Guitar cleaner homemade

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Steps for Cleaning A Guitar Fingerboard with Conventional Household Items

Apparently, there is a lot of advice on how to clean a guitar fretboard with household items. Most of the suggested steps are good, while others are not. But, in general, most experts in the guitar industry agree on the recommendation to only use those cleaners that are formulated specially for cleaning up the fingerboard.

The main reason for this is that the fingerboard is usually not finished which basically means that they are not coated with varnish which would otherwise protect it from scratch, bugs and other damages

In addition to that, fretboards are usually made up of very dedicate Rosewood, and therefore it is essential that you utilize only specialized cleaners that are formulated specifically for this type of wood. Furthermore, it is also crucial that you employ the correct cleaning process, so you don’t damage the natural look and texture of your fretboard. Let’s start with what should not be used and then check the steps to clean the fingerboard with the most exceptional care:

Top 10 Acoustic Guitars: Check Out Here

What You Should Not Use to Clean A Fretboard Guitar

If you decide to clean the fretboard yourself, it is recommended not to use any of the wood polish cleaners ordered by the shop, including Pledge and similar polishes. Although many guitar owners will tell you that they have used Pledge, according to many experts, it may not be an ideal polish and may lead to a build-up of polish with wood damage after continuous application.

Abrasive cleaners that can remove dirt and impurities should be avoided as they can cause scratches and damage to the top of the fingerboard. Bleach or other cleaning agents containing heavy chemicals should be avoided at all costs. Dishwashing detergent is designed to degrease grease and essential oil, and while cleaning the fretboard, it can also destroy natural oils inside the wood, causing it to dry and decompose.

Natural household items such as vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and baking powder should be avoided. These are usually acidic and abrasive and irreparably damage the fretboard. However, vinegar and liquid hand dishwashing detergent can only be used to remove stubborn dirt if they are diluted.

Usually, do not use wax or polish on or around the fingerboard, but instead you can use oils to polish the wood surface. Essential lemon oil in its natural form affects the look and feel of the wood. Use a concentration of less than 1% and familiarize yourself with other components of the product that may severely damage your fretboard.

Steps for Cleaning A Guitar Fingerboard with Commercially Available Household Items

So, now that you know what you should not use to clean your fretboard, let’s get back to our main question – how to clean a guitar fretboard with household items.

Step 1 – Removing the strings

There is debate concerning which technique is best for removing strings. Some experts say that removing all strings at the same time affects the use of tension, while others say that it cannot do any damage. If you are worried about the tension, then its suggested first to remove only half of the strings, then replace them and then repeat the process.

Step 2 – Cleanup

Use a soft flannel cloth soaked in warm water to warm the water and wring out as much as possible. If you don’t have flannel, you can use your old t-shirt for this cleanup job because they usually have a fine texture and will definitely not cause any scratches. While cleaning its suggested to always move from top to bottom. The wetted cloth should dissolve all surface dirt but won’t be able to help you to get rid of any dirt or oily stains.

Finally, before the water dries up and leaves any marks, you should clean the surface with a dry cloth.

Step 3 – Steel Wool

The question of whether using steel wool for cleaning fretboard is a good idea or not is a topic of discussion among guitar users. Run your hands over the fretboard and feel for any grime that the wipe-down didn’t remove. These are the areas that you need steel wool for. Use only superfine steel wool – 0000 grade is the only choice. Anything else will scratch the wood. It is recommended to use a fretboard conditioner with the steel wool to condition the wood and protect it as you clean.

Cut a small piece to fit over the tip of your finger and very gently wipe at the grimy patches. Do NOT rub or scrub. Be careful to stop when the grime is removed and not to damage the wood surrounding the grimy patch. Use a soft paintbrush to brush away any steel wool fibers that remain.

Step 4 – Q-Tips

Use a q-tip dipped in warm water to remove dirt in hard to reach places such as along the frets or the saddle. If this fails to do the job, dip it in some of the fretboard conditioners or use a couple of drops of vinegar or liquid hand dishwashing detergent diluted in a cup of warm water. Wipe the fretboard with a damp cloth to remove the excess detergent and then a dry cloth to remove excess moisture. Always make sure to use a soft cloth. Microfiber cloths are great but can leave fibers behind which should be removed with the paintbrush.

Step 5 – Feed the Wood

Cleaning the fretboard will remove some of the natural oils from the wood resulting in dry wood that will crack or become damaged easily. Even if you are just wiping it down with a dry or damp cloth, you will be removing those essential oils. Wait for the fretboard to be entirely dry and apply a small amount of oil to the wood to feed it. Linseed oil as a great choice as is almond oil and mineral oil.

In some cases where there is little or no built-up grime, the oil will be sufficient to clean as well as feed the wood on the guitar fretboard. Allow the oil to draw into the wood for a few hours or even a day or two before replacing the strings. Do NOT use too much oil as this will simply make the fretboard oily. If the oil is not soaking into the wood, you have used too much. Wipe it down with a clean, dry cloth to absorb as much of the excess oil as possible. You may need to repeat the process a couple of times until the fretboard is no longer oily to the touch. Replace the strings.

If you are using a professional guitar fretboard cleaner or conditioner, you should not need to feed the wood after cleaning. If you are concerned about causing damage to the fretboard, have the guitar professionally cleaned.


I hope you will find this guide on how to clean a guitar fretboard with household items useful. As most of the steps and methods I have discussed in this guide are usually recommended by professional guitarists, you can try them without worrying about compromising the look and feel of your guitar.


Also Read: The Best Guitars for short fingers


How To Clean A Guitar Fretboard With Household Items?

How do you clean a guitar fretboard with household items?

I’ve been there, your guitar is looking dirty as it can be and you have none of those fancy products that they always want you to buy at every guitar store.

Do you just clean it with water? Perfume? How can you do so without damaging your instrument?

That is exactly what I will be talking about in this post.

Table of Contents

The quick answer is that the best way to clean a guitar fretboard with household items is to just use things like Q-tips or cotton swabs to remove the dirt that is specifically located to the side of the fret and use cotton balls (or even face-cleaning pads) for themiddle part in between frets. You should do this patiently with each fret and conveniently without any strings on your guitar. Using a little bit of water is usually preferred before using perfumes or any other liquid with chemicals that could potentially damage your guitar.

I have been playing guitar for many years and I have to say, a clean guitar really feels different and will even help your instrument last longer.

There are many ways in which you can clean your guitar without having to buy any product.

The next items that I’m going to list are some of those that won’t replace real guitar cleaning products but will keep your instrument in good shape.

Later on below, I will show you a step-by-step of how to use them to clean your fretboard.

1- Plain water

Yes, you read that right!

That same water that we drink every day and shower with.

Water could be a great alternative to most products that you could attempt to clean your guitar with, which could potentially damage it.

If in doubt, just use water!

Plain water is free, readily available, with no harsh chemicals, no fire hazard, no health hazards, and you won’t be needing any protective equipment.

But I’m not talking about spraying your entire guitar soaking wet, or anything drastic.

Simply grab a cotton ball or microfiber cloth, and with a bit of water, slowly and patiently clean each individual fret in your guitar.


Many people will debate that using water will give you trouble when removing heavy dirt that could potentially be on your guitar if you haven’t cleaned it in a while.

This is very true!

And if that’s the case and your guitar is in really bad shape, then you should use something else.

But, if your fretboard is not that dirty and just needs a quick clean up, then you can never go wrong this way.

2- Guitar picks, or some old plastic cards

This depends on how bad your fretboard is looking, if the dirt is so noticeable that you can see it, then it might be a good idea to scrape it a little bit before you apply any products.

Example of a dirty fretboard

Things like old plastic cards (ex: old credit cards) or your guitar picks (if they haven’t disappeared yet) could be very useful when doing this.

In my case, I will use a small piece of cardboard from a Listerine Pocketpaks package.

This one even came with the corners cut, which turned out to be a very good approach.

This Ibanez GIO that I’m using as an example, hasn’t been played in over a year. And to my surprise, it wasn’t that dirty since I’ve always kept it inside its bag.

You will want to horizontally push the dirt away, and if it is to close to the actual fret then just use one of the corners of the card or the top of your guitar picks to remove those.


This might sound a bit obvious but make sure that you don’t use a knife or anything that can scratch and leave marks on your fretboard.

You might be surprised at how many people have had this problem.

3- Using vegetable oil soap

Another thing that you can do is to see if you have vegetable oil soap around your house.

Notice I’m not talking about the vegetable oil that you use for cooking food in your house.

This is a special oil soap that is manufactured with water, coconut, plant-derived cleaning ingredients, natural fragrance, and 2% synthetic ingredients. It contains 98% naturally derived ingredients, pure vegetable oil and it’s very safe to use it on generally any wood type.

Here is an example:

Murphy oil soap for cleaning guitar fretboard

Murphy oil soap

People usually have these around the house, so it makes them a perfect alternative to professional guitar cleaning products.

This specific product cleans to a natural shine and does not contain any unnecessary chemicals.

Use a little bit of this oil soap with any cotton ball or microfiber cloth, and after cleaning all the hard dirt on your fretboard, this will give it a great shine and feel.

If there is a lot of dust, remove it beforehand, and then easily apply it until you are satisfied with the results.

The good thing about these types of wood cleaning products is that not only can you use it on your fretboard, but also on your guitar body and neck.


I’ve also read, among many positive comments, one person saying that your guitar might get sticky.

For me, this hasn’t been the case, but if you want to be sure this doesn’t happen to you, then you can either mix the oil soap with a bit of water, use really small amounts at a time, or slightly remove it with a dry microfiber cloth after you’re done.

Either way, most of the time, your guitar shouldn’t need an excessive amount of any product if you clean it regularly.

4- Lemon oil

Lemon oil is a great way to clean your fretboard as all the dirt will be removed very easily and it will allow the wood to shine again if it’s dried out.

You have to be careful, though, with what type of lemon oil you use.

I’m not talking about lemon juice or encouraging you to just slice a lemon and use that to clean your fretboard.

This is a different type of product and the lemon concentration has to be close to nothing.

If you have lemon oil around the house, then it is safe to use it on mostly rosewood or ebony fretboards (generally anything but maple fretboards).

But again, very important, make sure that you don’t use actual lemon juice, and that if you have lemon oil, it’s lemon concentration is not high.

Take a look at an actual product made specifically for guitar fretboards:

Dunlop 6554 Dunlop Ultimate Lemon Oil

They sell these Dunlop Fretboard Lemon Oil on Amazon and are very useful in keeping the dirt away with an invisible sealant that prevents stains and moisture.

If you want to check it out, I really encourage you to do so, this is one of the products I’ve used before, and it really does a great job.

You won’t be needing too much, this is not meant to be taken as the main product to clean the heavy dirt.

Rather, use it to give it its last touch of shine and moisture.

Without any exaggeration, one of these small bottles should last you, easily, more than one year.

5- Mineral spirits

Mineral spirits are very mild and won’t harm the finish. It’s worth a try as it’s awesome for getting sticky things off your fretboard.

You might be able to find it around your house!

A word of caution though…

If you do a quick search online, you will find, just like with any other product, a lot of uncertainty among guitar players on forums.

Cleaning your fretboard sporadically with mineral spirits is safe, but long exposure or even aggressive rubbing with the wrong type of mineral spirits can have unwanted effects on your fretboard.

So make sure to use these products as a quick alternative and not a lifetime solution until you find the right one made exactly for guitar fretboards.

Also, make sure to read what each of the products you use is made of. Usually, on the back of the bottle, it should list all the chemicals used.

Some of them will be marked as paint thinner or other specific titles containing chemicals that won’t really benefit your instrument in any way.

Different companies might also use different formulas or chemicals, so be aware of this before doing anything dangerous to your guitar.

The same thing applies to:

6- Naphtha

This product will be a little tricky to apply in small amounts because it will quickly evaporate, but that’s the way you want it to be.

Only use a little bit at a time as it will act as a way to remove oils from your fretboard. This will be very useful to clean up all the dirt that you leave with your own hands when playing.

But remember this…

Only use this product if you already have the appropriate oil to use right after, because if you don’t, then you will end up drying out your fretboard.

Like a few other items on this post, there are a lot of different opinions on using these liquids on guitars.

The grand majority of guitarists out there, though, don’t have anything negative to say about using this product, I’ve even seen brands recommend it, for example, Blueberry Guitars.

But I would still do some research based on the wood type that you are trying to clean, and how dirty your guitar is.

Products that you shouldn’t use

The list of products to not use is definitely longer than the list of products to use.

Many of the following products might pass as a very good alternative to cleaning your fretboard if, for example, you mix them with water or simply use just a little bit.

But due to many of them bringing a lot of uncertainty among guitar players, different opinions, and having different effects depending on the wood type, I will just list them as products that you should not use.

This will prevent you from using something that could potentially damage your instrument and will allow you to play it safe.

However, I do encourage you to do further research if one of them might seem like a good choice for you.

1- Furniture polish

I’ve read in more than one forum that using furniture polish is not the best thing to do.

People have shared that it tends to “dry out any exposed wood and it can permanently stain some kinds of finish.”

Researching around won’t bring any positive feedback either, so I would just stay away from it.

2- Bleach

Unless you’re intentionally trying to change the color of your fretboard, then do not use bleach under any circumstances.

You know is bad for a simple cleaning method, when you search it on Google and the only results you get are people asking how to make their fretboards a lighter color.

I would stay away from it.

3- Vinegar

Using vinegar is one of those products that also bring a lot of mixed feelings to the discussion.

You surely already know that white distilled vinegar is known to be an awesome household cleaner, and many people even use it on their fretboards.

But think about the smell…

Even if you use just a little bit, it tends to be a really strong smell, but many would argue that it goes away naturally within a few minutes.

I’ve never used it, and I will keep it that way for now.

4- Toothpaste

I’ve found toothpaste to also bring mixed emotions to this type of question.

Many guitar players have posted online how toothpaste has done wrong for them and they don’t know how to properly reverse the effects without further damage.

One thing you need to make clear with toothpaste is what exactly you want to achieve:

  • Are you cleaning just the frets, meaning the metal strings within the fretboard?
  • Are you trying to clean the wood?
  • Or are you attempting to do both?

That right there will give you a perfect way to redefine your search; the products won’t be the same when you’re trying to clean wood, versus trying to clean metal.

Humans have been using toothpaste to clean CD’s surface for as long as I remember, so for some folks, the same logic applies.

Toothpaste is helpful for the frets, (meaning, the metal parts that you see across your fretboard), but do not apply it on the wood.

And if you’re trying to polish the frets…

Make sure that you cover the wood with tape or just use a professional fretboard guard. 

5- Acetone

In many years of playing guitar, I’ve never seen, read, or heard anybody having a positive experience with pure acetone and their fretboards.

Acetone can be used as a powerful cleaner in many other cases, but it is extremely harsh to use it for this case in particular.

Some people argue that it can completely damage the fretboard finish.

Now, if you find yourself having acetone as your only option…

Then you might be able to just use one drop and mix it with water, but if I were you, I wouldn’t do this more than once.

6- Sandpaper

If in some situations, you cannot remove the dirt from the guitar with the help of anything, do not attempt to use sandpaper.

Even less if you are trying to clean the actual wood on the fretboard and not the frets.

You will literally scratch it and then the amount of work and time that you will need to spend to get it to look like it was, will be unreal.

Sandpaper tends to be useful in polishing the actual frets, but not the fretboard itself.

If you are planning on polishing the actual frets, make sure to use a fret guard or something similar to protect your equipment.

More on that right below.

Cleaning your guitar fretboard – Step by step

Now that you know about some of the products or items that you can and can’t use, let’s put it all together…

Step 1: Placing your guitar in a safe place

Before you even start to clean your guitar is very important that you place it in a way that you won’t damage it.

For example, do not try to clean your guitar on the floor.

Ibanez guitar placed on the floor

This will, most of the time, scratch your guitar’s body, and it will be very uncomfortable for you to even clean it properly.

What you can do, though, is to use a table and place your instrument over some bedsheets or something with a similar texture.

As you can see in these pictures, the guitar won’t be damaged or scratched in any way by the table’s surface and it’s just better for you to nicely work on it.

But why am I even saying all this?

Well, I used to clean my guitars anywhere I found convenient. From using the floor, to my own bed; I just wouldn’t recommend doing it like that.

Remember, you will be removing all the strings, which oftentimes, will leave small pieces all over the place.

Step 2: Removing all the strings

If you’re planning on doing a deep cleaning to your fretboard, then I would just encourage you to remove all the strings at once.

Even if you’re not planning on getting rid of them, it will be much better for you to have them all removed, rather than working your way up, one by one.

If you have never done this before, then the first thing you would need to do is loosen up each string as much as you can. Then depending on whether you want to reuse them or not, you would just cut them, or remove them carefully.

And just in case you’ve heard about the old debate on whether you should take all the strings off your guitar at once or not, I encourage you to watch this YouTube video.

Is It Safe To Take All The Strings Off Your Guitar At Once?

He talks about how it’s not that big of a deal to remove them all at once and how your guitar won’t get severely damaged at any point.

Step 3: Cleaning your fretboard

First of all, I want to talk about the terminology that I will use, just so that we are on the same page.

When I say “frets”, I will be referring to the strips of metal embedded on your guitar’s fretboard. And when I say “fretboard”, I mean to refer to only the wood.


The first thing that we will do is clean the frets.

Before we do so, we need to protect the wood. Some people like to use tape or a fret guard, like this one:

premium fretboard guards

Today, I’m not using any of those, but rather I’m making my own fret guard.

Making a fret guard

If you are interested in doing it as well, then the only thing you need is some sort of strong cardboard that bends, some scissors, and a pen.

Just go to the last fret of your guitar, and draw some measurements, just like in the picture above.

The reason we do this is that we will eventually be cleaning each one of the frets, and if you notice, they get bigger as you go further into the last frets.


After that, cut a hole in the middle, wide enough that it could entirely fit a fret.

Polishing the frets

Sometimes, even after cleaning the entire fretboard, you will find out that the frets are still dirty.

Just like in this image:

These stains are not very noticeable from far away (and most of the time you are not going to be doing all this work), but they are definitely there.

In this case, you could use a nail file together with some toothpaste (separately, and in this exact order) to clean the frets.

Important: Do not do this on the wood, you will scratch it. And if you’re using toothpaste, make sure to use extra protection on the wood such as low tack protective tape.

In my case, I’m only using a nail file to slowly and patiently get rid of the yellow stains.

Then with that same fret guard we just made, or a different piece of cardboard, I will start scraping all the heavy dirt on the guitar.

scraping your guitar fretboard

This guitar wasn’t too dirty, to begin with, but if yours is, then just do it like is being shown in the pictures above.

After that, you can just grab a small cotton ball, and start cleaning the fretboard.

Cleaning the fretboard

Since the main topic of this post is to only use household items, I will just be using water as of right now.

Notice I’m not going to be spraying it directly to the fretboard.

I’m putting a bit of water on the cotton ball, and then I will use that to clean the dirt.

To be completely transparent with you, water doesn’t remove as much dirt as you might think it would, and in my opinion, it just seems to dry the wood a bit too much.

Just so you can have an idea:

After I thought I had cleaned it with water perfectly, I decided to apply real products, and the dirt that kept coming out was unbelievable.

I used these two products from Dunlop’s 6500 System 65 Guitar Maintenance Kit:

If you want to check out the entire kit, I would highly recommend it. The best thing about it is that I bought this kit almost 2 years ago, and I still have it.

As to how to use them, the label itself helps you figure it out with the big-sized 01 and 02 and its directions on the back of the bottle.

First I just applied the Fingerboard Cleaner & Prep using a cotton ball.

Remember, you should generally never spray products directly on your guitar.

You will use way more than you need and is really not a safe thing to do to the fretboard wood.

After that, I applied the Fingerboard Deep Conditioner.

You should apply this product within each fret, one at a time, and then let it rest for a good five to ten minutes.

I always like to then get an unused cotton ball and remove any excess conditioner that I may have put by accident.

This is where most people go wrong; they put in way too much product and then say that it makes the fretboard sticky.

It doesn’t make the fretboard sticky, you’re just putting more than you should.

The reason I’m sharing this last part is simple.

You could get away with cleaning your guitar with household items a few times, but just like I said before, I don’t think you should rely on these methods all the time.

How to prevent your fretboard from getting dirty

Clean your hand before playing

This is something I don’t even do most of the time!


It will go a long way if before you play your instrument, you just clean your hands and get rid of any sweat or oil on them.

Your guitar will be much cleaner and you won’t have to be doing all this process all the time.

Don’t hang your guitar on a wall

I’m telling you this while I have a few of my guitars on the wall.

It looks good and to be honest, I will keep them there : )

But just know that a lot of dust will accumulate on your instrument over time, and this, combined with your sweat, is the perfect formula for a dirty guitar.

Clean your guitar after using it

Take a few seconds to clean it up after playing your guitar.

Just use a microfiber cloth or something similar and clean up the places that you would normally touch the most.

Doing these things is a great way of keeping your instrument in good shape.

Before you go

Make sure to check out our blog!

We have many other awesome posts like this one, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player, we surely have something that you will find interesting and useful.

You might learn a couple of guitar secrets as well!

As always, thank you so much for reading.

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Make Your Own Guitar Fretboard Cleaner And Polisher

Why buy something brand new if you can make it yourself?

When left to their own devices

How to make your own fretboard cleaner and polisher:

1. Locate your guitar.

Your guitar should meet one condition before you start this project: It should need to be restrung. If it doesn't need to be restrung; postpone this project. There's no sense in wasting still-good strings, right?

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Seward.

2. Dab vinegar onto a cotton ball.

Zoom 2. Dab vinegar onto a cotton ball. I use rice vinegar, but any neutral vinegar will do (don't use balsamic) because it is a wonderful cleaning agent. Rub the vinegar over the fret board carefully as you replace each string. Note: Never take all of your strings off at once while restringing. It could damage your neck and action. Each time you've finished cleaning a section of the fretboard, dab some olive oil on a cotton ball and repeat so that your fretboard is polished. Do this for the entire fretboard.

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Seward.

3. Enjoy! I've been using this little trick to clean and polish my fretboard (and the rest of my guitar) for 14 years now.

It's always worked like a charm and I can't imagine ever putting forth the money to buy a store-bought product that does the same job but uses more packaging, resources and who knows what chemicals.

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Seward.

Guitar Cleaning Hacks - How To Clean Guitars With Household Items - Encore Strat PT2 - DR-NERD

By Brian Michael
After playing, wipe your instrument clean (using a damp, soft cloth) of any body oils, sweat, or other nasty stuff it may have come in contact with. Pay special attention to the area where your arm rests at the edge of the top and the back of the neck because these are high contact areas. Some finishes are more impervious than others, but regular cleaning is a good habit to get into. (Trust me, your repair luthier will thank you. Sometimes guitars come into the shop with so much funk on them, I have to wear latex gloves and make sure my vaccinations are current just to work on them.)

Cleaning the Body

For cleaning most finishes, I use blue shop towels, which are softer than paper towels, and Novus No. 1 plastic cleaner. Some commercial guitar cleaners work great as well, however it is important to make sure you’re using a cleaner, and not a polish, which might leave a smeary residue behind. If your finish is French polish, heavily cracked, or flaking off, don’t put anything on it until you get a professional opinion. When a finish is clean, it should shine on its own without needing polish, which can leave a smeary residue. For stubborn build-up, Formula 409 will help cut through the grime and is safe for most finishes. If your finish is still hazy after cleaning, some light rubbing compound can be used to get the shine back. Keep in mind, though, anytime you buff or polish your guitar with an abrasive compound you are removing small amounts of finish, so use sparingly.

Fingerboard Conditioning

Your fingerboard sees a lot of action, so keeping it clean and well maintained is important for optimal playability. Keeping the fingernails on your fretting hand trimmed will help you play easier and prevent divots from forming in the wood between the strings. Oils from your fingers can dry out the wood, and dead skin can accumulate against the frets, making little oval-shaped patterns. Like your instrument’s finish, the fingerboard is easier to clean if you do it regularly. When the strings are off is a great time for a deep clean and fingerboard conditioning.

For built-up fingerboard grime, I like to use Formula 409 and an old toothbrush with the bristles cut down to make them stiffer. Spray the cleaner on evenly, making sure not to get any in the soundhole where it could stain the label. Then attack the buildup in a circular motion with your toothbrush. This can be messy, so keep some rags handy to wipe away the dirty liquid (see photo). When you have a nice clean fingerboard, let it dry and clean off the toothbrush. If your frets are a bit tarnished or oxidized, some 0000 steel wool will make them shine again. I like to run the steel wool along the grain of the fingerboard over the frets, not side to side along the length of the frets. Be careful using steel wool around the guitar’s top, because it can easily put light scratches in the finish. If your guitar is equipped with a magnetic soundhole pickup, a piece of masking tape will keep steel wool from collecting on the pole pieces. When your frets are nice and shiny, blow off the steel wool bits and you’re ready for the last step. After all that cleaning, your fingerboard may be a bit dry. Lemon oil or mineral oil will do the trick. Rub it in with a paper towel until the board looks good but is not saturated.

Acoustic Guitar July 2013

See more DIY Guitar Maintenance articles.


Homemade guitar cleaner

When was the last time you cleaned your guitar?  Not just a wipe down, but a full-on, deep clean like detailing a car.


You didn’t think a guitar needed that kind of care?

Get your gloves on and be prepared for a scrubbing down.  A good clean will help your guitar always look its best, sound true, and last longer.

We’ll tell you how it should be done with professional cleaners or some general household items.

If you want to cherish your investment, baby your guitar from top to bottom!

Get Setup!

Give yourself a good hour to correctly clean your guitar.  You’ll need a clean space to lay the guitar out and get your supplies in order.  You may want something soft like a towel to rest under the neck of the guitar for proper balance.

If you have an acoustic-electric guitar, you will want to cover up the sound hole with masking tape or something similar to make sure no particles from the steel wool or other cleaning compounds get into the sound hole.

Some professional items you may want for the process includes:

  • Fretboard conditioner
  • Polishing system
  • Wax polish
  • Lint-free microfiber cloth

Some general household items to gather:

  • Low tack tape
  • Soft bristle paintbrush
  • Steel wool
  • Q-tips
  • Old toothbrush
  • Duster/paper towels
  • Dish soap

How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar Fretboard

The first step is to remove all the strings.  Some people may be concerned with the release of tension by removing all the strings at once, but manufacturers will tell you it won’t hurt the guitar.

Once the strings are off, you’ll notice the fretboard will more than likely need a cleaning.  Use low tack tape on the body of the guitar alongside the fretboard on both sides.  Use the same tape to cover up the sound hole.

Run your fingers along the fretboard and get a feel for positive roughness and maybe some greasy spots.  You might also see grime and grit that won’t easily come off.  Now’s the time to breakout the steel wool and conditioner.

Most of the time, your fingerboard will be unfinished and probably made from rosewood.  Use a 0000 super-fine grade steel wool – anything more abrasive will scratch the fretboard.  You can use the steel wool alone to remove grime by running it down and up the fretboard in quick, light motions.

Use the paintbrush to brush away steel wool particles.

If you’re using a conditioner, apply a small amount to the polishing cloth to help with the cleaning, hydrate the wood, and prevent cracking in the future.  Rub it along the entire fretboard.  Use a clean part of the cloth and buff off the excess.

You can also apply this same method of cleaning to the bridge.  Remove the saddle and use q-tips for those hard to reach places like in the string holes and saddle slot.

How to clean a guitar with household items?  If you have an old toothbrush in your bathroom vanity, pull it out now.  Apply the conditioner and use the toothbrush to buff the fretboard and frets.  Wipe down any residue conditioner with a paper towel and the results should be a shiny, deep-colored, and restored fingerboard.

Professional products: You can purchase a guitar fret polishing system that only cleans the frets without touching the fingerboard.  It includes a template that covers the woods and exposes the frets.  An included polishing paper removes corrosion, dirt, and grime.

What About Lemon Oil?

During your quest to find the best guitar cleaning kits and products, no doubt you’ve come across the ‘lemon oil debate.’  Is it good for fretboards, or will it kill the wood?  It’s a debate that shouldn’t be a debate at all since the term ‘lemon oil’ is very general.

Pure lemon oil is bad for your guitar – end of story.  It’s great for disinfecting and cleaning in the house, but it’s very acidic and will dry out your guitar fretboard.

Most lemon oil guitar products have very little lemon oil, maybe 1% or less, if they contain any real lemon at all and are made up of mostly mineral oil.  These are the products that are typically safe for use on fretboards.  They’ll remove grime and grit, leave a gorgeous shine, and smell great.

Apply a small amount to a paper towel or cloth and rub it into the fretboard.  Use a clean side of the cloth and buff out the excess.

However, you never want to use any lemon oil products, with or without real lemon at all, on a maple fretboard.

Stay away from household and furniture wood cleaners.  Your guitar isn’t a piece of furniture, and it may be too abrasive for your precious tonewood.  If you’re tempted, use it at your own risk.  Additionally, some guitar products may contain petroleum distillates.

You’ll need to correctly air out your cleaning rags and cloths after the cleaning process.

Here’s a couple lemon oil products you may want to check out:

What About Vinegar?

White distilled vinegar is a great household cleaner that can be used on fretboards.  However, while effective, will you really enjoy the smell of a pickled guitar?  Okay, you won’t be using that much to be giving off an odor.  Long story short – it’s okay.  However, if you want a quick wipe to do the job, Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes are incredibly convenient.

How to Clean an Acoustic Guitar Body

Sometimes, all you need to clean the guitar body is a wipe down with a cloth, not a paper towel, a cloth.  A paper towel may be too abrasive.  Guitar polishing cloths are easily bought online, or you can use an old cotton t-shirt that’s been through the wash more times than you can count.

But, the main point here when cleaning the body is not what type of guitar it is, but what type of finish.

1. Raw/Unfinished Bodies

This section also includes vintage guitars.  Don’t use waxes or oil-based cleaners on a guitar that has a raw wood finish.  These products can cause shiny spots on your guitar over time.  The safe bet is to dampen a lint-free cloth with water and give it rub down with an appropriate amount of elbow grease.

If you really want to give it a new and vibrant look and get rid of the heavy grime that’s settled into the body, you’ll need to sand it down.  However, removing the natural patina (nice way of putting discoloration) that’s developed over years of playing to make it look like a glossy, shiny, and modern instrument will devalue your vintage guitar.

To avoid having to get out the sanding equipment, a little bit of naphtha which is a high-flash solvent (lighter fluid) and gentle on the guitar will do an excellent job at cleaning out the stubborn stuff.  It’s safe to use, and a lot of luthiers have it in the shop.

2. Satin/Matte Finishes

Use a water-based cleaner on these finishes if you want a little more kick than just plain water.  You always want to apply product to the cloth and not directly on the guitar unless the specific solution you have is safe to do so.

Don’t go overboard with wax or heavier cleaners as they will leave shiny splotches on your guitar body.  You don’t have to worry too much during this process since it does have a protective, waterproof finish, but it just doesn’t get buffed or polished later to assume a reflective finish.

3. Gloss Finishes

Water and some dish soap can easily do the trick here.  Spray some onto a cleaning cloth and get to work wiping and rubbing down the soundboard, sides, back, and neck.

Yes – don’t forget the neck!

A clean neck feels amazing and makes for better playing.  Store-bought solutions like Music Noman All-in-1 cleaner and Taylor Guitar Polish are excellent and safe to use, and they’re also great for finishes with lacquer, polyurethane, and varnish.

How to Wax a Guitar Body

Most guitars can benefit from a light coat of wax to keep those fingerprints and splotches off and easy to remove.  There’s a ton of waxes on the market, but a household and automotive item that’s safe to use is Turtle Wax Express Shine.

Ensure you avoid silicone-based and abrasive waxes and solutions for ‘detailing’ your guitar.  It’s safe for satin through to high gloss guitars.  Spray once onto your lint-free cloth and spread it across the entire body.

Open your cloth to the dry side and buff the guitar where you applied the wax – don’t forget the back of the neck.

What to Avoid

By now, you’ll realize there are a whole lot of products you can use and improvise with, but at the same time, there are products that you shouldn’t go near.

  • Household furniture products/cleaners
  • Silicone
  • Bleach
  • Lacquer thinner

While the strings are off, now’s the time to give the sound hole some maintenance love.  The inside isn’t treated with any finishes, so be sure that you haven’t accidentally sprayed any cleaning products or even water on the inside.

All it needs is a sock on the hand or a small towel/cloth and give it a brush down from any dust bunnies, cobwebs, or pennies that have found their way in there.

How to Clean Acoustic Guitar Strings

Changing out strings is a good time to give your guitar a thorough clean.  However, a deep guitar clean only needs to be done a couple times a year, and if you play quite often, string replacement should be happening a lot more frequently than that.  Not sure if you’re ready for a string change?

Check out our “When to Restring an Acoustic Guitar” guide to spot the signs.

But, what if your strings are relatively new and you don’t want to replace them just yet?

You don’t want to install new strings on a dirty fretboard.  They’ll pick up the grime from the fretboard when playing and will go dead 30% sooner than they would’ve if it had been cleaned.

Now that your fretboard should be clean, let’s go over how to clean acoustic guitar strings.

Many people recommend using regular alcohol like isopropyl, but it’s still an alcohol.  It’ll do a great cleaning job in getting between the coils of steel strings, but some of that is going to seep down into the fretboard that we know will dry it out, especially if you’re doing this often.

Additionally, don’t be surprised if your strings shriek after using alcohol on them – it’s a side-effect.

While we’re not against using string cleaners and solutions, they can’t compare to a new set.  They may be able to squeeze out a little bit more string life, but if the strings are rusted, no amount of cleaning can restore them.

However, there are some string cleaners that can certainly add their touch to breathe life into some strings that may soon need to be changed out.

Before then, get rid of the grime, sweat, and oil with Ernie Ball String Cleaner Wonder Wipes, Music Nomad String Fuel Cleaner and Lubricant, and GHS Fast-Fret String Cleaner.

A clean cloth will work too.  Use a dry lint-free microfiber cloth and pinch the guitar string and run it the cloth up and down from the bridge to the nut.  Be sure not to pinch the string out of its position at the nut.

Do this for each string.  Then place the cloth underneath all the strings and run it up and down on top of the fretboard for an extra wipe down.

Professional Guitar Products VS Household Items

Guitar products can get expensive when you’re tallying up the numbers for this and that when you’ve got multiple components that need their own supplies.  But, while you can get away with using some household items to get the job done, some can be harmful to the instrument you’re trying to protect.

Sometimes, all you need is what comes in a guitar maintenance kit.  Usually a full tool and repair kit is included that helps you to get the strings off and back on.  A small bottle of cleaner is included, and of course, the appropriate polishing cloth.  With the tools and Wonder Wipes included in the Ernie Ball Musician’s Tool Kit, all you’ll need to come up with is a spray bottle of water to help clean your guitar.  Then again, the Wonder Wipes can do that too.

The Dunlop System 65 Maintenance Kit includes five cleaners for the strings, neck, and body.  They’ve taken away the guess work in what products to use and have put them together in one guitar cleaning kit for value and your convenience.

Care for Your Guitar

A deep clean will always be easier if you’ve done maintenance cleaning over time.  Feel free to display your guitars on the wall or stands if the room is properly humidified.  If not, always store your guitar in its case.  Give it a good 10 second wipe down to remove smudges and the like before storing it away.

The small acts sure go a long way in having your instrument last a long time sounding and looking its best.

Further Reading:

Simon 'The Sound Junky' Lyon

Simon is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado. When he is not playing the guitar or listening to music he is either eating tacos or snoring too loudly.

Categories Guides, GuitarSours:
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Guitar Shop 101: Safe Ways to Clean Your Guitar's Finish

So far, we've explored ways to clean and condition your guitar with an emphasis on the fretboard, bridge, and hardware [“The Great Guitar Cleanup," December 2013]. We touched on caring for the finish, but this subject warrants further discussion.

Over time, sweat, dirt, and oils build up on the guitar's finish and slowly break it down. This causes the finish to develop a hazy film and become discolored. In addition, if your sweat has a high acid content (low PH balance), it can actually cause the finish to deteriorate, especially where you rest your arm. Sweat contains water, acids, salt, and several minerals that are corrosive to finishes and hardware. When you add in environmental issues, such as dust and pollen, it's no wonder our guitars get so filthy.

A little background. There are many different types of finishes used on stringed instruments. Vintage instruments typically sport nitrocellulose lacquer—a thin, hard finish that lets the wood resonate well. But nitro is also prone to checking and cracking over time (Fig. 1), especially when the instrument is exposed to sudden temperature and humidity changes. To combat this, many modern guitar builders and manufacturers cover their instruments with finishes that are more impervious to environmental conditions. These include urethane, acrylic, polyester, and epoxy formulations. In some cases, the switch from nitro is a way to save production costs, but builders can also be motivated by a desire to spray materials that are less harmful to the planet and workers. For example, in recent years there has been a trend toward UV-cured and water-based finishes, both of which reduce chemicals released into the atmosphere during production.

Fig. 2. A gloss finish (left) looks shiny and usually feels smooth and glass-like to the touch. Fig. 3. A satin finish (right) has a softer, less reflective sheen, allowing you to often feel the wood grain.

Modern finishes come in two styles: gloss and satin. Gloss finishes are shiny and have a glass-like look (Fig. 2), while satin finishes have a softer, hazy sheen (Fig. 3) and sometimes can actually feel "unfinished."

Cleaners and polishes. No matter what kind of finish is on your instrument, it's a good idea to keep it clean to prolong its life. There are hundreds of products on the market that claim to be the best for cleaning and polishing an instrument. The truth is many of them will cause the finish to slowly deteriorate. These cleaners contain petroleum products and solvents that can damage a nitrocellulose finish, and some polishes contain abrasives that will remove a vintage instrument's natural patina. The best guitar care products won't leave behind residue and do not contain solvents or petroleum products.

There's a debate about whether polishing a guitar is more harmful than helpful. When you polish a guitar, it creates a seal or coating that's intended to protect the finish. However, I've found that the outcome is more cosmetic than functional, and many finishes don't benefit from waxing or polishing. Polishes and waxes build up over time and can eventually dampen the sound of your guitar—almost like wrapping it in a bed sheet.

But that's not all: If your guitar has finish checking, polish will build up in the hairline cracks, and this can discolor the wood underneath or even cause the finish to flake off. Based on experience, I believe cleaning your guitar is more beneficial than polishing or waxing it. Polishing will make your guitar look better, but really doesn't benefit the finish other than making it shiny. If you feel compelled to polish your instrument, look for products that contain pure carnauba wax—it's the safest for your guitar.

Fig. 4. Professor Green's Instrument Polish (left) is a water-based "guitar soap" that cleans effectively and leaves no residue. Fig. 5. Planet Waves Hydrate (center) is formulated to condition and clean unfinished fretboards. Fig. 6. Naphtha (right)—the main ingredient in lighter fluid—is safe and effective for cleaning most finishes and hardware. However, it's toxic and flammable, so you must carefully follow the manufacturer's directions.

Three products I've found to be both safe and effective for cleaning a guitar's finish are Professor Green's Instrument Polish (Fig. 4), Planet Waves Hydrate (Fig. 5), and naphtha (Fig. 6). Though each is radically different, they can all be used with a damp cloth.

Here's the breakdown: Professor Green's Instrument Polish is a natural, water-based liquid cleaner with no harsh chemicals. I'd classify it as "guitar soap" rather than a modern polish. It does an excellent job cleaning dirt, oil, sweat, and oxidation. Being water based, it's very easy to clean up without leaving any residue.

Planet Waves Hydrate fretboard conditioner is a paraffinic hydrocarbon-based liquid. Effective for removing dirt and oils from most any finish and unfinished fretboards, it's non-toxic and non-flammable.

Which is not the case for naphtha—essentially lighter fluid. It is a gentle and high-flash solvent that's safe for most finishes. (Naphtha-saturated Q-tips do a great job cleaning rusty saddles and bridge hardware.) However, naphtha fumes and liquid are toxic to humans, so if you use it, I recommend wearing a mask and gloves. It's highly flammable, so avoid open flames!

No matter what brand or type of cleaner you choose, always avoid those that contain silicone, heavy waxes, lacquer thinner, bleach, etc. Household furniture polish and all-purpose cleaners—such as Pine Sol, Windex, and 409—will also damage your finish. The only household product that's safe to use to clean your guitar is white distilled vinegar. It will clean the finish, but do you really want a guitar that smells like a pickle?

Fig. 7. A damp paper towel (left) or microfiber cloth works well to clean a guitar's finish. Fig. 8. Use a Q-tip (right) to clean hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

Cleaning the finish. When cleaning your guitar, I recommend using a damp paper towel or microfiber cloth. Spray or dab a little cleaner on the towel and gently wipe away the dirt (Fig. 7). Avoid saturating your guitar with water. It's okay to use a lightly damp cloth, but don't waterlog it. Use a Q-tip for those hard-to-reach areas (Fig. 8). Once the guitar is clean, go over it once more with a clean, damp cloth. That's it—quick and simple.

Polishing a gloss finish. If there are a lot of light scratches and swirl marks in a gloss finish, you need to decide if it's worth buffing them out. This really depends on how old the guitar is and what type of finish it has. If it's a fairly new guitar, it's okay to use a gentle buffing compound, such as Meguiar's M85 Mirror Glaze or Planet Waves Restore (Fig. 9), with a microfiber cloth to remove these marks. Keep in mind that every time you use any compound to buff out a finish, you are removing finish, so use polish sparingly and with great discretion.

Fig. 9. Buffing compounds can remove swirl marks and light scratches in a gloss finish,

but you should never buff or polish a satin finish.

Please note: If your guitar has a satin finish, never buff or polish it. Cleaning is fine, but buffing and polishing a satin finish will make it look blotchy.

Another cautionary note: If you have a vintage instrument with a nitro finish, be aware that as a normal part of the aging process, most nitro finishes will change color and develop a sheen or patina. When cleaning a vintage guitar, go easy—you simply want to remove the dirt, oils, and sweat. The underlying patina adds to the instrument's value, and removing it to make the finish shiny and pretty will devalue your guitar.

[Updated 7/25/21]

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