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Chip's guitar maintenance tip this time is regarding the care of your fretboard - yes cleaning your guitar fretboard is unavoidable...

Cleaning your guitar fretboard

Guitar owners often tell me about the various things they do to "take care" of their guitar fingerboards. "I got this Arkansas sharpening stone, I hone 'em down with that thing". "I rub lemon oil into it every month". Occasionally, people actually ask me what I do to take care of my guitar fingerboards.

First, if there is any question about the actual function of the truss rod, or the condition of the frets and related playability, leave that to someone you trust in a repair shop. Some of my most frustrating repair jobs have involved instruments that were "fixed up" by their owners.

Assuming, however, that everything is looking and playing well, and that you as an owner are just looking to do some maintenance (and I encourage that), here is some advice. Much of what I do is based on what I was taught by Roger Borys and Jimmy D'Aquisto.

Before I outline a quick polishing and lubricating procedure, here are a couple of things to avoid. D'Aquisto felt that lemon oil, or any other vegetable based oil, could literally rot the wood as it decomposed while saturated into the wood cells and pores of a fingerboard. He, interestingly, used to use motor oil (yes, that's right, he preferred non-detergent {less additives}, and 30 or 40 weight oil was fine with him). Frankly, it freaks people out when they see their repairman put a bit of motor oil on their instrument. I use clarinet bore oil, which is also a petroleum product available in most music stores. I figure if it can help a cylindrical, temperamental, tropical hardwood reed instrument, with someone breathing heavily through it, it will be just fine for a guitar fretboard. D'Aquisto, and other luthiers, also warn against using silicone based lubricants on guitars.

When I polish up a fingerboard, here is what I do. To eliminate scratches, little dings from slide guitar playing, finger gunge (technical term) and light playing wear, I will take a small piece of 400 grit sandpaper, spread a little oil (a few drops) on it, and then lightly sand the frets across the fretboard. Then a little piece of 500 or 600 grit paper, and then a piece of 0000 steel wool, all with a bit of oil as a lubricant, and to pick up dirt and dust. Take a soft cloth, clean the surrounding finish, and carefully wipe down the fingerboard, getting any excess oil and residue off of it.

If your sanding motion is up and down the fingerboard, you will leave minute scratches in the fret that will make it harder to bend strings smoothly. Try to get any crud from between the frets, but don't lean into the wood too hard; you don't want to change the basic level of the fingerboard. If you do this a couple of times a year, that's enough. If you are a person who leaves a lot of finger gunge (it's sweat and body oil soaked dirt, really) on the board, clean it more frequently than that.

a clean fretboard

0000 steel wool leaves the frets and the wood nicely polished. If you would like to polish the frets to a higher gleam, a small buffing wheel on a Dremel tool, carefully and judiciously used with some buffing compound, can bring up a higher polish. Make sure the strings are off and well away from the Dremel tool, and don't overdo it: you don't want to heat up the fret too much. It may loosen in the fret slot, especially on a refretted guitar.

Beware of this procedure on a cheap, painted fretboard. The paint will certainly wear away in a few strokes.

Uhhhh, oh, yeah... restring and play!

I have a website: http://www.jumpinsomethin.com. Guitar fanatics may enjoy seeing the photos of some of the guitars I have built, as well as my "collection", which includes a few guitars I would never build, but just like to play. Hope you enjoy it, and feel free to get in touch via email: Chip Wilson at: Contact Chip

Musician/luthier Chip Wilson lives in New Orleans, LA. Chip worked with Borys Guitars when master archtop builder James L. D'Aquisto served as a consultant, before opening his own business, Better Guitars. Better Guitars served as an authorized repair shop for most of the top US guitar manufacturers. Chip wrote a book review for Guitarmaker, the quarterly publication of ASIA.

Chip is now primarily a performer in New Orleans, typically playing 25 to 30 gigs per month, as a soloist, sideman, and with his own band A Jumpin' Somethin'. His 1999 release "A Jumpin' Somethin" was nominated for Best Traditional Jazz CD By A Louisiana Artist by Offbeat Magazine, the most widely distributed Louisiana music publication. His most recent release was the album "Constantinople" in 2009.

Chip's article first appeared in Vermont guitar store GuitarSam's eZine: www.guitarsam.com

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