Late Night DIY: A Critique on Cleaning Guitars

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Just received my November Guitar Player mag today (moved (again) so they are forwarding it since GP takes forever to change the address, even online) and I have to take a couple of issues with the Chatter column by Gary Brawer.

He’s talking about cleaning your guitar, specifically metal and bare wood surfaces. His tip for metal, which he got from reader Kirkwood Rough, was to remove the part and soak it in ammonia and scrub it with a toothbrush to get all the gunk off. He does caution you to use rubber gloves and have good ventilation. (Ya think!!!) This does work well but it’s a little like cleaning your guitar with toxic waste! I have done this – once – in the past and it was not an enjoyable experience. I have never done it again and I don’t recommend it for the novice repairman. Not that I don’t think you could get it done without hurting yourselves, but it’s nasty, stinky, caustic and you have to stay away from anything else you might not want to mar with the ammonia. This would be better suited for cleaning junk car parts.

Naphtha, what I recommend, is really pretty benign as a chemical and I have never had it damage anything so you can leave parts on the guitar if you have to. I use it without gloves and don’t have a problem. I don’t usually use it at the kitchen table but that’s not to say you couldn’t if you have no other work area. It IS flammable (lighter fluid), so keep that in mind when you use it, and the fumes may be objectionable to some but it is really superior for this purpose than using ammonia. If you have a problem with the naphtha, use alcohol.

Next he says: “When I am done cleaning a metal part, I coat it with a thin layer of something like WD-40 to protect it from sweat and further oxidation.” WD-40 is fish oil. Yes, made from fish. It is also a water attractor. That’s why it works great on your car’s ignition system if you get it wet – it draws the moisture out. In our case, it will not protect the metal for very long and will actually concentrate your sweat and cause the metal to corrode faster! Don’t get me wrong, WD is a great product and I use it for all kinds of things but this is not one of them. Sewing machine oil or air tool oil (I use 3-in-One oil) will do a much better job of protecting the parts and lubricating anything movable, like trem pivots, at the same time. (Remember, I soak my parts in Lucas Oil Additive to protect them and then oil the moving parts with 3-in-One oil. It has anti-corrosion additives.)

1To make my point, here’s a pic of my Ibanez, the first guitar I did in DIY, now hanging around for more than three months in the wet sea air of the Oregon coast and was not cleaned for the picture. Look at the gleam on that stop bar. (No flash and I just took that pic 1 minute ago.)

As amateur guitar techs, please don’t use any harsh chemicals on your guitars. There are a ton of good things to use that will cause no harm to your guitar, and more importantly, to you.

In fairness, I will say that Gary is a professional and runs a shop in San Francisco so he knows what he’s doing and has the appropriate work environment to make use of what he needs to in order to clean and repair some probable disasters that come into his shop. I just think there are better ways to go when you are working at the kitchen table and lacking years of experience.

Let’s talk about the bare wood surfaces, which would mainly be the fingerboard. I never use steel wool. Why? Because it gets everywhere. And I mean everywhere! You’ll find it in your underwear if you aren’t careful. I am a tried and true Scotch Brite Pad user. It works as well, without the mess and will do an admirable job of polishing your frets. If you have a finished maple board, tape off between frets with some blue tape and polish away.

My maple neck Strat has a lot of the finish worn off so I do nothing to it but keep it clean. It will wear naturally and get those dark spots where you play the most. A rosewood board is typically not finished, although I have seen them finished a time or two. The unfinished boards will dry out over time and, in extreme cases, can crack – but that’s pretty rare. The treatment for this is plain ol’ linseed oil. Put a small amount on a rag and work it into the wood. Do not over oil. If you pour it on, two things will happen. One, you wind up with a sticky mess that you will have to remove. Two, you might saturate the fret slots which softens the wood and releases your frets. Can you say ‘new finger board’? Neither of these are good situations.

As an alternative, use one of the commercial guitar oils from StewMac or Big Bends made just for this purpose. GHS also has an all-in-one Fretboard Conditioning Cloth that cleans and conditions at the same time. All these products will work but you must follow the directions for good results.

That’s it. Use the weakest chemicals that will do job when cleaning and use fingerboard oil sparingly and you won’t go wrong. Until next time…

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Doug Knight

Our “Man on the Street” reporter, with his “What’s New in Music Stores?” series, resides in Coos Bay, OR. You can find him on Friday nights at The Small Events Center at OrCoast Music in Coos Bay.

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