Cleaning Guitar Finishes, Fretboards & Frets

Cleaning The Finish

The type of finish (gloss, satin, lacquer, poly...) and physical condition of a finish can help determine the best method of cleaning.

If we were to compare cleaners to sandpaper, we are choosing the least abrasive cleaner that will do the job.

Polishing Cloths

PROS Easy, fast clean up, no residue to accumulate in cracks
CONS Won't remove heavy dirt and grime

Microfiber Polishing Cloth

While a nice flannel cloth is adequate for many players, those trying to polish dark finishes will find that a high quality Micro-Fiber Polish Cloth is a better choice. Microfiber is very soft and adds less swirl marks than more abrasive materials. It is hard to avoid tiny swirl marks in any finish so you want to use the softest material possible on dark finishes to keep them to a minimum. Excessive cleaning and rubbing on dark finishes and gold plated hardware should be avoided to lessen the effects.

While cloths alone don't remove heavy dirt and grime they are excellent choices for players who like to wipe their instrument off after playing.

Spray Cleaners

PROS Non-abrasive, safe for satin finish
CONS Can make a mess of heavily soiled finishes

Spray cleaners are liquid cleaners that contain a fair amount of water. They are good for a quick cleaning where removal of smudges and fingerprints is the basic requirement.

A Word About Satin & Flat Finishes

Spray cleaners are also preferred over paste cleaners for non-glossy finishes. Satin finishes take on a somewhat shiny appearance particularly in areas under constant friction like the back of the neck or where your arm rest on the top with time. In order to slow the process, overzealous polishing should be avoided as friction creates shine.

dirt on finish has turned white with use of spray cleaner

Spray Cleaner used on very dirty finish

Avoid Spray Cleaners On Very Dirty Finishes

Using liquid spray cleaners on heavily soiled instruments can create a bit of a mess.
I see this most often on instruments that are heavily soiled, think "dirt so thick you could scrape it with a fingernail".

Dirt will absorb the water in the spray and turn white or yellowish. While the sight gives pause it is a sure sign you are not going to get very far cleaning with spray.

At this stage I resort to using paste polishes or compounds for removal of dirt, usually with allot of elbow grease.

Paste Polishes

PROS Shines lightly dulled finishes, removes fine scratches and dirt
CONS Not recommended for satin finishes, can build up in cracks

edge of finish chip turns white from polish
Paste polish can accumulate
in chips in the finish

When cleaning more heavily soiled finishes or trying to restore the natural gloss that has dulled, a non-abrasive paste polish is a good start. These cream polishes will usually remove dirt and very fine scratches.

When cleaning delicate finishes or one's with chips and scratches I recommend applying the polish directly to the cloth. Working the polish into the cloth helps reduce the amount of build up that can form if one gets polish on bare wood or in cracks and finish chips.

Dried polish turns white when dry. Avoid using paste polishes on raw wood (fingerboards and bridges) and use caution when polishing near cracks or finish chips to avoid impacting them.

Buffing Compounds

PROS Works on deeper scratches
CONS Requires some expertise to avoid trouble

Obviously not all scratches can be removed with non-abrasive paste cleaners ...and that's a good thing because we don't want to accidentally be buffing thru our guitar's finish.

Polishing compounds are similar to sandpaper in that they come in many different grades and abrasions. Most of us use them in conjunction with a machine buffer due to the time and strength required to do it by hand.

I have restored and improved many finishes by light wet sanding and buffing, however, this is something best left to someone who has the experience required to avoid a catastrophe.

Machine buffing and coarse compounds are literally removing the top layer of finish. If too much is removed you can burn thru the finish completely leaving raw wood exposed.

Vintage Guitar Finishes

On older instruments with thin or damaged finish it is best to get some advice on cleaning it.
De-laminating finish, heavily chipped or thin finishes can pose problems when cleaning.

Cleaning Fingerboards

Painted Fingerboards

Some fingerboards have been clear coated, maple boards and Rickenbacker come to mind. On painted fingerboards I use paste polish, not steel wool, to clean the board and frets.

Polishing frets with paste polish will turn your cleaning cloth black. If cleaning a maple fingerboard with worn, exposed wood, avoid contaminating those areas with the blackened cloth.

Fingerboards sprayed with a flat or satin finish can become glossy with repeated polishing and friction.

Unfinished Fingerboards

Dunlop Fingerboard Cleaner

While 0000 steel wool is still a staple around my shop for light cleaning, I hate the mess it makes.

I frequently use Dunlop Fingerboard Cleaner in my shop and like it. It does a good job of cleaning heavy dirt without having steel wool hair everywhere. Make sure to use a rag you intend on tossing afterwards as a filthy board will make a mess of your nicer Micro fiber polishing cloths.

Oiling The Fingerboard

Oiling an unpainted fingerboard makes the board look good and may help to prevent dryness which can lead to cracks. While there are many oils safe for fingerboards, some may leave a sticky residue which attracts dirt. Mineral oil, Danish oil and lemon oil are all popular choices. Weekly oiling is not necessary or recommended. Dunlop Ultimate Fingerboard Oil

In general, oiling the fingerboard a few times a year should be sufficient for average playing use. Severe cracking of the fingerboard can be a sign of dryness and the instrument should be properly humidified to avoid more damage.

Cleaning Frets

Planet Waves Fret Polishing System

Clean and polished frets are not just pretty, a highly polished fret crown makes for some slick string bending. While steel wool certainly cleans fingerboards and brightens up dull nickel it does little to create the super fine polishing that's associated with a first class fret polish.

MICRO MESH polishing cloth is one of my favorite products for polishing frets. Micro-mesh is available in several grits, just like sandpaper, but is fine enough to use without fear of changing the fret's height. Think of this technique for frets that are fairly scratched or when restoring an instrument that has not been maintained.

Cleaning The Hardware

Nickel hardware will become dull with time and does not stay shiny for long after polishing (unlike Chrome). As a result polishing nickel can seem like a never ending chore. I use a variety of different products on nickel including GHS Guitar Gloss , Nevr-Dull Wadding Polish and various nickel polishes.

When polishing Gold pickups, tuners and other hardware, bare in mind that you are polishing a coating. Repeated or aggressive polishing, especially with something abrasive, can eventually rub thru the plating completely removing it. I would avoid frequent polishing of Gold to preserve the coating as long as possible. I have used BlueMagic Metal Polish Cream on Gold as well as other coatings with great success. It is non-abrasive.

Deep Scratches

In order to literally polish a scratch away, you must remove enough finish to get to the bottom of the scratch and have it level with the surrounding finish, that's what makes it disappear. It is very unwise to attempt that on very deep scratches.

shallow scratch does not go thru clear coat

As an easy rule of thumb I would say...if your fingernail can make a clicking sound when picked across the scratch, it is too deep and should be touched up instead.

Waxing Guitars

Waxing your instrument's finish is a choice. Having a coat of wax on the finish not only makes it look shiny but it makes it easier to clean in the future and gives the finish a slippery feel.

Waxing the back of a glossy neck may create less drag and friction on your fretting hand.

Regardless of your brand preference, avoid using anything on your instrument that contains silicon as it makes finish repair a nightmare.

Guitar Polish

Polishing Clothes

Fret Polishing

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