Got A Ukulele Beginners Tips - Oiling a Fretboard

28 Sep 2020

Got A Ukulele Beginners Tips - Oiling a Fretboard

Following a ukulele review I recently wrote about a uke with a horribly dry fretboard, I was asked in a comment for advice on oiling a fretboard. I realised I didn't have that guide in my beginners page, so figured it was time to set that right 

And it's about time because this is a subject I see talked about an awful lot, and I'm afraid to say that a lot of the advice is questionable and, if followed literally, capable of damaging your instrument! Here's an example of a bad one...

ukulele fretboard without oil

What is this oiling all about? Well - it's basically a conditioner for the wood to feed it and stop it degrading. Think of it like applying dubbin to a pair of leather shoes. It extends the life of the wood and stops it degrading with use.

Why does a uke fretboard need oil? Well, in most cases a well made uke fretboard should not NEED much oil if at all. Sadly, and particularly at the cheaper end of the uke market I am seeing more and more fretboards that arrive in a terrible condition from the factory. They look dry, they look pale, they look shabby.  Rather like the one above.  But aside from the terrible looks, a dry fretboard indicates a piece of wood that is in poor shape, and poorly conditioned wood can shrink, split and.. frankly get much worse. This is not what you want on a fingerboard.

I mention cheap ukes, because it's a common thing to spy on inexpensive ukes because the fretboard blanks were either dry when they were used, or the uke itself has been poorly stored and the fingerboard has dried out over time. But it's not only the preserve of cheap ukes. Any uke, even a high end one, if not stored properly can dry out and start to look pale, or worse... Old ukes can display this and they need taking care of.

So why this guide? Well, I see that a lot of accessory brands have cottoned on to the market of telling people that they MUST CONDITION THEIR FRETBOARDS AT ALL TIMES.... Whilst I agree that some conditioning is needed now and again, my worry is that the product companies tend to imply that you need to do this regularly. That is then trotted out by uke owners on social media suggesting the very same. I recently saw a post from someone saying that you should oil the fretboard every 3 months... Woah!!! No, you really don't... that's crazy. You should oil the fretboard ONLY when it absolutely needs it. And for me - that can be every 1-2 years (if that). It might be different for you depending on your conditions, but there is no way it needs to be that often if the uke is stored right. 

Why is that a concern to me? Well - because if you endlessly oil a fretboard you will expand the wood, soften it - and that can warp it, loosen frets and cause all sorts of hard to reverse damage. Telling someone to oil a fretboard regularly is terrible advice.

My advice on how to do it:

1. Only oil a fretboard sparingly and when needed. Only when it looks dry. As I say, for me that is with years between, NOT months. Your mileage may vary, but I can't see how it can be monthly. My last bottle of oil was bought over 10 years ago and with all the ukes and guitars I own is only half used. It contained 30ml when full. That should tell you everything.

2. Use a reputable product. Most music stores will sell you lemon oil, but it's not really lemon oil any longer - it's a synthetic oil scented with lemon to give it some credibility to make it sell...  I personally use bore oil / mineral oil - the stuff used by orchestral woodwind players to preserve their priceless instruments like clarinets, bassoons and oboes. Why? Well because I put more trust in a woodwind player who wants to look after their 10k instrument than I do a guitar shop trying to get a sale on a bottle of junk. Think about that. There is no need to get 'specialist uke / guitar' stuff. You are just treating wood, and wood is wood, whether in a clarinet or on a uke fingerboard.  Just get the stuff that woodwind players choose. My brand is Fret Doctor, but Yamaha make a bottle too as do many others.

3. Take the strings off, or loosen them and tuck them down the side to give you space.

4. Apply a MINIMAL amount (tiny drops) to each fret space - enough that you can only just spread it out with the cotton bud /Q tip to cover the area between the frets. I cannot stress that enough. The intention is not to soak the uke fingerboard, just to apply a thin film.  If the fingerboard is mucky you might want to rub the wood back with 000 steel wool to get rid of the gunk that builds up around the frets. Spread the oil across all the wood. 

5. Leave to soak in - depending on how dry the wood is that could be 5 minutes, could be 30. Don't fret (excuse the pun). Leave it until it dulls a bit. 

6. Buff back with a clean cloth to remove grease and re-string.

7. Don't attempt the process again unless it still looks dry. Remember that the act of playing the uke is imparting oil into the board from your fingers too.  You do not need to do this monthly!!

That first picture? This is the after effect after a single application. Sure, it's a cheap uke with tooling marks in the wood that oil can't fix, but you can see the improvement on looks!

oiled ukulele fretboard



And that's it really! Don't over oil!!!






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