How to Clean Rosewood Fretboard: 4 Tips and Tricks

Published Categorized as How To/Tips, Tuning Restringing & Maintenance

When we are out busy shredding it out in the field in our various ways, we could be forgiven for not thinking enough of guitar hygiene. Unless you are so inclined, cleaning is not often what we consider fun, especially when it gets in the way of something we most enjoy. Who among us hasn’t been tasked with a whole load of chores before being able to do what we want, whether by our parents or even at our jobs as adults? And for this to be getting in the way of my guitar playing? Get out of town!

But what if I were to tell you that in cleaning your guitar you would be showing it the respect and admiration it deserves, that you often show it simply in the way you think about it and so cherish it? And what if I were to add that in showing your instrument(s) this respect you would be making sure of their continued excellence, in tone and in their obeying of your musical will?

These are the facts, so it would certainly be best to come to enjoy this cleaning while you can, for it serves several purposes, all of which will benefit your playing and tone.

The rosewood fretboard in particular will be our focus today, for it doesn’t so obviously exhibit the grime that we are intending to ward off today, and thus can be easy to forget about or feel as though isn’t so important. However, for the reasons listed above as well as to come, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If left unattended and unnurtured, guitars of every kind can fall apart at the seams; they are just as much alive as anything made of wood, and ought to be paid the proper care and respect they deserve and require.

How to Clean Rosewood Fretboard: 4 Tips and Tricks

Table of Contents

Why Do We Need to Know How to Clean Rosewood Fretboard?

Guitars, like anything made from wood, and like the humans that play them, are sensitive. The climes they reside within can affect them, rapid changes in temperature or humidity, in fact, moisture of all kinds have a detrimental effect over time. That’s right, it’s not just the electronics that flag beneath the weight of water. Learning how to clean fretboard of your guitar is essential.

Alarm bells ought to be ringing resoundingly in the ears of those who are familiar with gigging, or even just going to concerts. Find a venue outside of the Western classical circuit that doesn’t regularly feature the glistening brows of musicians, throbbing hot beneath the white-hot floodlights and the pressure to play well. This same sweat so cinematically glistened by the lighting will, over time, find its way into just about every pore of the guitar, compromising the metal, the electronics, the wood, – just about every aspect of the guitar you can think of.

Other than perhaps the electronics, this is nowhere more prevalent on the guitar than on the fretboard, bearing the brunt of the fingers each time you play, upon which your dead skin stays, pickled as it is by your sweat which oxidizes and corrodes and wears thin the wood by default. This is a particular issue for the rosewood fretboard which, unlike ebony or maple fretboards, are more often than not untreated, unnecessary as it is to coat it in lacquer or protective finish.

So, you ought to be able to see why this is an issue of express importance for the rosewood fretboard above all! And, as mentioned before, because this is a darker wood visually, what dirt would otherwise have been perfectly obvious on a maple fretboard, for example, betrays itself far less on a rosewood fretboard.

The Consequences of Not Knowing How to Clean Rosewood Fretboard

When the consequences are so obviously laid out, it becomes difficult not to consider these issues as of the utmost importance:

  • Rusting and corroding of the guitar’s frets over time, exposed repeatedly and without intermission to the corrosive and damaging elements present within dead skin and sweat.
  • Warping and cracking of the rosewood fretboard and neck as a whole, exposed as above to these harmful and easily avoidable elements. By its very nature, the rosewood fretboard is almost always untreated with lacquer or protective layers of any kind, besides those rudimentary barriers acquired in the process of constructing and manufacturing the guitar; thus, it is especially pervious to these and other kinds of contaminants that, in lieu of such a protective shield, gnaw instantly and gradually at the rosewood fretboard.
  • This can have potentially existential implications. If left untended to, these effects will eventually leave the guitar in a state bordering on unplayable, or in a place where it may as well be:
  • Frets, welded so firmly as they are into the rosewood fretboard, as they are with all other kinds of fretboard, are very difficult to replace if rendered broken or rusted. In fact, you are more likely to have to consult a luthier or guitar technician, who will either offer you some guidance, or will otherwise proffer you some options to repair the frets.
  • As this is specialist advice, the prices even for consultation can be rather steep, so simply putting in the time and learning how to clean your own rosewood fretboard now will save you a whole heap of money in the long run, which you can otherwise use to further your creative ambitions, whether through the purchasing of new instruments or audio recording equipment.

You ought to be able to see the implications of not caring quite enough for your chosen instrument, perhaps even having a vision in your mind’s eye of your stead lying in disrepair. Unless you’re some sort of masochist who enjoys setting fire to their creative ambitions and finances, let us move on to how we might best protect the sanctity of your instrument by learning how to clean its rosewood fretboard.

How To Clean Rosewood Fretboard: 4 Tips And Tricks

Preventative Measures: Before Learning How to Clean a Rosewood Fretboard

Before we even begin to approach how best to clean the rosewood fretboard we can, together, look at some measures that anyone can easily engage with in order to reduce how regularly they need to clean said fretboard. These aren’t beyond the realms of anyone and can save you hours and similar amounts of money (if we are to think of these two things as mutually exclusive and equivalent).

Washing Your Hands

What with the current geo-socio-political climate and the seemingly impending apocalypse at the end of every single day as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, I would hope that all those reading this are sanitizing the requisite number of times per day, making sure to do so before and after entering each and every social space and only entering said space when necessary.

Unless you have a particular skin condition or other related ailment, you really can’t wash your hands enough, and I hope that the current state of affairs affecting everyone worldwide has gone some way to outlining just how easily undesirable germs can spread and how effective proper hygiene can be in preventing this spread.

Thus, a tip that is going to save you acres of time and money is to wash your hands before you play! It’s all too easy to succumb to the urge to play your guitar on impulse when you’re truly feeling it (whatever ‘it’ is), but washing your hands of any contaminants and grease goes a long way to reducing how regularly you need to do a deep clean of your rosewood fretboard.

Not only this, it also reduces how often you might need to change strings, coated as they can become by stray dirt, grease, grime, and contaminants when you don’t properly wash your hands before playing.

Washing your hands can do more harm than good, however, if you don’t properly dry your hands in between the washing and playing of the guitar. The very same process of oxidization and rusting that occurs from sweat and dried skin can just as easily be provoked, however gradually, by hands that are still moist from washing, so do make sure your appendages are adequately dried.

Room Temperature

We ought to be privy to this with regard to all instruments, and this is no exception with guitars of all varieties. This can particularly take its toll on the fretboard. A rosewood fretboard, untreated as it is with varnish, polyurethane, or lacquer, isn’t sealed from the elements or contaminants we have previously mentioned, meaning the fretboard overall remains in a porous state, almost alive.

This porous state means that, much like certain kinds of plants and trees, the fretboard will require a certain atmospheric ambient environment in order to thrive. For a rosewood fretboard, the ideal is for this environment to be as humid as possible, peaking in the 70% range, though ideally no less than 40%.

It’s in drier environments that the fretboard and the guitar in general suffer, so taking steps to keep the room in which you store your guitar(s) humid or storing your guitar(s) in case(s) is bound to keep your guitar and its adjoining rosewood fretboard in ship shape.

Materials Needed for Cleaning

Caring for your ebony fretboard requires having the right supplies on hand. While extensive cleaning kits exist, a few essential items will allow you to keep your guitar’s neck and frets in great shape.

Cleaning Solutions

Your fretboard cleaning arsenal should include a fretboard conditioner or polish. Options like lemon oil or fretboard wax help seal moisture out of the wood while adding a protective buffer against grime buildup from playing. The right product will clean frets while conditioning raw wood.

Isopropyl alcohol also proves useful for cleaning. A 50/50 mix with water on a soft cloth can remove stubborn dirt and residue. Avoid abrasives or cleaners with dyes, which could scratch or stain the ebony.

Cloths and Brushes

Have various soft cloths handy for applying cleaners and clearing dust. Microfiber cloths often work best, trapping rather than spreading grime. Brushes with soft nylon or horsehair bristles also help loosen debris between frets.

Avoid using paper towels or rougher terry cloths that could scratch ebony. Duster brushes with metal wires should also be avoided. The wrong materials can do more harm than good.

Other Handy Items

While not always essential, a few other convenient items to keep around include:

  • Masking tape to cover pickups, cavities, and other openings while cleaning
  • Cotton swabs for hard to reach fret crevices
  • A headlamp or other light for illuminating tight spaces
  • Lint-free gloves to avoid transferring skin oils and salts

With this shortlist of fundamental ebony fretboard cleaning materials – including suitable solutions, cloths, and brushes – you’ll be equipped to regularly care for your guitar’s neck and frets.

Step by Step: How to Clean the Rosewood Fretboard

No matter how strictly you adhere to the preventative measures listed above, there will always come a time when you will need to clean the rosewood fretboard. Follow these sequential steps to get it done as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Step 1: Remove the Strings from the Guitar

This step can be elided if you are in a rush or otherwise unable to remove the strings, perhaps for financial reasons. To ingrain the need to regularly clean the fretboard with the simultaneous need to equally as regularly change strings, it would be an idea to align these two things, so that you change the strings while nurturing the fretboard.

This all ought to be done with tact, however. Some older guitars might not benefit so much from the removal of all strings, such a drastic shift altering too much the equilibrium of string tension enacted by the truss rod. Thus, I would recommend in every instance of removing strings to only remove as many as you have to at once.

Personally, I try to only remove as many as half at any given time which, though not wholly ideal, leaves enough room to clean at least one half of the width of the rosewood fretboard at any given time, all the while maintaining the overall tension and action in the neck.

Step 2: Protect the Sensitive Guitar Parts

When cleaning an ebony fretboard, special care must be taken to avoid damaging sensitive electronic components or the guitar body. Simple precautions will safeguard delicate parts during the cleaning process.

Safeguarding Delicate Components

It’s vital to shield vulnerable guitar portions from potential harm while scrubbing and conditioning the fretboard. Exposure to liquids or debris can wreak havoc on pickups, wiring, the bridge and other precision mechanisms. A few prudent steps will avert inadvertent impairment.

Guitar Body

Protecting the guitar body itself is also important when cleaning the neck area. Liquids splashing inside soundholes or electronics cavities could create bigger issues down the road. Covering gaps with painter’s tape prevents cleaner seepage into the interior where it doesn’t belong. The tape can be easily removed once fretboard conditioning is complete.

Pickups

Guitar pickups harbor magnets and fragile copper windings that are highly sensitive to moisture and particles. A small amount of debris or residue in the wrong spot can drastically alter tone and volume. Shield all pickups completely before starting to clean using painter’s tape or shop towels. Don’t remove safeguards until the ebony conditioning process is fully finished.

Bridge

For guitars with tremolo bridges, special attention should be paid to the bridge mechanics. Small bits of metal wool or cleaning solution residue remaining on the bridge can impede proper function, reducing tuning stability. Thoroughly blow debris off metal bridge components or use compressed air before restringing your axe.

Step 3: Do an Initial Clean of the Fretboard

This will merely be a surface clean, to remove any of the more obvious pieces of dirt and dust so as not to clog the later stages with any unnecessary contaminants. This will be especially useful if the guitar has been hanging on a wall mount or otherwise outside of its case for an extended period, gathering dust and such in its static perch.

Use antiseptic wipes, alcohol or otherwise, to clean the surface layer of dirt and germs, taking one wipe and one fret at a time, as measuredly as you can muster.

Step 4: Use Steel Wool to Deal with Tougher Dirt

The more stubborn dirt will typically consist of dried skin fused together with sweat and thus will be a little more difficult to rid the rosewood fretboard of. At this point, I would recommend using the finest steel wool you can find, the optimum being #0000 grade steel wool, which will break down the dirt and grime without eroding away the frets themselves.

Gentle in terms of pressure, work the steel wool fret by fret into the rosewood fretboard, rubbing in circular motions to effectively ease the dirt out of its clinging.

For all its effectiveness in ridding the fretboard of filth, the steel wool also emits equally fine fibres which can harbour inside the guitar and seriously hinder its internal mechanisms. This is particularly true of guitars fitted with pickups, so I would recommend covering up the electrical aspects of your guitar while motioning the dirt from the rosewood fretboard, either with fabric of some kind or electrical tape if you have it to hand.

Step 5: Polish with Lemon Oil

Now that the rosewood fretboard is free of dirt and other contaminants, you will want to use lemon oil to condition the neck and set it up for further use. This will need to lemon oil specifically for guitars, as certain other types, like that used to polish furniture, contains additives which can be harmful to a rosewood fretboard.

This, however, doesn’t mean that lemon oil for guitars isn’t entirely destructive. It can, for example, completely deaden the action of your strings if it comes into serious contact with them, so proceed with caution if you intend to keep all or some of your strings on the guitar while cleaning the rosewood fretboard.

Add lemon oil liberally to any kind of cloth and rub into the fretboard, taking time to nurture each fret individually. Leave the lemon oil to soak into the rosewood fretboard for 1-15 minutes, shorter or longer periods depending on the condition of the fretboard. If it is particularly dry, warped and/or cracked, for example, you will want to leave the oil soaking for longer.

Step 7: Restring the Guitar

With the fretboard cleaned, conditioned, and protected, it’s time to put strings back on the guitar. Restringing properly ensures ideal tension on the newly nurtured neck while promoting full resonance.

The Process of Restringing

Approach restringing methodically, one string at a time. While all guitar strings install similarly, follow any specifications from the manufacturer. Strings come with ball-ends, knotted-ends, or plain non-terminated ends depending on the type and construction.

Start by feeding the plain “E” string through the tuning post hole on the bottom. Pull enough slack to reach the bridge, then feed the string through its slotted hole corresponding to its gauge/thickness. Finally, bend the string 90-degrees over the rear of the bridge to anchor it temporarily.

String Winding Technique

Use a string winder tool to efficiently wrap each string around its tuning post, saving fingers and time. Place the winder hole over the post, then turn clockwise while pulling the string taut. Aim for 3-5 wraps around each post for ideal stability and break-angle. Leave 2-3 tuners’ worth of post exposed.

Snip any excess string with pliers, leaving only 1-2mm. Finally, tune up to pitch using the tuning machines, checking intonation. Move methodically through this restringing process for each string, from the smallest high “E” to the largest low “E.”

Tuning After Restringing

Expect freshly installed strings to loosen more rapidly at first, stabilized with play and tension. As strings bed-in, retune as needed. Always tune up to pitch rather down to avoid slack and reduced tension.

Use a chromatic tuner, tuning the open strings first. Then check tuning harmonics, and fretting strings at the 5th and 7th frets. Adjust as needed until both spots produce the same pitch. Finally, play different fret positions, tuning string-to-string and adjusting intonation using the bridge saddles as required.

Final Tones

We ought to be able to see, looking back on all we’ve covered, that the guitar is indeed a highly sensitive entity. The fretboard alone can crumble if subjected to the wrong conditions, whether of climate, humidity, moisture, or a whole host of other things.

All of this, however, is not a totally set guide and will largely change depending on what kind of musician you are and what kind of contexts you typically play in. As with all aspects of learning at your own behest, particularly through online means, I would strongly urge you to cater these recommendations and nuggets of advice to your own experience.

If, for example, you are a guitarist who regularly plays live shows, tours with oneself or a band, or otherwise performs in sweaty and/or damp circumstances, you are likely going to want to perform this routine more regularly, perhaps every couple of months, of course, because your instrument and rosewood fretboard are going to be subjected to the elements far more.

If, however, you are a guitarist who performs more for themselves at home, storing your guitar regularly in the optimum conditions of humidity and temperature, then you are almost certainly going to have to engage with your guitar in this way far less frequently, a couple of times a year if any.

This is your guitar, so act accordingly and pay it care and due attention.

FAQ on How to Clean a Rosewood Fretboard

Can you clean a rosewood fretboard with water?

You certainly can, and it might be effective if you do it regularly enough that there is hardly ever any time for dirt to build up on the fretboard. However, for deeper cleans simply using water will not be enough, and at the very least you will need to use some type of steel wool or, at a loss for this, a toothbrush or wire brush of some kind, making sure to use those that are more fine as often as possible.

Is lemon oil good for rosewood fretboard?

Very much so, if you use lemon oil specifically manufactured for guitars. The botanical properties of the oil nourish the wood and condition it with hydration in between cleans, preventing the fretboard from drying out. If you were to use lemon oil more suited to polishing furniture, however, it could have a far more detrimental effect than the passage of time and sweat and dirt, owing to the presence of additives that wouldn’t be included in lemon oils for guitar.

Can you use olive oil on a rosewood fretboard?

No, olive oil should not be used on a rosewood fretboard. While it may provide some moisture, it can go rancid over time which can damage the wood. Stick to specially formulated fretboard oils and conditioners.

How do you moisturize a rosewood fretboard?

Use a fretboard conditioner or oil like lemon oil, tung oil, or other products designed specifically for the fretboard. Apply a few drops, let it soak in for 5-10 minutes, then thoroughly wipe off any excess oil with a clean cloth. Doing this every 1-2 months will keep the wood from drying out.

How do I make my rosewood fretboard smoother?

Use extremely fine grit sandpaper (2000+ grit) and gently buff the fretboard widthwise. Finish by rubbing fretboard conditioner or a high-quality polish into the wood to fill pores and smooth the surface. Check neck relief after to avoid buzzing strings. Go slowly and test often until desired smoothness is achieved.

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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