Guitar Polish: 3 Basic Cleaning Techniques

Published Categorized as Care and Maintenance, Tuning Restringing & Maintenance

So, you are worried about the state of your guitar after a long string of gigs, or perhaps you just bought a guitar second-hand and are unhappy with the state you received it in? Or you might simply want to give your steed some tender loving care!

In any case, welcome to this comprehensive guide to using a guitar cleaning kit to clean the three main areas of the guitar that are the main culprits for taking a beating, as well as just how to properly use guitar polish.

Guitar Polish: 3 Basic Cleaning Techniques

Table of Contents

1. How to Clean the Fretboard

Since you can simply use a damp cloth to clean a maple fretboard, we are going to focus today on ebony and rosewood fretboards which can’t be so easily cleaned.

1st Step – Removing the Strings

You can ignore this if you are in a rush or unable for whatever reason to remove the guitar strings, such as for financial reasons. However, I might suggest that to encourage the need to clean the fretboard regularly alongside the need to regularly change the strings on your guitar, it might be a wise idea to align these two things. This will allow you to change the strings, use string cleaner, and nurture the fretboard in one fell swoop.

Heed this advice with care, though, as the case will be different for all instruments… Some older guitars, for example, might not benefit from the removal of all the strings as much, for such a drastic shift might alter the delicate balance of string tension instilled by the truss rod too much.

To get the best of both nurturing your strings and your string tension, I would recommend only removing as many strings as is necessary at any one time. Ideally, only about half the strings at once, which, though not entirely ideal, leaves enough breathing space to clean at least one half of the fretboard at any given time, all while maintaining the oh-so-important and delicate tension and action in the neck.

2nd Step – First Clean of the Fretboard

Since this will only be a surface guitar clean with the aim of removing any more obvious pieces of dirt and dust and grime – so that the later stages are clotted with as few extra contaminants as possible – you need not fret over this stage too much. You can just as easily do such a surface clean with a damp cloth as with a professional solution from guitar cleaning kits.

This step will be of particular use if the guitar in question has been hanging on a wall mount or outside of its case for a longer period of time, thus attracting dust in its motionless and unprotected state.

At most you will want to use antiseptic wipes or rubbing alcohol to clean the surface layer of germs and dirt. Take one wipe and one fret at a time as carefully as you can manage.

3rd Step – More Considered Clean

Now that the surface layer of dirt and dust is out of the way, you will want to begin tackling the more stubborn bits. These will usually be comprised of dried skin fused pickled with sweat, fused together in such a way that makes it inherently more difficult to clean the fretboard off.

After using a damp cloth, I would recommend using the finest steel wool you can find, the optimum being a #0000-grade steel wool, which will seek to break down the tough dirt without tearing away the frets themselves.

Gently work the steel wool, taking each fret as it comes and working through the whole fretboard. Rub in circular motions to more or less ease the dirt out of the surface and weaken its clutches.

Though it can be incredibly useful and well adapted to rid a fretboard of dirt, steel wool also emits microscopic fibers. These can cling to the inside of the guitar and affect the internal mechanisms and hardware of the guitar. This can be especially true for guitars that come with pickups, including an electric guitar.

Thus I would recommend, before using any such steel wool, covering up the electrical components of the guitar while you perform this stage, either with wool and/or some kind of tape, whether it be specialist electrical tape or not.

4th Step – Using Guitar Polish

At this stage, the fretboard ought to be free of dirt and dust at a deeper level, so you will likely need to use lemon oil to moisturize the fretboard and thus set it on a good track. You will specifically require a lemon oil formulated for guitars, as there are certainly other types that contain additives that can be harmful to a fretboard.

These include but are not limited to more pure types of lemon oil (actual lemon oil) and those lemon oils that are designed for polished furniture.

Even lemon oil that is formulated for use with guitars can be destructive in its own way. For example, if it comes into prolonged contact with the strings, it can completely deaden their action, especially if you use too much lemon, to begin with.

Thus, it is always best to proceed with caution if you are going to keep some of the strings on your guitar while cleaning the fretboard at this stage.

Simply add lemon oil liberally to any cloth you have to hand, then rub it gently into the fretboard, making enough time so that you can tend to each fret individually. Then, leave the oil to soak into the rosewood fretboard for 1 – 15 minutes. You can leave it for shorter periods if this is only a routine use of guitar polish, or for longer if the fretboard is in need of considerable care and moisturizing.

2. How to Clean the Body

Though the process will vary somewhat between different kinds of finishes on the body of the guitar, the act of guitar cleaning and using guitar polishes on your guitar body will be mostly the same between instruments.

An acoustic guitar or electric guitar with a more glossy guitar finish is going to be more receptive to being polished.  Thankfully these are the kind of finishes that many mass-produced guitars will be fitted with.Most likely because they bestow upon it a glossy protective layer between the wood and the world.

You can use just about any guitar polish for such a guitar’s finish. Make sure to use delicate circular movements and, if possible, a dedicated cloth for the procedure, one that has already been rid of dust and extra dirt.

However, you should try to steer clear of lemon oil guitar body polish that is either too pure or is specifically formulated to be used on household furniture.

It is not hard to see how one might be confused by the ceaseless droves of similar-sounding products. However,  simply stopping and using a bit more of an analytical eye will allow you to save a lot of money in the long run.

Those guitars that come fitted with a matte or satin finish ought to be treated rather differently. Nevertheless you should seek to only ever clean them with a dry cloth. It is all too common and in fact inevitable for matte finishes like these to wear away after a time. This will happen typically in the spots where your hand is most coming into contact with the instrument.

Thus, using a polish and/or wax on a finish like this is only going to exacerbate the problem, so make sure to only use a dry cloth. Or, at the very most, slightly damp cloth if in need of a really thorough clean.

3. How to Clean the Guitar Hardware

Cleaning the hardware of a guitar is a little bit of a different affair, and is likely one of the parts of the guitar most afflicted with the oxidization and corrosion that can so easily affect most of the other parts of the guitar.

Seeing as the hardware is more often made of metal than these other elements, it is thus more susceptible to this oxidization process.It is also incredibly sensitive to cleaning and polishing processes.

The guitar bridge and the pickups and the frets are on the front line of this oxidization process and are thus going to be the parts of the guitar most commonly afflicted. At least in terms of hardware.

Since these are some of the most important parts of the guitar in terms of playability, it is, therefore, best to deal with them delicately and with care. Use a soft cloth and only a very small amount of guitar polish.

While the cloth will bring the shine back, worked in gentle circular motions, the polish will seek to lift any dirt on the surface. All of which will be carried away by the aforementioned gentle motions.

It is crucial at this point not to leave any guitar polish or any residue of it on the surface of the hardware which you have been cleaning.  This can just as easily encourage the oxidization and rusting process, leading you to take one step forward and two steps back.

Areas that might otherwise be a little too hard to reach with a cloth can easily be tackled by using a cotton bud, using the same amount of polish that you might otherwise use.

Why Use Guitar Polish?

Like most things made from wood, guitars and the musicians that play them are sensitive, and the atmosphere in which they live can really affect them. Rapid changes in humidity or temperature, or moisture of all kinds, that are uncatered for can have a very detrimental effect if left untreated for a while. It certainly is not just electronics that play up when exposed to water, far from it.

If you are in any way familiar with gigging, or in any way attending concerts, then you already should be aware of where this is going. For you would be dealt an almost impossible task to find a venue outside of the Western classical circles that don’t regularly play host to the shining brows of musicians, throbbing underneath the hot white floodlights for your entertainment.

The same sweat so heralded by idolaters far and wide will, over time and if left untreated, make its way into just about every opening of an instrument. This will compromise not just the wood, but any kind of metal and electronic component aboard the ship.

This compromise is nowhere more prevalent on the guitar than on the guitar fretboard and the surface hardware. Both bear the brunt of sweat and grime each time their owner decides to play, going on to embed dried skin into the cracks. This will,  in turn, be pickled by sweat, which will oxidize, corrode, and wear the wood thin.

And this is a hopeful prognosis – just imagine how this can get for a rosewood fretboard, which, unlike a maple or ebony fretboard, is more often than not treated with an extra lacquer/protective finish which might layer it up from the aforementioned damages.

Here, however, we can see the benefits of using guitar polish to protect our steeds from damages such as these and save us all a hell of a lot of money in the long run, which is what it is all about after all.

What Can Happen if We Don’t Use Guitar Polish Regularly?

If left untended for extended periods without a guitar polish of some kind, there will be a gradual corroding and rusting of the frets. They will be repeatedly exposed to the corrosively damaging elements present in dead skin and sweat, and left to bear these two elements long term without a proper scrub. Both of which will be imbibed deep within the porous wood of the fretboard and elsewhere if left to their own devices.

If left unchecked for a particularly long period of time in a more drastic environment, perhaps one whose humidity is incompatible with that preferable for the wood on your particular instrument, then there is a high chance the fretboard and neck can warp and crack, for they exposed at length to these harmful though easily avoidable elements.

If we take the rosewood fretboard as an example, we can see that, by its very nature in being so porous, it is usually left untreated by its luthiers. Lacking protective lacquer layers of any kind, besides any layers that might have been acquired in the process of its construction.

A rosewood fretboard is particularly susceptible to these contaminants which, without an extra protective layer, tear slowly and painfully into the fretboard layers.

Following on, if we now take the example of the frets, we can see that not only are they laid firmly into the guitar’s fretboard wood, but that this means it can be very arduous to replace them if they end up rusted or broken.

In most instances, you are going to have to consult a professional luthier or guitar technician. They will either offer you guidance or some options as to how to repair the frets.

Any professional guidance like this is going to set you back by an amount of your hard-earned cash, which it should, considering you are seeking professional advice. They have to put bread on the table somehow!

Washing Your Hands

Everyone ought to clean their guitar with guitar polish from time to time. However, there are some pretty simple methods by which you can negate just how much and how often you need to do a thorough clean of your instrument.

Seeing as the whole world is on very thin ice owing to a pandemic that will not be named, I would hope that those reading this are at the very least sanitizing the usual number of times per day. Especially before and after the usual activities, ensuring to do so prior to and following entry into each and every social space.

You really can’t wash your hands enough at the moment, unless of course you are ailed by a particular skin condition like eczema which is going to cause you grief.

Thus, I hope that the current pandemic has at least gone some way to evidencing just how easily germs can spread between us and, therefore, how effective proper hygiene can be in preventing them from spreading.

And this is especially true for the guitar. Our hands see an awful lot in a day, grabbing food and dirty surfaces like it is nobody’s business. Introducing these contaminants to the guitar, as we have seen, can only mean bad news.

Thus, washing your hands before you pick up your axe will save you a lot of money on strings and guitar polish in the future.

Ignore the Impulse

It is very easy to, and difficult to deny falling prey to the urge to play the guitar on impulse when you are feeling it. However, as we have already outlined, washing your hands of any grease and grime, and bacteria, before you pick up your steed, can considerably reduce how regularly you need to do a deep clean with guitar polish.

Not to mention reducing how often you need to invest in new strings which can often be worn down and dulled by the grease that your fingers harbor.

However, if not done right, the act of washing your hands can actually do more harm than good. If, for example, you do not properly dry your hands after washing them and before playing the guitar, we encourage the very same process of oxidization and rusting that can occur from sweat and dried skin.

This can be just as easily provoked, however more gradually, by hands that are still moist from being washed.

So, if you have just washed your hands and are itching to get back on with playing your guitar, do make sure your fingers are properly dried beforehand, preferably waiting at least five minutes.

No matter how dry they can seem on the surface, there will likely still be moisture within the deep of the skin which can have just as detrimental an effect on the state and sanctity of the fretboard.

Guitar Polish: 3 Basic Cleaning Techniques

Keeping Your Guitar in a Case

Since the temperature of the room in which a guitar is torn can have a significant impact on the wear and tear of the instrument it’s something we ought to be privy of. This is something that can affect all instruments and is no exception with guitars of all varieties you can fathom.

A fretboard that is untreated with varnish, lacquer, polyurethane, or even guitar polish and thus is not sealed from the contaminants mentioned previously can be far more susceptible to wear. Seeing as the wood is left in an open and porous state, which is perfect for tone but not so perfect if you are looking to keep your guitar going for a long time and are known to gig with your instrument.

A guitar’s fretboard being in a porous state will mean that, as with most kinds of plants and trees, a fretboard will thrive in a certain atmospheric ambient environment of humidity.

If we take, again, the example of a rosewood fretboard, then the ideal ambiance is for this environment to be as humid as possible. Ideally peaking in the 70% range, though at least and no less than 40%.

It is in drier environments that the fretboard will suffer, thus by taking steps to keep the room where your guitar is stored humid. Or alternatively storing your guitar in a case with a carefully considered atmospheric environment, is going to keep your guitar and especially the fretboard in ship shape for as long as is humanly possible.

Final Tones

So, there you have it!

Hopefully, this comprehensive guide through the ins and outs of guitar polish and how best to use it on the three troublesome centers of the guitar has been of some use to you, whether in helping you decide whether or not you want to clean your guitar, or whether it indeed helped you through each step of the process!

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What can I use to polish my guitar?

The ideal candidate is lemon oil, though there are several kinds and you will want to make sure you are using the right kind on your precious guitar, lest there be major consequences to the health of your steed. Purer forms of lemon oil, for example, such as those that are derived solely from cold-pressed lemon peels, should be avoided at all costs, as they can, in high quantities, dry out the guitar’s fretboard considerably. Lemon oil polish that is aimed at the polishing of furniture should, likewise, be avoided. Lemon oil that is fit to be a guitar polish will contain very little actual lemon oil, other than that needed to break down the dirt on the surface of the fretboard.

Is guitar polish necessary?

I suppose guitar polish is not entirely necessary, especially if you follow some of the preventative measures around, though using the right polish on your steed can only be a good thing for its longevity. You might, however, simply wish to wash your hands a bit more. Just thinking about all the dirt and grease that your hands come into contact with on an hourly basis is enough to make any guitar’s fretboard weep, thus properly sanitizing your hands before and after playing your steed can only be a good thing.

Which is the best guitar polish?

As with almost anything regarding anything, there is no one ultimate guitar polish, for what is good for one guitar will not necessarily be equally as good for another. Some fretboards and bodies, for example, might respond better to solutions that contain slightly more lemon oil or might indeed require the extra amount so as to break down the surface dirt. On the other hand, the very same solution might do some serious damage to another kind of guitar, prone as this other kind of guitar might be to the strength of some lemon oil guitar polish.

How do you polish a guitar?

The polishing of a guitar comes in three or four steps. The first step is somewhat optional, mostly seeking to rid the surface of any dust and light dirt with a damp cloth. The second step is where the real fun begins, wherein you will want to use a ball of steel wool with as fine a grain as you can muster, working in circular motions against all of the dirt on the surface. Finally, you will want to apply the guitar polish just as carefully and leave it to set into the grain for as long as is required.

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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