How to clean a wooden guitar

G&B Basics: Guitar Care - Cleaning & Polishing

by Lothar Trampert & Frank Deimel,

An electric guitar is a relatively undemanding pet. It wants to be played and enjoyed regularly, needs a few new strings every now and then and it makes its owner happy - sometimes even his environment. Here you will find all tips for guitar care!

To keep it that way, you shouldn't neglect your guitar care and regularly wipe your instrument with a cloth after playing. Guitar care is also good for the strings, and under certain circumstances extends their lifespan considerably, especially with sweaty genius hands. For an all-round complete guitar care you need the following:

• COTTON CLOTH: An official polishing cloth or e.g. an old T-shirt is suitable for polishing the guitar.

• POLISH is a special guitar polish or a car care product and is used to polish your guitar.

• AsGRIPBOARD OIL you should prefer something that smells good from specialist retailers. Experiments in guitar care with whiskey, butter, Vaseline, Nivea cream or heating oil have already failed and do not need to be repeated.

• Covenants clean & polish regularly!


You should always remember that air that is too dry, e.g. in heated rooms, is poison for instruments; this applies in particular to solid woods, which then tear very easily. The humidity should be around 50 to 60 percent, the room temperature should be between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius. Too high and too low temperatures, but above all Temperature fluctuations are to be avoided.

A guitar that has spent several hours in the ice-cold car after the rehearsal should never be unpacked immediately in the heated apartment and placed next to the coal stove! Instead, you should give the guitar in the case or gigbag at least two hours to adjust the temperature. Archtops with a solid top are much more endangered than robust, massive workhorses like a solid body guitar.

Cleaning the guitar body: the best body care!

Of course, the surface of a guitar body should also be cherished and cared for! But there are a few things to consider, especially with regard to the different surfaces and the cleaning agents that are suitable for each. Not everyone can z. B. differentiate between nitro and PUR paints. If in doubt, ask the manufacturer or a guitar maker before you start with one of the cleaning methods described.

These five paint systems are the most common:

  1. highly polished polyurethane, acrylic resin or polyester lacquers
  2. matt or silk-gloss surfaces made of the above material
  3. highly polished nitrocellulose lacquers
  4. semi-gloss or open-pored coatings with nitrocellulose
  5. oiled and / or waxed surfaces

As a rule, mass-produced instruments from the Far East are almost exclusively sealed with varnishes of category 1 or 2. Some ingredients may be oiled, such as B. the back of the neck (or a bridge on an acoustic guitar), but personally I haven't come across an Asian product that has been treated with nitro lacquer in the last 20 years. Exceptions confirm the rule, but this exception would at most e.g. B. Eastman jazz guitars or boutique luthier instruments that were built by hand.

Categories 3 and 4 usually concern instruments that are made in the traditional way. These are mostly guitars from European or American production, and usually very old, early vintages from the 1930s to sometimes into the 70s, with some manufacturers under the aegis of large-scale industry (Norlin / Gibson, CBS / Fender) had switched to plastic paints that were easier to process.

However, traditionally lacquered instruments are still popular because of the type of lacquer that is beneficial to their sound and are most commonly found in the custom shop areas of major manufacturers today.


In general, care for sensitive nitro lacquers (categories 3 and 4) always works for plastic lacquers (categories 1 and 2). The big difference is that the solvent-based nitro lacquers still react very sensitively after they have hardened because they can be dissolved again.

On the other hand, systems based on plastic are chemically completely cured and are as resistant to the outside as plastic or glass, apart from scratches. On the one hand, this is the reason why modern paintwork cannot be repaired so easily, because touching up with the same material does not lead to cohesion, i.e. dissolution. Whereas the nitro lacquer can be touched up at any time, because the existing layer can be easily loosened and seamlessly connected to a new layer.

It is precisely this problem that must be taken into account when cleaning, and if in doubt, advice must be sought! A previous test in an invisible place (e.g. under a pickguard) can also provide certainty here.

Category 1: In fact, this is where you have the slightest maintenance problem. A commercially available guitar polish, even many polishes from the automotive industry, can be used here without any problems. As a rule, the moisture it contains absorbs stubborn dirt spots, and the polishing agents contained in it allow the paint to appear a new shine after a short drying time by polishing it off.

A suitable, clean rag is of course always a prerequisite, and that should be taken into account, since wiping is also done mechanically. If possible, add-on parts such as strings, bridges, pickguards, etc. should be removed briefly for thorough cleaning so that dirt marks that tend to form around these parts can also be tackled. With these varnishes you can basically rely on the guitar polishes of all well-known suppliers.

The companies Dunlop, Planet Waves, GHS, dAndrea, Kyser, Gibson, Martin, Fender, Duesenberg, Clover, Taylor, Dr. Ducks Ax Wax and others represented in the market with good products. Alternatively, commercially available car paint polishes (e.g. from Nigrin) can also be used, and there are also very good paint care products from 3M, Festool or Rotweiss available in larger containers from the industry.

Category 2: Danger! All common guitar polishes would turn the matt varnish into a glossy finish thanks to the polishing substances they contain and should therefore not be used. These surfaces, which are inherently insensitive, should simply be wiped off with a damp cloth with a simple soapy solution and rubbed dry immediately with a clean, lint-free cloth. B. to remove weld marks or other substances.

The same applies to acoustic guitars that are painted in this way or very thinly and matt. Here I also like to use the key cleaning cloths from Cleanlike, as they work very gently and without polishing substances.

Category 3: Here we come to the high-maintenance classic, the nitro-lacquered high-gloss surface. Depending on the vintage or use, these paints are partly in good condition or moderately to severely weathered. Likewise, they often have a nicotine film, simply because they are older - be it because of their own smoking, or as a souvenir from a pub or club gig.

The reason for this is as follows: Compared to plastic lacquers, the adhesion (sticking) is much higher, since nitro lacquers tend to sink into the pores of the wood and thus later offer much more surface. The dissolvability is also given, and acidic substances such as sweat, alcohol and even nicotine veils attack the formerly highly polished surface over the years.

Depending on the degree of soiling, you should first choose the least harmful cleaning method. There are now means and methods, graded from minimally invasive to thorough cleaning: To remove severe stains, edges and other films, I usually first use petroleum ether or household gas.

This agent never attacks any solvent-based paints because both sides do not react chemically to one another. So you can wonderfully z. B. Remove sticker residue, all sweat marks and other violent substances. Nicotine is also absorbed and removed, at the latest in the rag you can see what actually made the color of your own guitar so yellowish ... The Joha lacquer cleaner, which does not contain water, has particularly proven itself for older nitro lacquers.

After successful cleaning and disinfection of the surface, care and polishing substances can be added. Here at the latest, all guitar polishes that have been specially declared for nitro lacquers are welcome. However, they must not contain silicone! All polishes containing silicone (including and especially many car polishes) are harmful here, because silicone simply does not go well with nitrocellulose lacquers.

Silicone is a synthetic oil and immediately forms a partially dissolving bond with the paint. The result is an "unholy alliance", as we guitar builders say, because dirt particles and varnish combine with nourishing cleaning substances and form a greasy film that is difficult to remove. Not nice …

From experience I can say that there are very good agents from Gibson (especially for Gibson lacquers), Martin, Duesenberg, Virtuoso and Dr. Ducks Ax Wax there. Behlen OZ Cream Polish (100% siliconfree), which can only be obtained from abroad, is also suitable.

I have also had very good experiences with products from Bellacura Klavicura, a German company that offers a very nice range of products that are completely non-toxic and environmentally friendly.

The Bellacura Sensitive is also suitable for allergy sufferers, because many other polishes sometimes contain chemical emulsifiers that can trigger allergic skin reactions. Another recommendable range of paint care products is offered by the local company Josef Hammerl, whose products are particularly good for classic guitar and violin paints.

I can also unreservedly recommend the paint cleaner from Joha for old nitro paints. I have used it a few times to freshen up my old Gibson Les Paul Junior and a follow-up treatment with Behlen OZ Cream Polish gave it a wonderful deep shine that is typical of nitrocellulose lacquers.

Category 4: Here, cleaning should be done as minimally as possible, especially avoiding polishing agents that are supposed to create a shine. In the case of matt or very thin layers, I would also be very careful with moisture. So it is better to stick with petrol and a simple, lint-free cotton cloth, e.g. B. an old T-shirt.

You can only remove dirt with a cloth dampened with soapy water if you are sure that the layer of lacquer covers the wood sufficiently. It is very important to rub dry with a soft cloth so that no residual moisture can penetrate the wood. The cloths from the Cleanlike brand for keyboard instruments already mentioned above can also ensure quick and good cleaning here.

Category 5: In the case of oiled or waxed surfaces, one can definitely proceed more radically. The cleaning and polishing effect of steel wool (exclusively grade 0000) is often helpful here in the case of soiling. With a little new oil in the steel wool, existing dirt spots can often be leveled or adjusted very quickly, and the freshly oiled wood is polished at the same time.

It is important to ensure that you do not use too much oil and, above all, to wait until the oil is sufficiently absorbed, even if that takes a night. There are some very good wood oils out there, and the decisive factor in choosing them should be that the product is really intended for use in wood. I would always use a product that is as pure as possible, wood oils from the hardware store shelf are less suitable.

Products such as B. from Auro (hard oil no. 126-90), Joha fingerboard oil, as well as Chinese tung oil from Lignea, which can be diluted with orange / citrus oil to create a very elegant surface, are ideal for natural instruments.

Typical fingerboard oils are also z. B. can also generally be used for the back of a maple neck. Fingerboard oils are special wood oils that have a very low viscosity and are quickly absorbed into the wood pores and dry. This creates a pleasant surface and avoids a possibly too sticky surface through incorrect use of certain oils that are not suitable for musical instruments.

Finally, I would like to get rid of some basic tips:

  • When cleaning, always ensure that it is on a clean, scratch-free surface on which the instrument can lie securely.
  • Ideally, cleaning cloths should be classic polishing cloths, e.g. B. glasses cleaning cloths, good microfiber cloths, dusters from the drugstore, or just an old, 100% cotton T-shirt that has become lint-free through frequent washing.
  • Economical use of all products, especially nitro lacquers.
  • No exaggeration with cleaning! Removing stains, dirt marks and sweat at regular intervals and applying a care product every now and then is absolutely sufficient!

You can find more basics about your guitar in our Guitar ABC!

G&B basics

Basic knowledge, workshops, tips & tricks - The G&B basics provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about the topics Guitar & bass. As they keep reaching new readers and explaining important topics, we regularly take them out of the archive.

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