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Why and how should I clean my instrument? - Oct 2001

Some folks don't clean their instruments, believing that dirty instruments have character. While some dirt is not a problem, significant accumulation can loosen frets, dissolve glues in seams & damage the finish (exposing wood to the elements). Also, dirt can hide progressive damage. Alternatively, some folks buy & use many expensive solvents & polishes. When appropriate for instrument care, & used according to instructions, these preparations are fine. However, the wrong preparation (or correct preparations, improperly used) cause damage. The following practices are those that we use on our instruments. 


Prevent soiling instruments. The best ways to keep dirt from getting on your instrument are the simplest: Wash your hands about half-an-hour before playing (not right before, or your callouses will be soft when you play); Avoid eating & drinking while you play; Keep a soft, clean cloth in your case & wipe your instrument when you're done playing (pay special attention to strings - they last longer) 


Clean instruments regularly. Even when you diligently try to keep your instrument clean, dirt accumulates. Since it's easier to clean a small build up of skin oils & accumulated crud than a thick one, cleaning the instrument about once a month is more effective than waiting for the instrument to, "look like it needs cleaning." Regular cleaning also reduces the exposure of finish & glues to damaging dirt & oils. 


Use instrument-friendly cleaning solvents. Instruments rarely need aggressive cleaning. Maintenance shouldn't include chemical solvents or abrasives that alter or remove finish. In fact, warm water is the best all-around cleaning, "solvent." 


Use a clean, soft cloth, that's been moistened (not wet) to dissolve oils & loosen dirt. Immediately dry the instrument with a dry, soft, clean cloth. Some guitar builders suggest using a window cleaner (dilute ammonia) on a cloth to help break down oils. We do not recommend that approach. If you clean the instrument regularly with a warm, moist cloth, you won't get to the point where you're even tempted to try window cleaner. For dirt that you can't remove with a moist cloth, avoid damage by asking someone who knows instrument finishes for recommendations for your instrument. 


Use instrument-grade polishes (& don't polish satin-finish instruments). An instrument's voice depends on its wood being light, flexible & responsive to string vibration. Furniture polish & paste wax are heavy, building up & smothering instruments' sounds. 


Select from the many excellent instrument-grade polishes. But read the package to find out what's in the polish. Don't use polish with abrasives unless you're buffing scratches; abrasives wear the finish thin. Also, if your instrument is old, or you have uncertainty about its finish integrity, ask someone who knows instrument finishes for recommendations for your instrument. Some polish formulations can dissolve some finishes. 


Oil fingerboards annually. Unfinished fingerboards can dry out & crack. Oiling helps. 


After cleaning, apply a very small amount of Lemon Oil to the fingerboard to prevent excessive drying. However, you can get, "too much of a good thing, " especially on fretted instruments. Don't apply oil to dirty fingerboard; don't apply oil more than once a year; & don't apply more than a few drops of oil to the entire fingerboard. Those excesses can soften the wood, promote wear & fret lifting on fretted instruments. 

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