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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.
The Tools & Supplies Used in This Demo
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:
- Because you’re going to be using #0000 steel wool, it’s best to do this procedure outside, if possible. As you’ll discover, steel wool is messy as hell and leaves little steel filings everywhere. To show that you don’t need a fancy workbench or shop, I purposely did this fretboard cleaning inside on our kitchen table, but definitely do it outside if you can.
- You’ll notice that I listed a disposable dust mask. I began this without a mask and then halfway through found myself coughing, which reminded me of how much microscopic crap gets airborne during this type of procedure. Buy yourself a cheap dust mask–it doesn’t need to be fancy.
Okay, let’s do this!
You’re Done. String it Back Up!
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 Have a Glossy Fretboard
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).