Is It Ok to Clean a Fretboard With Water? (Risks Explained)

A lot of people shudder at the idea of cleaning a guitar fretboard with water, fearing warped necks and displaced threats.

However, these fears are unfounded.

Though it is NOT a good idea to soak your fretboard in water or expose it to large amounts of water, occasional wipe down from a damp cloth is a very safe thing to do. This article outlines the things you need to consider when wiping your fretboard with water, and how water differs from oils, in fretboard cleaning.

Answer To Whether You Can Clean A Fretboard With Water

Yes, it is ok to clean a fretboard with water, but it is important that you use a very minimal amount of water applied to a rag. Damp, not dripping, should be your guiding principle.

But there are some potential dangers in doing so, if not done in the right way, that you should be aware of.

Are There Any Dangers to Using Water to Clean My Guitar Fretboard?

In general, exposure to small amounts of moisture will not be a danger to your fretboard, and will not cause any issues.

But regular exposure to a reasonable amount of moisture could cause some complications over time.

If you apply too much water on a regular basis and do not wipe it off, water could get into the fret slots and potentially lead to a softening or swelling of the wood. If this happens it could lead to those affected frets becoming loose, or popping out.

Regular exposure to large amounts of water could also let water seep into the pores of the wood on the fretboard in general, and create rot in the wood.

Another potential risk applies to guitars with lacquered fretboards. If there are any blemishes or cracks in the lacquer then the water could make its way under the lacquer and lead to more lacquer being separated from the fretboard.

If you still have your strings attached to your guitar and you apply water to your fretboard then you could lead to premature corrosion and rust of your strings.

Can I Use Water to Clean My Guitar Fretboard Every Time?

If you are using a very small amount of water applied to a rag/cloth then there is little to no risk of causing damage to your guitar fretboard.

Many luthiers and people who repair/maintain guitars use damp cloth as part of their cleaning routine.

There are some good reasons to apply a fretboard oil (e.g/ Lemon Oil) periodically (yearly for example), but there is no need for this to be regular.

Most guitar fretboards do not specifically require oil as part of their ongoing maintenance, but it can be ok to apply some, in small quantity, every so often.

Are There Things Better Than Water to Clean a Guitar Fretboard With?

There are many different guitar fretboard products available at very affordable prices, that are usually an oil with some type of solvent mixed in. These help to loosen any grime and grit, whilst also adding moisture to the wood.

For the most part, these things are safe, and will not harm your guitar, and you may like the look and feel of your guitar fretboard after using them, but they are not required,

in the majority of situations, a damp (not dripping) rag will be more than adequate.

How Much Water Should I Use If I Use Water To Clean My Fretboard?

Your guiding principle when applying a wet cloth to your guitar fretboard is ‘damp, not dripping’.

Using too much water can lead to the potential pitfalls outlined in the above ‘Dangers’ section.

Steps For Cleaning Your Guitar Fretboard With Water

If you plan on cleaning your guitar fretboard with water, these simple steps will produce the best results:

  1. Using a dry microfibre cloth, wipe the fretboard down. Remove as much oil and gunk/grime as you can with a dry cloth first. Scrub vigorously at any excessively dirty areas and remove everything you can with the dry cloth.
  2. Apply a small amount of water to one-half of the microfibre cloth. Make sure the cloth is damp, but not dripping. Squeeze out all possible moisture from the cloth. Rub down the whole fretboard, paying specific attention to the crevices on each side of the frets all the way up and down the fretboard. Remove any oil and grime that the dry cloth could not remove.
  3. Use the dry part of the cloth, rub over the whole fretboard again, ensuring the removal of any moisture left by the cloth, to the maximum degree possible.

Is Lemon Oil Better Than Water To Clean a Fretboard?

Lemon Oil is neither better nor worse than water for cleaning fretboards. They offer different benefits and should be used for different purposes. A slightly damp cloth is great for a regular wipe down of your guitar to maintain, keeping an excess build-up of oil and gunk. Lemon Oil should not be used regularly.

However, a yearly application of lemon oil would be a positive thing to do and would provide benefits that a damp cloth alone cannot provide.