It doesn’t have an official name, but we all know what it is. After you’ve played the guitar for some time, you’ll see what looks like water stains develop on the fingerboard.
Most of those stains congregate around the frets. If you have rosewood or something lighter, the dark lines become quite noticeable.
The marks aren’t as noticeable when you play on an ebony fingerboard, but they’re still there!
This guide takes you through the simple steps needed to clean and oil your fretboard. Although fingerboard oils are sometimes called “snake oil,” most of them deliver the outcomes you want for your instrument.
Is Fingerboard Oil “Snake Oil?”
Fingerboard oil (or fretboard oil) is useful and can moisturize, condition, and beautify wood on a guitar. Almost all versions of this product are made of mineral oil. Some of them are labeled as lemon oil, although you’ll want to avoid items that only contain lemon perfumes. Fragrances can dry out the wood.
When you play the guitar consistently, your skin oil eventually makes its way to settle along the frets on the fingerboard.
That sticky substance does a fantastic job of collecting dirt and debris. When you add a little sweat into that recipe, you’ll see what looks like water stains develop on the fretboard.
Although some musicians see these stains as a badge of honor, they can also become unsightly if the buildup is allowed to continue.
They won’t be directly harmful to the instrument either, but the issue could create unwanted stickiness.
It only takes about 15 minutes once or twice per year to give your fingerboard a thorough cleaning. Here are the steps you’ll follow to have a successful experience.
■ Steps to Take When Cleaning a Guitar’s Fingerboard
- Take all the strings off the tuners. You don’t need to remove them entirely from the instrument. The goal is to expose the fingerboard without having them in the way.
- Stuff something into the guitar’s soundhole so that you don’t accidentally drop oil, tissues, or other items into the instrument.
- Use your preferred fingerboard oil by applying some of it on a folded paper towel.
- Wipe the oil on the fingerboard’s face. You can have it come into contact with the frets. You don’t want so much that it runs over the edge and down the neck, but if that happens, wipe it away with a new towel.
- Let the oil sit for about five minutes.
- After you’ve let the fingerboard oil site, use new paper towels to buff the wood. Apply firm pressure in a circular motion, wiping away as much as possible from each fret. Don’t forget about getting into the corners where the frets create edges.
- Allow the fretboard to dry before stringing and re-tuning the guitar.
■ What If the Gunk Doesn’t Come off My Fingerboard?
If you haven’t cleaned your fingerboard in years, you might encounter a problem where the skin oil is too congealed with dirt and debris. A simple paper towel with your preferred oil won’t do the trick in that circumstance.
You’ll need to apply some fingerboard oil to the corner of an abrasive dish sponge. The best product to use for this cleaning need are those designed for scratch-sensitive surfaces.
An S.O.S. pad (or any steel wool product) would potentially damage your fingerboard.
After applying the oil to the sponge, lightly scrub at the unwanted marks. You can go right to the edge of each fret to ensure it gets cleaned.
Once you’re satisfied with the results, use a clean paper towel to remove the excess oil and grime.
Depending on the severity of the issue, you might need to clean it up a second or third time with the dish sponge.
The Best Fingerboard Oil Products to Use Today
When I need to condition my guitar, I have a few go-to products that I like to use. Since I play a variety of different models, I try to have the following items kept in stock to meet each instrument’s unique needs.
|Best All-Around Fingerboard Oil:||• I love using this fingerboard oil for my rosewood and ebony surfaces. |
• It does an excellent job of penetrating into unfinished wood and drying hard to create improvements to the playing surface.
• Since it doesn’t get tacky when exposed to heat, the original application is easily repairable.
|Best Hydration Fingerboard Oil:||• When I only need to remove some dirt or grime from a fingerboard, I turn to this oil. |
• It’s a unique formulation that restores the moisture to the instrument to prevent cracking without causing buildup problems.
• Instead of pouring it out, it comes in a helpful spray container for quick work.
|Best Fingerboard Cleaning Kit:||• Instead of stocking up on individual supplies when it is time to clean a guitar, a kit with everything you need is helpful to purchase. |
• I turn to this combination of lemon oil and guitar polish in that situation.
• The polishing cloths do an excellent job of buffing things out so that the fingerboard shines with a showroom finish.
|Best Overall Conditioning Fingerboard Oil:||• With this 100% natural oil, you can clean, condition, and protect almost any guitar. |
• It doesn’t contain any lemon extract, petroleum, or wax, making it suitable for my sensitive maple fingerboards.
• It dries fast, so you’ll want to be prepared for a quick buff once it’s applied.
|Best Extract-Based Fingerboard Oil:||• This fingerboard oil comes with emulsifiers, antioxidants, and a proprietary blend of plant-based oils in a mineral oil solution. |
• By clogging the pores in the wood, you create a buffer in products that could split or crack.
• I love using this high-quality solution during my restoration efforts.
• It’s done an excellent job taking care of the old Yamaha I found at a thrift store for pennies.
|Best Fingerboard Finishing Oil:||• When a tired fingerboard needs new life, I turn to this product. |
• It does an excellent job of beautifying and preserving the wood and the guitar’s bridges, leaving a smooth feeling behind.
• You can’t use it on finished fretboards, maple, or bridges, but it will remove that scratchy feeling that makes it seem like you could get a splinter while playing immediately.
When you look at today’s best fingerboard oil products, you’ll find that most of them are essentially mineral oil.
Mineral oil is oily, colorless, and almost tasteless. It’s also a water-insoluble liquid.
If it is strong enough to remove wax or gum from hair, it can certainly provide the same benefit to a guitar.
When you have a lot of instruments to manage at home or with your job, it might make more sense to invest in bulk mineral oil instead of buying small containers of fingerboard oil.
If that’s your situation today, I recommend the UltraPro mineral oil that’s NSF-approved.
Since the UltraPro product is a food-grade mineral oil, it can restore wooden cutting boards – including bamboo.
It’s also unscented, which means you won’t need to worry about a fragrance drying out your fingerboard.
You might consider allowing this mineral oil to sit for up to ten minutes instead of five when cleaning a guitar.
It will restore the luster and shine while preventing drying and cracking. It’ll even mask the light scratches that could be on your instrument.
A Final Thought on Fingerboard Oil Being Snake Oil
Fingerboard oil is sometimes called “snake oil” because some labels only use mineral oil. Since you can purchase the latter product separately, it is sometimes cheaper to shop in the grocery section than the music store to get what you need. Make sure to only use a 100% pure product on a guitar when cleaning it.
I would recommend wearing gloves when cleaning a guitar. Although mineral oil products are useful for treating everything from sunburns to diaper rash, I’m allergic to it. My skin breaks out in hives upon contact.
That’s not a great scenario to encounter when you’re trying to clean a guitar. With simple gloves, like the ones you can find at the doctor’s office, the issue is easily preventable.
Some people might experience redness, stinging, or irritation when coming into contact with mineral oil products. If that effect persists or worsens, you should speak with your doctor right away.
Although you can use pure mineral oil on virtually any fingerboard, I like to use different products for unique surfaces.
I’ve found that taking this customized approach gives me a better result, especially on my instruments with pau ferro.
Paper towels are the best choice because they don’t leave lint behind. Even the cloths that tend to be labeled as lint-free get caught in the frets at times and rip, leaving strands behind. It’s much easier to remove paper shreds.
I clean my instruments once per quarter. If you don’t play the guitar much, you could probably use fingerboard oil once per year and be fine.
In either scenario, I think you’ll find it is easier to play on a clean instrument.