Condition (oil) your fretboard, or not?

A question we’re often asked concerns “oiling the fretboard” on a guitar.
While it’s not necessary on a “sealed” fretboard (such as a maple fretboard that has had lacquer applied over the wood -think Fender & Rickenbacker here), unsealed fretboards can benefit from having a little oil applied.
We’ll mostly discuss Lemon Oil here, the most common type of oil applied.

First off, why use it at all? Well, turns out that guitars like a relative humidity of around 55%. Get much drier than that, say 45%, and the wood will shrink and crack. This mainly applies to the drier parts of the world (the Midwest USA and Prairie Provinces in Canada come to mind – the winters there can be murder on guitars, and most shops and homes will have humidifiers running 24/7).
In this arid situation, even on your solidbody guitar, the fretboard can crack, and the fret ends can protrude past the neck edge, due to the wood on the neck shrinking from lack of moisture.
In this situation, if you have a solid-wood acoustic guitar you need a humidifier or else one of those handy (& cheap!) gadgets that fit in your guitar case and which provides moisture to your guitar.

Here in Ireland we have the opposite problem, usually more than 80% relative humidity. At Freya Guitars we run a dehumidifier most of the year to help keep this under control. However, your fretboard can dry out over time and it’s attractive grain structure can start to fade or disappear if it gets too dry.
Rubbing a little oil into your fretboard can keep it looking fresh and new, and prevent a few problems that may surface as your guitar ages.

Anyway, back to oiling the fretboard. Best to have your strings removed for this, as it gives you easy access to the fretboard.
The choice of oil is important. Most people will use Lemon Oil, as it has a pleasant or neutral odour and applies easily. Other oils, such as Tung oil, are used for sealing wood, as in the case of smoke-damaged furniture where you can smell the smoke for ages after the original damage. Tung oil will seal the odour of smoke into the wood so’s you can’t smell it. I’ve seen people use Linseed Oil, WD-40, margarine and even butter…….hmmm……
To apply the oil, put a little bit on a soft, lint-free cloth and rub it evenly into your fretboard. Wait a few minutes until it has soaked into the wood, then wipe off the excess and let it dry a little.
That’s essentially it. Do it every six months and you should be fine.
Not only are you preserving your fretboard, but even here in a damp climate like ours you will have the pleasure of seeing a deep lustre in your fretboard and see the grain of the wood coming through.
It feels different too. Your fingers won’t stick to the fretboard quite as much when you bend a string either.

It must be mentioned here that you should always wipe down your strings, top & bottom, after playing. This will also remove a lot of gunk that will otherwise stick to your fretboard. We see a lot of guitars coming in for service with dried-out fretboards and with dried-in perspiration everywhere. It goes without saying that this dried-in gunk should be removed before you oil a fretboard.
Yup, we’ll do it, but it costs you money due to the amount of time it takes to do it properly – if it’s really gunked up it can take an hour or more to clean.
Yes, we do understand that a really well-used and filthy guitar is testament to the time you’ve spent practising, gigging & jamming, and that it’s got some of your DNA in it, but really, it’s not good for your guitar and if you decide to sell it on, a lot of buyers will be put off. After all, would you like to spend your time rubbing someone else’s sweat & germs into your body?
Keeping your fretboard clean can save you money and will ensure that as your guitar ages it will become a friend and a thing of beauty you will cherish.

Note: Ernie Ball recommends gun oil for their guitars with unsealed maple ‘boards, and the same principles apply. We would always recommend you use whatever the manufacturer suggests, if there is a specific requirement. Check your owner’s manual, or the “Support” section on the manufacturer’s website.

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