Cleaning and polishing your guitar, bass, or mandolin isn’t exactly rocket science. So, why write a blog post about it? Because over my years of professionally repairing guitars, customers would often ask the best way clean and polish the instrument, usually because they noticed that just squirting some guitar polish on their guitar didn't give them the result they'd hoped for.
Here are some of the tips I gave my customers for polishing their guitars.
The first thing to keep in mind is that cleaning and polishing are two different things. If you are in the habit of polishing the finish on your guitar regularly, you probably won’t need to worry much about cleaning grime off the instrument. But if your instrument has gotten a bit dirty, you need to remove the grime before you can effectively polish the finish. Otherwise, you’re just polishing dirt. You can think of polishing a guitar a little bit like waxing a car. You want to wash the car before waxing it. Sometimes, you'll need to clean your guitar before you can effectively polish it.
Most guitar polishes available at your local music store aren’t cleaners. They are just polishes. You can think of them a little like car wax. They just help enhance the shine of the finish and provide a level of protection.
However, there is one product that I found to be an excellent cleaner and polish all in one, and after I found it, I used it almost exclusively in the shop. It cleaned and polished all but the grimiest instruments in one shot. It’s StewMac’s Preservation Polish.
If you don’t have Preservation Polish, or you have a particularly dirty instrument, you’ll need to use a cleaning agent. The best universal cleaner for guitar finishes is naphtha. You can get it at any hardware store. (You could also use Zippo lighter fluid, because believe it or not, the main ingredient is naphtha.) Naphtha won’t hurt the finish of your instrument, and it’s great at removing oil and grime. Put a little on a clean, soft rag and wipe all the grime off the finish before you use your favorite guitar polish.
Naphtha is also great for removing sticker and tape residue. If you’ve ever put a sticker on your guitar or taped a set list to the side, naphtha will get the sticky stuff off without the oily residue that citrus sticker removers can leave behind.
Because naphtha is so good at removing oil and grime, it’s ideal for cleaning the fingerboard too.
Fingerboards can get really grimy over time, especially rosewood and ebony fingerboards because these aren’t protected with any kind of hard finish. Most maple fingerboards are finished, and you can easily them clean with naphtha on a rag and little elbow grease. Then you can use your favorite guitar polish just like you would the body of the instrument.
Unfinished fingerboards, like rosewood or ebony, can be more difficult to clean. Naphtha on a rag will clean the fingerboard if it's just a little dirty, but if it has a heavy buildup of dirt and oil, you’ll need to use something abrasive to scour it clean. I recommend 0000 steel wool—the really, really fine stuff. It’s fine enough that it won’t leave visible scratches, and it’s abrasive enough that it will scour the grime off the fingerboard and polish the frets (which are usually tarnished) all at the same time. Rub a little naphtha on the fingerboard with a rag to help loosen the oil and dirt, and scrub across the grain of the wood—along the length of the fret—with the steel wool. You can also use 0000 Scotch-Brite pads, but I found steel wool produced a better finish.
Once your rosewood or ebony fingerboard is cleaned, you’ll need to replenish the wood’s natural oils. You can use any commercially available lemon oil or mineral oil, or you can use my favorite product for this: Dr. Duck’s Ax Wax. It’s supposed to be a cleaner, polish, and fingerboard oil all in one. I never liked it as a polish, but it’s the best fingerboard oil I’ve ever found. It restores the natural luster of the wood without leaving an oily residue behind. Jut put a little on a clean rag, and rub it into the fingerboard.
If you just want to polish the frets, you can use 0000 steel wool, or you can use Micro-Mesh pads. While steel wool is great for polishing frets, it's a bit messy. It will shed little bits of itself all over your work area, and since it's steel, those little bits have a nasty habit of sticking to your pickups. So for just putting a shine back on your frets, Micro-Mesh is the best. Start withe the coarsest grit and proceed to the finest. Before polishing the frets, mask off the fingerboard with some low-tack masking tape so you don’t scuff the wood or scratch the finish on a maple fingerboard. The blue masking tape that can be found at most hardware stores is fine. Put a strip on either side of the fret and polish along the length of the fret (the same direction as you’d bend a string) to remove the tarnish.
Polishing your guitar is simple, but it can be a little more involved that just spraying on some guitar polish and buffing it out. Follow these simple tips, and you’ll not only have an instrument that looks great, it will feel great too.