Articles from Banjo Newsletter - 4

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From Banjo Newsletter, 2003

Fretboard Maintanance

I want to leave our lofty discussions of tone and sound this month and discuss a point of maintenance you as a musician should understand and practice. It is the care and feeding of the fingerboard on your banjo.

Keeping your fingerboard healthy and happy is paramount to keeping your banjo in top playing condition and can have a major effect on the long term life of your instrument.

Why Treat Fretboards?

In most all cases the fretboard of your banjo will be either rosewood or ebony. This wood because of its characteristics of durability strength and grain structure and the fact that it is the workplace of the instrument is left unfinished.

These woods will however dry out over time and need your help to remain in good condition. By drying out I don't mean moisture because this has been removed by careful processing by numerous means. I mean the natural oils present in these woods those that contribute to the traits that we find favorable for its use as fretboards. This oil will dry out and needs replacing

If the fretboard oils are allowed to dry over time, it will be susceptible to any and all of the following

Oil forms a moisture barrier for the wood that keeps both natural moisture and your body oils from entering the wood and doing damage. Without this the neck could be susceptible to instability due to the constant changes in moisture and the caustic effect of the acids in your body are believed to contribute to faster freeboard wear

Once the natural oils reach a very low point the fretboard will begin to develop cracks. Ebony is especially susceptible to this.

A dry fretboard will add stresses to the neck and can cause warping and twists

The last point I want to mention is the effect a very dry fretboard has when it comes time to refret the banjo. A dry piece of rose wood or ebony will chip very easily and this is difficult to work with and give a professional level of repair in a refret situation and a dry fretboard will be the place where frets tend to work loose causing uneven frets and buzzing

Cleaning the Fretboard

It is not uncommon for me to see banjos with incredible amounts of built up dirt in the fretboard and frets. Here again you are not doing your banjo a favor by neglecting this and your playability will surely suffer

I recommend the following procedure for complete preparation of the frets and fretboard before treating the wood

If there is a build up of surface dirt on the frets or fretboard you can use an old tooth brush wet with naptha +zippo lighter fluid+ to loosen and remove this. Naptha is safe on all finishes used by the major instrument makers. If you have a vintage instrument or a custom made instrument test first to be sure the naptha is safe on the neck finish. To do this is simple. Choose a spot on the banjo that is not visible, I use the bottom of the neck heel inside the resonator. Put a small amount of naptha on a q tip and touch it to the finish. Wipe it off immediately. If there is no effect such as a dull finish cloudy finish softened finish repeat the process and leave for about ten seconds, if there is still no bad effects it should be safe to proceed. If there is a change stop and don't continue..

Naptha is also good for removing old oil or for removing some oils that are not normally used and can cause situations down the line, more on this later. Gently work with the tooth brush and naptha and remove the old oils. Naptha wont cause the wood to swell or effect the binding or inlays. Next take some oooo steel wool and lightly buff the the wood and frets.

Now you have a clean smooth playing surface, its time to treat the fretboard, but what to use

Many Choices

I don't believe there is one thing to recommend over any other so I want to list the most common choices and offer comments about each so that you can make the decision yourself

  • Natural oils- Fruit and nut oils such as lemon oil, orange oil, almond oil
  • walnut oil sesame oil
  • Petroleum based oils- Sewing machine oil, mineral oil, three in one oil
  • Oil finishes- Tung oil, linseed oil, watco oil
  • Aerosol Sprays- WD 40, CRC by KURE, and Fastfret
Natural Oils

Whether there is a specific value in using natural oils I cant say, they do the job very well and don't carry any surprises like many of the man made oils. One point to highlite is the fact that certain oils will darken rosewoods more than others and while this has no effect on the instrument or playability if you have a pretty piece of Brazilian rosewood you may want to consider this. You can test the oils on a small area like the fretboard end past the twenty second fret and proceed accordingly.

Of the pure natural oils available I have used sesame oil for almost thirty years with great success. It has the great characteristic of not leaching out of the wood like some oils and is available in the grocery store. It is used extensively in oriental cooking and has no side effects or hidden down sides. For some shocking information on other +natural oils+ please read the following section. For those choosing to use natural fruit and nut oils the recommendation from me would be to buy them from the grocery store insuring that they are one hundred percent pure and un altered. Why you ask?..... read on.........

Petroleum Based Oils

These are by far the most common oil used on fretboards and fine furniture and most of the commercial fretboard oils are made of this. This includes virtually all commercially available furniture and instrument oils sold as lemon oil or almond oil or whatever name they choose. In doing research for this article I discovered that most all available wood oils sold as lemon oil and such contain as little as two percent fruit oil. This is for smell only and has absolutely no benefit to the wood at all. The base for most all these oils is petroleum based mineral oil with the smell added for marketing to the unsuspecting public. This is important information and should realign many peoples thinking about what is acceptable. Because of its wide use over decades you must agree that petroleum products have proven harmless to wood finish and binding. Here is a clue. If you read the label on your lemon oil fretboard treatment and it has a memo about not ingesting the oil or to induce vomiting or not you can be sure its not lemon oil and is mineral oil of the non digestible type.

Oil Finishes

Here we enter an area which needs care to navigate. I urge you to remember a banjo is a musical instrument and the fretboard is a work place. When you consider these facts you should understand that a fretboard requires a different treatment than an oak tabletop or the grandfathers clock in the living room. Avoid anything with the term "Danish" oil. This is not oil. It is oil with shellac or varnish added. These are intended as a surface finish similar to what is sprayed on the neck and resonator. They will build up on the surface and this is quite unacceptable. Because as stated we are attempting to restore the natural oil of the wood not apply a surface finish.

The ebony and rosewood used for fretboards were chosen for their natural properties and don't need the application of a surface finish of any type. Nothing plays better than a clean, bare fretboard.

The last choice I would like to bring up is the most important. Linseed oil is the oldest wood treatment known to man and still used. It is known the Egyptians used it. And since the time of the Pharoahs there has been a never ending search to for a way to make it work better, it has been used for so many centuries not because it works so well but because it is plentiful and very cheap. Raw linseed oil has a tendency to never really dry. A tabletop finished with raw linseed oil can stay tacky for weeks. During the middle ages a technique was used to attempt to improve its drying ability. The raw oil was boiled. This had very marginally improved results but became the standard method of preparation for the next few centuries. Although the oil still took weeks to dry.

In the 1800s new technique was developed. The raw oil was "boiled" by adding heavy metals to the oil when heated. This new technique showed very slight improvement over regular boiling and this continues to be the state of the art with linseed oil today.

The metals added in the 1800s were usually lead and mercury and caused serious health problems. Today these are not used of course but cobalt is one of the metals used and it is just as lethal

What happens if raw or boiled linseed oil is used on your fretboard is that at some time sooner or later you will open your case to find a sticky mess exuding from the fretboard. The oil is actually leaching out of the wood. This can happen with a few other oils but linseed oils is by far the worst.

This subject came up last year on one of the internet banjo groups and I received a surprising amount of mail from banjo players who had been advised to use linseed oil and had experienced the gooey results. This can be a frustrating event if it happens at a festival on a warm day. Usually you can't just wipe it off, as it just keeps coming out of the wood.

The best way to remedy the situation is use naptha to remove all the old oil.

I can understand a factory or repairman using boiled linseed oil on an instrument, once, it looks very good, but would not recommend its use to the owner on a maintenance basis.

As a basic rule I classify tung oil in this class with raw linseed oil. It is not a prime choice for your instrument.

Aerosol sprays and Fastfret

Many people perpetuate the rumor that these are bad for your instrument. I have learned that the main ingredient in WD 40 is actually bees wax with a carrier that evaporates. This is a very good wood treatment and is natural. I know that some of the major factories use this on their instruments. Although it is not an oil and will build up over time if used repeatedly, for a once in a while treatment is is acceptable. CRC spray is also used at some major factories and while not intended for this use it serves as a one time treatment. I would not use it regularly. Fastfret is a stick applied material to aid fingering and playing and increase string life. It does not enhance the fretboard wood like a oil and should not take the place of an occasional application of oil. Fingerease is an aerosol spray that is meant to do the same things as Fastfret. It is very easy to overuse this and actually cause damage by saturating the fingerboard. If you must use this I recommend spraying it on a cloth and wiping the cloth on the strings and fretboard do not spray directly on the fretboard. Wipe off all remaining fastfret before closing your case.

Applying The Oil

You have prepared the fretboard and frets and chosen an oil to use. Now it's time to apply it. Again it's important to remember what you are doing. You are not oiling your bike chain or greasing your car. You are simply applying a thin coat of oil to an expensive piece of exotic wood. I recommend using a soft cloth. Apply some oil to the cloth and wipe it on the fretboard. You want a thin even coat on the whole fretboard. Let it sit for a minute or so and wipe the fretboard clean removing all remaining oil. That's it. You are done. You should do this two or three times a year. No more is necessary. It is a common mistake to think you need to do this regularly. You can actually damage the neck and frets by applying to much oil too often. Following these practices you can relax and know that you are doing some positive maintenance on your banjo. Your reward will be a banjo that lasts years and stays in top playing condition where relevant to these discussions

My closing comment is that while there is a number of choices for you when treating the fretboard, the only wrong thing you can do is do nothing. A neglected fretboard is a problem looking for a way show itself. And the longer you neglect it the more serious the problems can be and the more expensive the repair.

Scott Zimmerman   -   9-9-03

Email to Scott at scott@sugiguitars.com
Surface mail to Scott Zimmerman, Stringed Instrument Technologies Ltd., 2-5-37 Shonicho, Matsumoto, Nagano, 390-0828 Japan, tel and fax 81-263-28-5080,

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Copyright Scott Zimmerman 2003.
Page revised 11-6-03