Ebony Fretboard Care: How to Look After Your Ebony Fretboard

Published Categorized as Care and Maintenance, Guitar Care Tuning Restringing

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ebony fretboard care

When it comes to Ebony freboard care it’s more about what not to do than it is about what to do.

Whilst there are a lot of differing opinions in how to care for your ebony fretboards (from owners of guitars with ebony fretboards and luthiers who use ebony), there are some definite no-nos.

In terms of what you can do – there a few options to help to protect, prolong and recover the life of your ebony fretboard.

Table of Contents


Option #1: The Minimalist Approach


Some guitarists are advocates of the do very little approach.

This school of thought maintains that if you clean your hands before every guitar session and keep your guitar in a humidity controlled environment, then you don’t need to do any kind of maintenance for your ebony fingerboard.

They believe that:

  • The oils in your fingers are enough to keep the ebony oiled
  • The cleaning of your hands will keep it clean
  • The proper humidity will prevent it from drying out or becoming too wet

it’s not recommended to try this approach unless you play your guitar a lot – so that it’s getting the benefits of the oil in your fingers.

And this approach very much relies no a humidity controlled environment and a good clean hands habit.


Option #2: The Active Approach


Others believe that there is a need to clean and condition any fretboard that does not have a finish on it.

Generally speaking acoustic guitar fretboards don’t have a finish on them. In fact usually only maple fretboards do and they are almost solely in the realm of electric guitars.

Ebony guitar fingerboards don’t have a finish on them, just the bare wood.

Therefore, in the active approach, an ebony fret board needs to be cleaned and conditioned regularly to keep it in good condition.


Both Approaches


Both approaches agree on one thing.

Your ebony fret board needs to maintain the right amount of moisture and cleanliness. The difference lies in how you achieve that.

What Could Happen to My Fretboard if Not Properly Cared For?

Learning how to clean fretboard of your guitar is very important. Knowing the right approach is crucial. Some approaches might work in different circumstances, depending on your day to day habits and environment.

What’s clear is that you, in one form or another, need to care for your fretboard. Or else it could develop any one of the following issues:

  • Cracking
  • Chipping
  • Mold
  • Loose frets
  • Fading
  • Reduction of sustain

How to Clean and Condition Your Ebony Fretboard

If you do decide that you want to actively condition your ebony fingerboard or if you tried the Minimalist approach and ended up with one of the issues above, then there are some things to consider when you clean and condition.

Cleaning

cleaning an abony fretboard

Some say to clean with a damp cloth and a small amount of soap.

Others say that a moistened cloth is enough and not to use soap.

Whether you choose to use soap or not is a personal thing. I personally don’t like the idea of it and like to stick to just a damp cloth or paper towel.

Whether you use soap or not – make sure that your cloth is only very slightly damp – you don’t want it very wet. And if you do use soap, only use a very small amount. Less is more here.

Conditioning

linseed oil
Linseed Oil: By Micahandreadeleon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There are different products that different people recommend and different guitar brands also recommend different products for their guitars.

For example, some brands say to use lemon oil for guitar – whilst others, like Martin, warn against lemon oil (saying that the acids in the oil can speed up corrosion of frets and strings and can affect the finish of the guitar).

Others recommend linseed oil. Some really don’t like the smell of this oil. I think linseed oil is a good option if you don’t mind the smell – just make sure it’s raw linseed oil.

Again, some say that no conditioning is needed at all – and that humidity control is the best thing you can do. However, if you already have a dry fretboard you’ll need to condition it somehow.

There are of course many products out there made to condition fretboards. I don’t advocate any one in particular but you can see some of the different options below:

  • Lizard Spit
  • Fret Doctor
  • Planet Waves Hydrate Fretboard Conditioner

No doubt there’s others – but those are the one’s that come to mind.

How To Condition

No matter which conditioner you choose to use – if you choose to use any – make sure you don’t use much.

Just a very small amount should be applied and then it should be rubbed off with a clean paper towel straight after it’s been applied. Don’t let it sit on the fretboard for too long.

And be careful not to allow the oil to get under the frets (which shouldn’t be an issue if you’re careful to use just the slightest amount and wipe it off straight away).

How Often Should I Clean?

I try to clean my fretboard after every time I change my strings.

I usally clean the frets at the same time (using very fine grade #0000 steel wool) – click here for more on cleaning your guitar).

After cleaning the frets and wiping off any excess steel wool bits (hint: use a fridge magnet and a post-it note to collect any bits of metal from the steel wool you might have missed) then I just wipe down the fretboard with a very moist cloth.

How Often Should I Condition?

Like everything when it comes to ebony fretboard care, there is debate on how often you should condition. And it will somewhat depend on your own personal circumstances.

If you live in a very low humidity environment and you don’t have good humidity control going on then you might need to condition more often.

Recommendations for conditioning range from:

  • Every time you change your strings
  • Every two to three months
  • Twice per year
  • Once per year
  • Once every 2 years
  • Only if it looks like it needs it (sometimes damage is already done then though)
  • Never (your fingers will keep it conditioned if you play it enough)

Personally I condition once per year and it seems to do the job well. However, how often you condition depends on your own personal circumstances and your own beliefs in how often your fretboard needs it.

You can see some discussion on conditioning your ebony board here.

What are Guitar Fingerboards/Fretboards Typically Made Out of?

Ebony remains the most coveted fretboard wood given its sheer density and hardness that enhances articulation and sustain. Its striking black appearance also graces high-end guitars from Gibson and Fender. However, maple has emerged as an economical, eco-friendly alternative that provides tight grain rigidity for accurate fingering while boosting crisp high-end tone. For more exotic looks and complex harmonics, luxe woods like bubinga and ovangkol tantalize discerning players with their rarity and smooth playability that brings out a guitar’s lavish character.

Why Ebony Fretboards?

Dense and Hard for Crisp Playing

Ebony is very dense and hard. This helps make each note played sound separate and clear. When playing fast riffs or complex fingerpicking, the notes do not blend into one muddy sound. The ebony makes each note start and stop sharply. This crisp tone helps techniques like two-hand tapping and harmonics sound accurate. Ebony also stands up to repeated hard pressing along the frets without getting dents over many years of play.

Striking Black Appearance

Aside from how ebony sounds, it also looks elegant thanks to its deep black color and pretty brown grain lines. This visual contrast from the lighter maple neck and headstock is eye-catching on expensive guitars. Brands like Gibson use ebony boards on their high-end models, making those guitars feel extra fancy.

Many guitarists feel ebony gives their instrument added sophistication that energizes their inspiration. The smooth feel under their fingers connects them to legendary musicians from the past. Each ebony board has unique wood grain, making every one one-of-a-kind.

Rich, Complex Tones

While ebony starts notes firmly, the density also creates rewarding overtone colors. Ebony naturally emphasizes the basic notes played in chords, giving guitars a bold sound. When bending or vibrating notes, ebony makes extra soothing overtones bloom. This balances the crisp attack Ebony is known for. Lead guitarists love how ebony adds vocal-like quality to long notes. The wide frets common on ebony boards also make string bends easier.

Do Ebony Fretboards Need More Care and Maintenance Than Other Fretboards?

Ebony fretboards are revered for their density, hardness, and striking black aesthetic on fine guitars. However, their delicate oily surface demands greater routine conditioning than rosewood or maple to prevent drying and cracks. Let’s compare proper maintenance strategies for varied fret woods.

Challenges of Caring for Delicate Ebony

While ebony’s sheer hardness provides crisp note articulation, the tight wood grain lacks maple’s innate moisture content. Repeated playing quickly leeches out ebony’s intrinsic oils depleting its defenses against humidity swings.

Without vigilant upkeep, the bare wood grows brittle while pores manifest promoting contamination buildup. Sections of untreated ebony fade to a lifeless gray as pores harbor grime. Cracks then emerge unless restored with fretboard balms.

While all fret woods require cleaning, ebony is exceptionally vulnerable to drying. Maple boards forgive moderate neglect while rosewood slowly grayscales, yet ebony cracks within months sans oiling. Consequently, ebony guitars like Gibson’s Les Paul demand the most rigorous neck maintenance regiments.

Economical Maple Holds Tuning and Polish

Contrasting ebony’s fickle nature, hard rock maple fretboards thrive even under heavy use. Their rugged constitute resists warping while tight pores deter debris infiltration. Maple’s lighter appearance also hides scratches well.

A quick pass with steel wool removes dirt buildup. Beyond cleaning, oil finishes help maple retain sheen but aren’t imperative for protection. The principal maintenance concern is fret height checks after seasonal shifts. For guitarists who just want to play without fussy upkeep, maple excels.

Balancing Ebony’s Glory with Responsible Care

For players spellbound by ebony mystique and luxury aesthetic, proper maintenance ensures your investment sparkles for decades. While the additional effort pales beside the rewards, realizing ebony vulnerabilities is essential.

How to Get Rid of Grime on the Ebony Fretboard?

Ebony’s striking jet-black surface readily betrays any specks of dust or dirt, demanding diligent cleaning routines to maintain its sophisticated allure. While quality fretboard conditioners nourish the wood itself, directly eliminating filth requires targeted scrubbing. Arm yourself with a specialized cleaning arsenal and appropriate techniques to vanquish grime.

Tackling Superficial Gunk

For light oily residue or recent fingerprints marring your ebony board, grab a microfiber cloth to gently wipe away the gunk without grinding it deeper into the pores. The soft lint-free fabric lifts debris without scratching the smooth wood. Follow with a Conditioner-infused polish as a protective barrier.

Mineral oil-based cleaners work well too but require careful removal to prevent penetration deeper into the fret slots. Wipe across (not along) the frets to avoid driving crud underneath.

Deep Cleaning Old Dirt Buildup

Over time, accumulated skin oils, residue from string changes, and airborne dust cement into obstinate layers testing standard wipes’ cleaning efficacy. Now break out the big guns in your fretboard arsenal.

Naptha-based solutions effectively dissolve thick buildup and are harmless to wood when quickly removed post-application. Use tiny stiff-bristled brushes, toothpicks, or tape-wrapped razor blades to manually chip away at grime within the fret crevices.

Finish by massaging Fretboard Conditioner to revitalize the newly naked ebony and protect against fast recontamination. Store your ebony axe in a cool, controlled environment rather than out in a garage to slow future gunk accrual.

Advanced Care Tips for Ebony Fretboards

Ebony fretboards require specialized care to prevent drying, cracks, and discoloration over time. While quality cleaning and conditioning products are essential, managing environmental factors is also key.

Battling Low Humidity

Ebony is extremely sensitive to low humidity levels under 45%. The wood dries out rapidly causing pores to emerge and oxidation to set in. This manifests as faded gray blotches and hairline cracks if left unchecked. Besides regular oiling, utilize room humidifiers during dry winter months to keep your ebony board hydrated. Solid wood guitar cases with humidity control packs also buffer humidity swings.

Sunlight and UV Rays

Direct sun exposure accelerates the fading and drying of ebony boards. The UV radiation and heat leech out vital oils. When playing outdoors or storing instruments in bright spaces, have microfiber cloths handy to wipe down the neck before oils evaporate. You can apply UV-protectant sprays as a shield too.

Perfect Storage Conditions

Keep guitars with ebony fretboards in cool, dark spaces when not playing. Solid-top hard cases with plush interiors provide an ideal microclimate. For long-term storage, loosen strings to reduce neck tension and warp risk. Check periodically for any shrinkage or cracks needing prompt conditioning treatments. By controlling light and humidity exposure, you guard against accelerated aging.

Thanks for Reading

I hope this post has helped you to learn more about caring for your ebony fretboard. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer and there’s a lot of contradictory advice.

You might never do anything to care for your fretboard – like in the minimalist approach – or you might choose to be more active than that.

If you do take the minimalist approach you need to make sure you keep your guitar in a humidity-controlled environment, play your guitar regularly, and always clean your hands before you play.

If you can’t stick to these things (I know I don’t!) then it would pay to clean and polish your fretboard regularly. Personally, I clean once every 2 to 3 months and condition once per year but others do both at different intervals.

FAQs

Should you oil an ebony fret board?

Ebony is a dense and oily wood that naturally repels moisture. Though if your fretboard is dry, you’ll need to condition it. Just a very small amount should be applied and then it should be rubbed off with a clean paper towel straight after it’s been applied. Don’t let it sit on the fretboard for too long.
And be careful not to allow the oil to get under the frets (which shouldn’t be an issue if you’re careful to use just the slightest amount and wipe it off straight away).

When should I condition my ebony fret board?

Remember that ebony is a dense and oily wood, so excessive conditioning or over-application of products can have adverse effects. It’s important to use conditioners sparingly and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Should I use lemon oil on my ebony fret board?

Using lemon oil or any other type of oil on ebony can lead to a buildup of oil that can make the surface sticky or slippery. It can also darken the wood excessively. Remember to use sparingly, or use a conditioner for ebony.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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