#3: Why condition a fretboard?


Some guitars such as the classic maple neck/fingerboard endowed Fender T and S guitars are lacquered and therefore don’t need conditioning, but necks with fingerboards made from ebony, rosewood, pau ferro etc (and including the recent Gibson “toasted maple” fingerboards) need periodic maintenance.

  • Just as an “aside” on lacquered fingerboards I use Gerlitz “Smudge Off” followed possibly with something like “Fast Fret.”

These latter fingerboards are usually a slab of wood cut to a thickness of roughly 5mm.  Over time they will do one or both of the following:

  1. They will dry out, steadily losing their natural moisture/oils by evaporation, this can cause shrinkage and cracking – but more noticably become rough to the touch and feel a little like playing on sandpaper.
  2. In their roughness and dryness they accumulate oils from our skin, and dead skin cells, which to my mind looks not only disgusting, but also hygienic 🙁

1. The drying out problem….

Here we have a dried out neck on a Les Paul.  The guitar has remained unused for months on display – and the fingerboard has dried out.  The “usual” spray and wipe procedure wasn’t enough – but look at the results after an overnight soak….

2. The unhygenic approach….

Pictured below are a few closeups of a fingerboard on a Tom Anderson guitar I recently got.  In the before pictures you can see the dead skin and grease accumulating along the frets….

So what to use?

As with all things “guitar” the jury is “out” on this one.  People favour all types of oils, linseed, tung, lemon etc. etc. I’ve even seen one person suggesting olive oil!

Most of these I would not recommend personally.

  • Linseed – I don’t want my guitar smelling like a cricket bat, and I find it leaves wood sticky.
  • Lemon oil – used by violinists for centuries, and probably the main contender.  I do however find it leaves the neck sticky and has a tendency to leave a white residue – the worst example of which I covered in this article – click here.  I have also had one gentleman inform me that he had suffered a huge allergic reaction to lemon oil that nearly resulted in the loss of sight in one eye!
  • Olive oil – Don’t make me laugh – I said I didn’t want it smelling like a Cricket Bat – neither do I want it smelling like a pizza!
  • Tung oil – never tried it, I’m not even sure what it is…..

So what do I use – shameless plug time – GERLITZ GUITAR HONEY!!!.  Harvey Gerlitz is a cabinet maker, luthier, wood fanatic and guitarist.  He’s used his considerable years of experience to blend what he describes as “mineral oils” to degrease, nourish and clean your guitar neck.  Since first using this in about 2008 I have used it exclusively – and I’m not looking back on that decision!  I’ve never had any complaints about this product and have sold literally thousands of bottles of it!

How to do it….

I’ve kind of covered this in this article – click here.

How often to do it….


I wouldn’t do it each time I change strings, and I don’t have a specific time interval – but once you’ve got used to a well conditioned fretboard you know when it needs doing…..

Lets suggest that you look at doing it maybe twice a year – more if you only use one guitar and the skin cells are building up 🙂


Other related articles:

Jazz Bass Fretboard

Dried out fretboard on a Gibson ES137

Rough and Dried out Fretboard on a Gibson ES345

Another Jazz Bass with “issues”

Harvey Gerlitz’s comments on “Guitar Honey”

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3 Responses to “#3: Why condition a fretboard?”

  1. Ben Donald says:

    I started using Fast Fret on my LP for a while, but I noticed it seemed to start making the unwound strings ‘sticky’, or maybe just squeaky-clean. The frets are already like railway sleepers anyway and the additional loss of any kind of slip or glide was more than I could cope with. I’m not going to start rubbing it on my lovely Tele, unless you can persuade me I was doing it wrong! Thanks for a great site.

  2. Steve says:

    In normal circumstances there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘drying out problem’. The nature of wood means it’s moisture content is constantly varying – and this process is not altered by applying whatever treatment happens to be in fashion at that particular time.

    Moisture movement occurs regardless of the finish (notice how necks with thick poly coatings can still change their dimensions and relief profile). Going back a while, the US Navy tried to cure the movement in aircraft carrier decking with a quarter of an inch epoxy coating. It didn’t make any difference…

    Much is often made of ‘replacing oils’. There are no oils in Rosewood, and if there were would petroleum distillates be a natural solution ? The benefit of applying such coatings is in the cleaning and visually enhancing the wood (which is fair enough) but talk of ‘feeding’ a fretboard is pure marketing hogwash. If it gives people a warm inner glow to see the grain enhanced that’s fine (and there are much cheaper ways of doing this btw), just remember all you are doing is altering the refractive index of the surface !

    • Phil says:

      Thanks for your comments Steve.
      You clearly have some experience in this area, and your point about US Navy decking is fascinating.
      I guess that the oils that I’m “replacing” are those that have been put there before by other players, and that the “drying out” that I experience is the loss of these oils.
      Agreed you can enhance the grain using a variety of materials, my old woodwork teacher at School used to suggest water would enhance the grain – just not for very long as it soon dried out!
      The “feeding” here is possibly more descriptive of the process than factual, after all the concept of “feeding” a bunch of lignified xylem vessels that were dead long before the tree was cut down is just weird anyway.
      I find that this product enhances the grain, leaves no unsightly deposit, when used as described above it provides a silky feel to the fretboard, all of which are retained for a good period of time after treatment.
      Thanks for your input but I for one will be sticking with my “warm inner glow.”

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