Cleaning Guitar Finishes

Cleaning the Finish

There are many types of finishes (gloss, satin, lacquer, poly…) out there and the physical condition of a finish can help determine the best method of cleaning. If we were to compare cleaners to sandpaper, we are choosing the least abrasive cleaner that will do the job, that way you will not get as many tiny swirls and scratches to keep your finish looking almost like new much longer.

Polishing Cloths

PROS:   easy, fast clean up, residue will not accumulate in cracks
CONS:  won’t remove heavy dirt and grime

While a nice flannel cloth is adequate for many players, if you have a dark finish you will find that a high quality micro-fiber polishing cloth is a better choice. Micro-fiber is very soft and leaves less swirl marks than more abrasive cloths. Excessive cleaning and rubbing on dark finishes and gold plated hardware should be avoided to lessen the effects. It is hard to avoid tiny swirl marks in any finish so you want to use the softest material possible on dark finishes to keep them to a minimum. While cloths alone don’t remove heavy dirt and grime they are excellent choices for players who like to wipe their instrument off after playing.

Spray Cleaners

PROS:  Non-abrasive, safe for satin finish
CONS:  Can make a mess of heavily soiled finishes

Spray cleaners are liquid cleaners that contain a fair amount of water. They are good for a quick cleaning where removal of smudges and fingerprints is the basic requirement.

A few Words about Satin & Flat Finishes

For non-glossy finishes spray cleaners are preferred over paste cleaners. Areas under constant friction like the back of the neck or where your arm rest on the top, with time, take on a somewhat shiny appearance particularly on satin finishes, in order to slow the process, overzealous polishing should be avoided as friction creates shine.

Avoid Spray Cleaners on Very Dirty Finishes

If you spray  liquid spray cleaners on heavily soiled instruments it can create a bit of a mess.
If the dirt is so thick you could scrape it with a fingernail do not use liquid spray cleaner until you remove as much of the dirt as possible. Dirt will absorb the water in the spray and turn white or yellowish. If you see this it is a sure sign you are not going to get very far cleaning with spray. At this stage I resort to using compounds or paste polishes for removal of dirt, usually with a lot of elbow grease.

Paste Polishes

PROS:  Shines lightly dulled finishes, removes fine scratches and dirt
CONS:  not recommended for satin finishes, can build up in cracks

Paste polish can accumulate around chips in the finish.

A non-abrasive paste polish is a good start when cleaning more heavily soiled finishes or trying to restore the natural gloss that has dulled. Very fine scratches are usually removed with a cream polish.

When cleaning delicate finishes or guitars with chips and scratches I recommend applying the polish directly to the cloth. Working the polish into the cloth helps reduce the amount of build up that can form if one gets polish in cracks and finish chips or on bare wood. Dried polish turns white when dry.

Use caution when polishing near cracks or finish chips to avoid impacting them and avoid using paste polishes on raw wood (fingerboards and bridges).

Buffing compounds

PROS:  Works on deeper scratches
CONS:  Requires some expertise to avoid trouble

Not all scratches can be removed with non-abrasive paste cleaners. Buffing compounds are similar to sandpaper in that they come in many different grades and abrasions. Due to the time and strength required to do it by hand most use buffing compounds in conjunction with a machine buffer.

You are literally removing the top layer of finish with machine buffing and coarse compounds . You can burn thru the finish completely leaving raw wood exposed, so you might leave this to a professional.

Vintage Guitar Finishes

On vintage guitars with thin or damaged finish it is best to get some advice on cleaning it. A de-laminating finish, heavily chipped or thin finish can pose problems when cleaning.

Well hope some of this helps, remember to play often and play hard,