Snake Oil: What To Use On Your Fretboard

Oh, the endless, endless debate. Pick your favourite guitar/bass forum and there’s a good chance you can find at least one multi-page thread about what oil to use on your fingerboard.

What Fingerboard Oil Should I Use?

Lemon oil, baby oil, mineral oil, Three-In-One oil, linseed oil (boiled or raw?), lavender-scented essential oil, Honest Dave’s Super-Duper Never-Been-Bested Slinky Fretboard Juice, etc.

Opinions and viewpoints. Everyone’s got one.

Me too.

So who’s right?

Well, I am, obviously.

Nah. It’s not really that simple. Let me tell you what I mean.

First up, though, we should mention that some guitar manufacturers recommend against some oils. Martin Guitars, for instance, recommend you don’t use lemon oil. You should consider whatever I say on this topic against what your guitar manufacturer recommends. I certainly won’t be offended if you want to follow their advice and play things safe.

If you want my advice, here’s how our conversation will go:

You: So, which of the many, many oils do you recommend?

Me: I don’t think it matters much.

You: Whaaaat?! Have you gone nuts? Have you lost your mind?

Me: Meh.

You: Well, what do you actually use then?

Me: Linseed Oil. You’ll probably find a fair bit of opinion about whether to use boiled or raw linseed oil. I use boiled.

Here’s the thing though…

I don’t think it matters much.

You: Why? Tell me why.

Because we’re not going to be using enough of it that it’ll make a huge difference.

It’s a rookie mistake to saturate your fingerboard with oil every couple of weeks. Let’s say this clearly:

  • You DO NOT need much oil.
  • You DO NOT need to oil often.
  • Your fingerboard IS NOT as dry as you think it is.

Oiling once or maybe twice a year is usually more than enough. Honestly, it’s almost certain that your fingerboard isn’t too dry (and if it is, you've probably got humidity issues, not oil issues).

Also, if you’re going to oil, you only need a very small amount. I know you’ve probably been squirting and smearing this stuff all over the fingerboard like a Texas oil baron, but no more. From now on, you’re a frugal oiler.

Very.

Small.

Amount.

Almost none.

If you use oil properly and infrequently, in my opinion, it’s much less critical what oil you actually use.

No ‘soaking’ with oil. Don’t pile it on and wait for it to ‘penetrate’.

You want to dampen a rag with some of your oil of choice (see above for why it shouldn’t matter too much). Rub it into the board, cleaning any grime that’s accumulated. There shouldn’t be a film of oil left behind—maybe just the lightest sheen. Start at one end and by the time you get to the other give the whole thing a good wipe with a dry rag to make sure there’s absolutely nothing left soaking.

If you do this right, you shouldn’t need to overly concern yourself with dire warnings about rotting fingerboards, or corroded hardware, or oil build-up, or oil demons living in your fretboard. You shouldn’t need to worry about what oil you actually use.

And, because you’re just using a little oil on a rag, it’s easier to control and keep away from areas where you don’t really want oil (i.e. everywhere else). If you get a smear on your lacquer or hardware, it’s easy to clean off quickly.

By the way, if there's an accumulation of fingerboard gunk, use an old plastic card—like a credit card to scrape away most of it before you start oiling. Of course, you don't let this gunk build up, do you? Also, if you're planning on polishing your frets, do that before oiling too. 

The Bottom Line

I reckon you should stop worrying about the many, many forum threads discussing the pros and cons of various oils and concentrate on oiling your fingerboard properly and far less often. ;-)

Feel free to buy Old Ma McGarnagle’s Pressed Komodo Dragon Fingerboard Oil for a hundred bucks a bottle if you like. Or, just buy a bottle of linseed oil in your hardware store for next to nothing and you can pass it on to your grandchildren.

Your call.

Don’t Burn Down Your House

No discussion of this subject should occur without a warning about fire risk. Most of these oils are flammable and, while you’ll likely be careful around the oil itself, remember that the rags you use are a REAL FIRE RISK.

Seriously. I know it seems slightly far-fetched but in the right conditions those rags can spontaneously catch fire.That's SPONTANEOUSLY! All by themselves.

Do NOT crumple them up and throw them away—that’s bad. Heat can build up in the folds and catch fire. Lay them flat outside (weighed down with a stone) to dry. Once they’ve dried, and gone a bit hard, things are a little more safe but don’t get complacent. It can be a good idea, once dry, to keep the rags in an old paint can or a jar. Top up the container with water and you’re good.

Be safe.

Oh, and check with your local authorites for any requirements you might have to adhere to when you dispose of this sort of stuff. Be nice to the planet—I kinda like it here.

guitar fretboard oil