic and electric guitar.  On one of the steps, I will mention how it might differ.  Everything else will be completely the same for the two instruments.  However, the process is going to be a bit different for a fretboard that has a finish on it, like your guitar’s body.  Let’s start with that:


Finished Fretboards

The rest of this article is going to cover unfinished fretboards – usually rosewood, ebony, or an alternative that is now being used on some guitars.  However, for finished fretboards – usually maple – it is important to NOT use the steps I’m about to lay out.  Steel wool on a finished fretboard is just going to turn a nice glossy finish into a hazy one.  Lemon oil will just wipe away, and a plastic scraper isn’t going to do anything!


The good news is that, as long as none of the finish has started to chip off of your fretboard, all you need to do is clean it.  Using a soft cloth and Dunlop 65 Guitar Polish, wipe down your fretboard, just like any other finished part of your guitar.  Your life is easier, but if that finish starts to come off, see your local guitar technician immediately.


Unfinished Fretboards


    1. Find a spot, and take the strings off

The first step may seem obvious, but it’s still an important one. I’ve changed strings in some weird spots when I had to.  To do this properly, you’re going to need a good, safe, and stable place to rest your guitar while working.  At home, an old towel on a kitchen table can do.  Just make sure that there’s something soft against the surface to keep your finish safe, and something for the neck to rest on. A dedicated neck rest is great, but I’ve used all manner of strange things. As long as everything is soft and stable, go ahead and take those strings off now.


    2. Tape off the delicate parts

In an upcoming step, we’re going to be using steel wool.  Steel wool, especially 0000, can be a bit messy.  Here, I’ll split it up into electric and acoustic guitars.  If you have an electric guitar, tape off the pickups (the things in the body, either ovals with metal studs or covered in metal) using a low-tac masking tape. On an acoustic guitar, you will not have to worry about taping off a pickup UNLESS you have a soundhole-mounted one.  If your acoustic pickup system is directly in the soundhole, you should also tape it off.  The reason for this on both type of guitars is that steel wool can get into the magnetic winds of a pickup and cause plenty of damage. On both types of guitars, you may also want to mask off the nut, and around the body where the fretboard meets it.  This isn’t totally necessary, but a good precaution to take.


    3. Scrape off the gunk!

Sometimes, if a guitar hasn’t been cleaned in eons, there’s going to be some dirt built up on the fretboard.  Start by taking this off, with a plastic scraper. Go with the grain from head to body and back, not across the fretboard. Make sure you get in the corner where the fret meets the fretboard.  Here it can be useful to go across the grain, but very carefully.  You do not want to cut into your fretboard.  After you’re done, vacuum up the leftovers or blow them away.  Lastly, please do not use a metal scraper.  Without practice, it can be very easy to scrape off too much and change the radius of a certain fret.  Leave the metal scrapers to the pros.


    4. Steel Wool

Now that the dirt is scraped off, it’s time to clean up the wood.  Use super fine steel wool – commonly called 0000 or 4 ought – and scrub with it across the grain.  Not only is this going to clean out everything the scraper couldn’t, it’s going to act as a very fine sandpaper and make that fretboard feel smooth.  This is where some masking tape on the body can be a lifesaver, you don’t want the steel wool to scuff up any finish.  A bonus, however, is that the steel wool is going to buff your frets a bit too.  They’ll be shinier and play smoother, and so will your fretboard! After you’re done, blow or vacuum away the leftover steel wool bits.  You can take off the masking tape now if you’d like, or leave it on for the last few steps.


    5. Oil the Fretboard and Wipe Clean

Next is what the previous steps have all been leading up to: conditioning the bare wood of the fretboard.  This is really what’s going to keep your fretboard fresh, hydrated, and looking good.  Since we’re looking at a routine for every time you change the strings, I recommend the Dunlop Lemon Oil.  It is a good product for maintaining the fretboard every time the strings are changed, and it smells good too!  When you take your guitar in to a technician, they may use something a little bit different.  This has to do with how certain oils penetrate the wood, but for your purposes the Lemon oil will be perfect.  Please do not use any other oil or liquid. Almost everything else will either not protect the wood properly, or protect it TOO well and create a finish.  Whichever oil you end up choosing, the application is the same.  Put a bit on a rag or paper towel, and wipe it into the fretboard.  Start at one end and work your way to the other,  generally rubbing across the grain.  Make sure you don’t miss a spot along the way.  If your guitar is very dry, you may need two coats. 


Once you’ve applied the oil of your choosing, take a dry piece of the rag or a new paper towel, and wipe the excess off.  I usually wipe along the edges of the neck too, just to make sure there was no runoff. 


    6. Finish Up!

You’ve done it!  You’ve properly cared for you fretboard.  You can now remove all that tape if you chose to keep it on, and restring your guitar.  Or, better yet, continue on with a full set-up that a guitar tech might do….



In any case, your fretboard thanks you!

I hope this has helped you keep some extra care of your guitar, and kept your fretboard feeling and sounding fresh as the day it was made!


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Connor Blaikie is a Guitar Repair Technician at Long & McQuade Winnipeg North East in Manitoba. 

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