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Cleaning and conditioning the fretboard. We’ll start by cleaning the fretboard, and the first step here is to remove the strings. Yes, all of them! People often say, “Won’t removing all the strings at the same time damage the neck?” The fact is, it won’t. Wood has an excellent memory, so you don’t have to worry about removing all the strings to service your fretboard. Luthiers do it all the time.
There are several ways to clean a fretboard, and one approach is to use 0000 steel wool. This works great, especially when you want to make your frets shine, but it makes a big mess. Caution: Do not use steel wool on a maple fretboard that has a glossy finish. Rubbing steel wool on any finish will make it hazy.
If you decide to use steel wool, use only 0000 grade. This is the finest steel wool and will not damage the fretboard or frets. If you’re cleaning an electric guitar (or an acoustic with a magnetic soundhole pickup), cover the pickups with painter’s tape to prevent the steel fibers from collecting around the pole pieces. These very fine steel fibers can cause a pickup to corrode, and they also cause noise if they contact the strings.
Fig. 7. If you opt to clean your fretboard and polish its frets with 0000 steel wool, remember to vacuum up the fibers that inevitably shed during this procedure.
Apply a fretboard conditioner to the fretboard and gently rub the conditioner into the wood with the steel wool pad, turning it frequently. Move across the fretboard, cleaning the wood between the frets, and then work the pad along the side of each fret. Once the fretboard is clean, run the pad up and down along the top of the frets to polish them.
After cleaning the fretboard with steel wool, use a vacuum to carefully remove the steel fibers that inevitably shed from the pad (Fig. 7). Avoid getting the fibers on the guitar’s finish, as they can scratch it.
My preferred method for cleaning the fretboard is to use an old toothbrush and Planet Waves Hydrate, a type of fretboard conditioner. This approach is less messy than using steel wool, but it’s important to note that Hydrate is only for dark fretboards—don’t use it on maple ’boards.
Fig. 8. An alternative to steel wool: Clean the wood with a toothbrush and fretboard conditioner.
I like using a toothbrush because you can scrub all you want without damaging the wood or the frets. Simply spray Hydrate onto your fretboard and work it into the wood and around the frets with the toothbrush bristles (Fig. 8). Once the gunk is loosened, wipe it off with a paper towel. Also be sure you wipe off any excess conditioner to prevent it from coating the strings.
But the toothbrush technique won’t polish the frets. If you’re not too keen on using 0000 steel wool to do this (and I don’t blame you), Planet Waves makes a product called the Fret Polishing System. Basically, it’s super-fine polishing paper that’s packaged with a protective stiff paper template that covers the wood while exposing the fretwire. The template fits medium or jumbo frets and you can use the kit on maple or dark fretboards.