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Fretboard Care

To oil, or not to oil...

One of the questions most often asked in the newsgroups is 'How do I take care of my guitar's wood?' It is also a discussion that is plagued with misinformation and half-truths. This article should clarify many of the misconceptions about fretboard care.

The vast majority of guitar fretboards are made of rosewood, ebony or maple. These are dense woods with different characteristics. Maple fretboards are almost always sealed with a varnish or lacquer coating and require very little care other than cleaning. The sealant coat prevents dirt and grime from getting into the pores of the wood and accumulating.

Rosewood and ebony are left untreated and the natural oils in the wood protect them. The cleaning products that can be safely used on maple are unsuited to these woods. The same care that is used for these would apply to other dense natural finish fretboards (unvarnished).

General rule number one about fretboard care is to avoid any products that contain silicone. While silicone oils are inert substances, problems over the long term will be avoided by not using them.

General rule number two is to avoid products that contain waxes. This includes carnauba, paraffin and silicone waxes. You do not want to apply a waxy residue to the fretboard, you merely want to clean it and leave a very thin oil protectant.

What about furniture care products like "Lemon Pledge"? Aerosol furniture polishes contain waxes, petroleum distillates, emulsifiers (detergents), and lots and lots of water. A very light spray on maple to clean it is fine, but aerosol polishes should not be used on unvarnished fretbaords. We do not want to apply products containing water to the natural finish of a guitar neck and fretboard.

A statement that is seen many times in the newsgroups is "use only 100% lemon oil". First, there are NO furniture care products that actually contain nothing but lemon oil, and even if there were, you would not want to use it on a wood finish. Pure cold-pressed lemon oil is very expensive and could not be marketed for $3 or $4 per bottle like the furniture oils you see in stores.

"But Product XYZ says that it contains 100% lemon oil." Yes, I've seen products with that on the label, and I assure you it is a false and misleading statement. It is used in the context that the product contains 100% lemon oil conditioner as opposed to a cheaper steam-distilled citrus oil or synthetic duplicate made from pine tree wood. Typically 99% or more of the product is a mineral oil with less than 1% lemon oil.

Pure lemon oil (or other citrus oils) is composed of d-limonene at an amount of 90% or more. There are other minor components that give each of the citrus oils its own unique flavors and fragrances. These ingredients include citral, linalool, geraniol, nerol, citronella, pinenes and other terpenes.

Since d-limonene is the majority of lemon oil (or orange oil), we can look at its properties to determine why it is not suited for fretboard care. First, and most importantly, d-limonene is a very strong solvent. It is used to remove glue, paint, grease, oil and other substances. If an oil with a high percentage of d-limonene were applied to a fretboard, it might even begin to loosen the bindings, fret markers or other trim. Additionally, it could soften some varnishes or lacquers used on necks and bodies. Also the vapors of d-limonene are flammable with a flash point of about 124 degrees F.

What are petroleum distillates? The type of petroleum distillates used in furniture cleaners is a very thin, purified and deodorized mineral oil. Normal paraffin and iso-paraffin oils are generally used since they are less agressive to finishes and have lower odors. They are also flammable but the flash points are usually above 200 degrees F.

What to Use

To clean a natural finish fretboard or neck, little is required in the way of chemical treatment. Basically you use a clean rag to remove as much of the dirt build-up as possible. Around the frets, grime often gets packed in and is very hard to remove. A plastic scrubbing pad is recommended since it will be softer and less likely to scratch, although very fine grades of steel wool (000 grade) may be used with care. Either type of scrubber should be plain; NO SOAP as is often in SOS pads or similar. Watch the steel wool because any fine bits of metal that are shed by the pad will be attracted by the magnets of guitar pickups.

A furniture oil may be placed on a clean rag and wiped around the hard to clean spots to assist the pad in removing the dirt. Once the fretboard is clean, wipe the entire surface with the oil dampened cloth to seal it. The furniture oil that is left behind will replenish the oil lost from the surface of the wood and help retard further losses. Use as little as possible; you just want to put a slight gloss on the surface.

Select a furniture oil that contains petroleum distillates. It is required by Federal law to have a child resistant cap and to state on the label: "Contains petroleum distillates. Harmful or fatal if swallowed". Lemon oil makes the product smell better and might add a little cleaning action due to its solvency, but is not required. Avoid silicones and waxes.

Buy a good quality furniture oil. Since you use it sparingly and only clean once or twice per year, a typical bottle will last a lifetime.

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