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Guitar Shop 101: Safe Ways to Clean Your Guitar's Finish

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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.

Based on experience, I believe cleaning your guitar is more beneficial than polishing or waxing it.

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.

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