We all love the look and feel of a vintage instrument, but when you pick up that old guitar you don't want it feeling nasty. When your fingers turn black, and smell like a dead fish when your done playing a guitar...it kinda ruins the experience. There are a ton of home remedies you get from the old timers: lighter fluid, lemon oil, WD-40, pencil lead, the list goes on and on. At one time, there weren’t a ton of options for guitar players, and a lack of access to such products led players to do the best with what they had. But these days, we all have access to products engineered specifically for our guitar needs. So please, keep the turpentine away from your guitar! After many years working on vintage instruments there are a few staples in our shop and we use them on just about any guitar we repair or sell (and we sell almost all these in our store. :)
“0000” Steel Wool
This is my preference for polishing and cleaning unfinished fretboards when doing a restring. I buy the fancy stuff from Luthiers Mercantile because it does not “shed” or leave little pieces behind (I think it is the same stuff sold by Behlen/Mohawk). For years I used the best grade I could find at the hardware store and it works just fine. Be sure to tape off your pickups, or anything else you may want to protect when using the hardware store kind as it tends to leave little strands behind. Note: Do not use steel wool on fretboards with a finish on them...you will scratch the crap out of them!
Anytime I restring an instrument I clean the frets and fingerboard with this stuff. I spray it on liberally, and then let it soak in for a few minutes (wipe up any drips on the finish of course). After its had a chance to sit for a few I come back and scrub everything thoroughly with the 0000 steel wool. Dig into those frets where they meet the board, you’ll be surprised at the nasty junk that's been hiding there. Clean everything up with paper towels, using your thumb nail to really get down in there getting all the grime out away from the frets. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
D’Addario Shine Guitar Polish
There are a ton of good polishes out there for modern polyester finishes, and they all seem to perform equally well. Where you run into trouble is on some lacquer finishes, those old “chalky” lacquer finishes in particular. Many polishes will cloud up these old finishes, leaving a “haze” behind. The Shine polish seems to be less prone to hazing...and it kinda smells like cinnamon cookies to boot. Speaking of smelling good, the best polishes are non-toxic and mostly water, your polish shouldn’t smell like diesel fuel.
Gerlitz No.1 Guitar Wax
When you get one of those aforementioned “chalky” lacquer finishes this is my go to polish. Clean any dirt and junk you can off with a clean, soft, dry cloth. Then hit the guitar with some Gerlitz. Put a thin coat on, let it dry to a haze, then wax on, wax off Danielson. Gerlitz also works well if this guy you know (and definitely not you), used one of those “hazing” guitar polishes and you need to get it buffed out again.
StewMac Fingerboard Guards
When I am cleaning a maple or other finished fretboard I use these guards to keep from scratching the finish. Fingerboard Hydrate isn’t required in this case, so I spray the board with polish then use 0000 steel wool to clean the tops of the frets using the Fingerboard Guards to protect the finish around the frets. Clean up with a soft cloth, or paper towels if its a poly finish.
Not a very glamorous look into the mystifying world of lutherie (this time ;)...but these are the items I use on just about every instrument that crosses my bench. There are other specialty items we use, and of course, sometimes we have to bust out the big guns, but thats a whole other conversation. And honestly, if the above products aren’t working for what you’re doing-you better be bringing your guitar to a professional. And for God’s sake...put away that lighter fluid!
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