Episode 020: Facts of Fretboard Care

Myths abound about caring for your bass fretboard. Let’s cut to the facts.

Music: JahzzarPlease Listen CarefullyspinningmerkabaUrbana-Metronica (wooh-yeah mix). Image courtesy Dávid Kótai (CC-BY-SA).

Show notes

First, thanks to our listener Darrell Denlinger for suggesting this topic:
“I am amazed at the amount of disagreement on this subject:

  • Use lemon oil
  • Never use lemon oil
  • Never use mineral oil
  • Use (product X)
  • (Product X) ruined my fingerboard…”

Our focus: Clear up the myths and talk about facts and expert opinions, especially those that come from the luthiers themselves.

What kind of fingerboard do you favor, and how often do you take care of it?

  • Dave:
    • Now just maple
    • Light clean during string changes and usually a quick wipe down after long use
  • Paul: Most of my basses have maple fretboards.
    • I have a few rosewood equipped basses. I condition only about once a year, or whenever I see it start to develop faded areas, or if I detect a little bit of fret protrusion on the sides. That last bit is unusual and a sign that it’s more of a problem and maybe I haven’t been good about scheduling that care.

What kind of care products do you use?

  • Dave:
    • Lightly dampened cotton rag, toothbrush
  • Paul:
    • I didn’t know better and used Murphy’s oil soap once upon a time. The soap unfortunately tends to dry out the wood. Unless you really neglect your instrument and it goes way south, you can rescue the fretboard by using a mineral or lemon oil to recondition it. Nowadays I use the right tool for the right job which is an oil based product.

Assumptions:

  • Very important: You should not need to do anything to a maple fretboard, other than possibly clean around the frets with an untreated cloth or a soft toothbrush. Almost without exception, maple boards are sealed and shouldn’t be oiled or scrubbed on.
  • A lot of fretboards that need care are rosewood but there’s also other materials, like mahogany, wenge, and ebony. Almost all of these can be cared for similarly. You shouldn’t be trying to condition any sealed fretboard. You can tell sealed fretboards because they’re literally glossy to look at. If you’re in doubt, consult the guitar manufacturer or builder.

Myths:

  • You should condition the fretboard every time you change strings.
    • Only if you change strings annually or less often. It’s just not necessary in most conditions. It probably doesn’t hurt to condition a couple times a year, but if you change strings more often than that, don’t condition every time since it may risk making your fretboard too oily feeling, or encourage build-up near the frets. Once a year is plenty for most fretboards. But do listen to what the builder recommends for a boutique instrument.
  • Lemon oil is bad for your fretboard, because it’s acidic!
    • A lemon oil product intended for fretboard maintenance will work fine. The kind of lemon oil sold for instrument care isn’t the same as the kind you find in cooking or other products. It’s about 99% mineral oil, and only part of the remaining 1% is a lemon essence to give that nice smell. It isn’t at all bad for your fretboard.
  • Let the oil soak in overnight or for a day, or a week…
    • Really only need to let it sit for a minute or two, and don’t overuse. In addition to visible tiny ridges, wood has microscopic gaps and pores that allow the oil to infiltrate. It’ll get all it needs in just a few minutes. Then you can wipe it off.
  • You have to use a microfiber cloth to wipe the fretboard!
    • Not really. You can use any soft, clean, lint-free cloth that’s semi-absorbent and pulls away most of the remaining oil. A paper towel is a bad idea because it generally leaves residue around the frets or on the wood.
  • You should only wipe the fretboard with/against the grain.
    • Funny part is you find both of these equally, and it really doesn’t matter for wiping the oil away. It does matter for fine sanding, but that’s not what we’re talking about. A cloth won’t damage the wood, much less on the annual basis we’re talking about. With, against, and/or in circles are fine, because the point here is to get the remaining oil off the wood. Either way, some small portion of the oil permeates the wood
    • Steel wool is not for general cleaning and conditioning; it’s way too harsh. It can and often will damage your fretboard, especially over time. It’s for extreme circumstances only, or if your goal is for example sanding or stripping.
  • Any others?

DAVE: We didn’t talk about necks here, just fingerboards or fretboards. We’re planning to cover the neck in a future episode, so if you haven’t subscribed, do that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *