Vintage guitars always feel smooth and responsive. Wouldn’t it be nice if a new instrument felt the same way when you took the stage?
Guitar necks often feel sticky on the fretting hand, especially when the instrument is given a high-gloss finish.
Any neck can reach this condition because of sweat and grime, especially if you play it daily. Although this buildup is removable, you must follow a specific process to ensure the instrument’s value is maintained.
How to Make Your Guitar Neck Less Sticky
Glossy buildup causes the guitar neck to become sticky, especially when combined with skin oils, dirt, and debris. Use a non-scratch scrubbing pad to remove as much as possible. Additional stickiness can be removed by using 0000 steel wool pads as the material will take the finish down past the problem.
Many guitars today ship with a thick polyester finish that covers the neck. This option causes friction on the hand while sliding it up and down to hit chords and notes.
Before you start the scrubbing work, you’ll want to clean the neck thoroughly. The best product to use is naphtha or another gentle solvent rated to be gentle with most surfaces. Once you have the item secured, these steps will lead to a successful experience.
- Create a clean working environment. You’ll want to remove anything that could cause dust or debris to blow into the working area.
- Protect the instrument by placing a plastic bag over the guitar, sealed with painter’s tape, to prevent any materials from affecting the body.
- If you have a bolt-on neck, it might be easier to remove it instead of covering the body with protective materials.
- Get a clean cloth damp with a little of the solvent. It works better to use cotton polishing cloths or a microfiber towel for this step.
- Wipe the neck down with the solvent using light strokes. Turn the cloth or towel while working to prevent the removed dirt from returning to the guitar.
- Avoid rubbing hard. Doing so will cause the neck to become more polished and glossier, making it potentially stickier.
- Scuff the finish, but the protective barrier must remain to ensure moisture doesn’t reach the neck’s wood.
- Using 0000 steel wool, lightly rub the back of the neck along the natural grain to remove the sticking sensation. You’ll burn through the finish with too much pressure.
- If you have any parts of the finish that feel uneven, you can use 600-grit sandpaper to correct the high spots. Unless you have no other option, don’t use 400-grit or stronger because it’s too easy to go all the way through to the wood.
Once you’ve taken those steps, it helps to brush any loose material away from the guitar to ensure your work stays clean.
When you’re confident that everything is working as it should, you can bolt on the neck or remove the protective materials from the body.
Steps to Follow When Sanding a Guitar
Before you get started sanding the guitar’s neck, you’ll want to have it lying face down while supported by a rest. I’ve found it’s easier to work without the strings on the instrument, but some people don’t care about taking them off.
Once you’ve got the instrument stable, you’ll need to tape off the headstock and body. Don’t try to freehand the job. It’s remarkably easy to scrub the wrong spot, even when you consciously try to avoid doing that.
Some people like to tape off the fretboard binding before sanding. I don’t take this step, but it might be necessary if you’re working with an exotic wood combination.
At this point, you’re ready to do the sanding work.
- Most sanding sheets for guitar work can be used wet or dry. It’s usually better to do it with some water because it acts as a lubricant, providing a suspension for the residue particles.
- Dunk the sanding sheet in a water-soap mixture. Use circular motions to address the finish along the neck, using light pressure throughout the process.
- Keep rinsing the sandpaper sheets as they clog up with residue. You’ll need to repeat this step often to maximize your investment.
- Wipe the back of the guitar neck frequently with a microfiber cloth to ensure you’re not going to deep into the finish.
- Once you get all the scratches from the first grit sanded away, you’ll want to move to a finer one. If you start at 2400-grit, you’d go to 3200-grit.
- Keep moving up until you reach 4000-grit. Go over it one more time, ensuring that the neck feels smooth instead of sticky. Keep going until you achieve that result.
- Wipe the neck down one last time to check the results. Your thumb should run over the lacquer with a noticeable difference.
Once you’ve finished the sanding work, you’ll need to remove the painter’s tape. Depending on the finishes thickness, you might see a visible contrast between the sanded and unsanded portions. If it is visually bothersome, you can repeat the sanding steps to create a transition at the lines.
Try This Old Luthier Trick for a Better Guitar Neck
Although sandpaper and solvents work well to reduce stickiness on a guitar neck, there is a lot of risk to consider when using those products. If you’re too strong with your rubbing or application, you can end up going right through the finish.
When that happens, your only fix is to refinish the guitar so that it looks and feels as it should.
An old luthier trick I use to work on my guitar necks is to substitute pumice stone powder for the sandpaper.
It provides a very fine abrasive that leaves everything feeling silky smooth. I use a little lemon oil, a dusting of the powder, and then rub that into the neck with long strokes until the results come.
When I want something closer to a vintage or relic look, I like to rub just a little charcoal powder into the pumice stone. If I’m going for a more solid finish, I’ll use a poly satin gel instead.
If you have any finish on your fingerboard, you’ll want to work on that area to prevent additional stickiness. You’ll want to avoid sanding perpendicular to the frets to ensure your string bending remains smooth.
Working the fingerboard gives you the chance to polish or buff the frets while working on everything.
What If I Have an Unfinished Neck That Feels Sticky?
If you have an unfinished neck, you might want to keep the wood in that state because of how it feels. Although the idea seems like a good one, a finish-free design is not recommended. It won’t be as stable, which means you’ll be doing tons of adjustments to achieve the sound you want.
When you’ve stripped off a thick finish too far because it was feeling sticky, you’ll want to treat the guitar neck as if it were unfinished.
I love using Birchwood Casey satin oil finish to give the guitar a traditional look in these circumstances. It fills in the grains when you’re wet sanding, applying evenly and easily on virtually all wood types.
You’ll get a high-gloss finish with this finish. It delivers comprehensive results with minimal effort.
Although it dries slowly and requires multiple coats to reach a usable state, the time investment is worth it when you’ve got a sticky guitar. It’s a job you’ll only need to do once when you get everything right.
If you prefer to mix your own finish, an amber shellac product does a great job. You can rub it in with a lint-free cloth until the neck becomes smooth.
Even if you get it on a little thick, a bit of denatured alcohol lets you fix the issue without needing to start over or finish some cumbersome tasks.
What If My Guitar Neck Is Still Sticky?
Even when you set up a guitar correctly and sand off the finish, some entry-level instruments still feel sticky. In that situation, you likely have a fret problem. Cheap alloys tend to rust faster and collect dust more often, causing your movements to drag. You might even have finish on them.
All fretboards receive the same finish as the rest of the neck. When the manufacturer is diligent about the creative process, they’ll mask the frets off or finish the wood before completing the work.
When that step isn’t completed appropriately, the finish gets on the frets. That’s why a guitar can still feel sticky even after you’ve completed the steps to make the neck feel smooth and silky.
I’ve always found that acoustic guitars tend to be the worst offenders for that sticky feeling. I think it’s because of how much skin oil gets deposited on the neck as you grind your fingers into the strings. I’ve never had it as bad on my electric guitars.
For those situations, some hot water with soap is all you need to get everything clean and ready to play.
When there is a finish issue, you’ll want to use the techniques described above to get that worn-in look and feel for the guitar.
Before you go through all this work, I highly recommend having the humidity levels checked at home. When there’s a lot of environmental moisture, you can end up with sticky frets that resolve when the air dries out some.
If you’re working on an electric guitar, it also helps to cover the pickups and any other hole on the instrument to prevent tiny steel wool or dust particles from infiltrating the instrument.