Raw and Smooth or Sticky and Safe ?
by Michele Christopher

Raw and Smooth or Sticky and Safe? A quick and dirty guide to guitar necks

Have you ever walked out to an old wood deck that hasn’t been taken care of very well? The wood is splitting and splintered. It’s spreading out from years of water and gunk expanding and contracting inside all of its pores and grain. Well, if you play a guitar with an unfinished neck you are chancing doing the same thing to it.

When you play your guitar, you are transferring oil, dirt and anything else that’s on your hands onto your guitar neck. On a finished neck, this grime builds up on the surface creating a sticky residue. On an unfinished neck, this gunk works its way into the grain of the wood and over time can cause warping, cracking and splintering.

So, what do you do?

You could always play a well-finished neck – the kind found on most Gibson and Gibson knock-off guitars. I play on such a neck. To be honest, it’s not my favorite. My earliest playing experiences were with Ibanez and Jacksons who both sport a lot of unfinished necks. But, having witnessed firsthand what can happen to an unfinished neck, I was happy to have that extra protection.

If you have a guitar with a deep finish, the most important thing is to always have a polishing cloth with you. Wipe down that neck often. The extra polishing will help keep the playing surface smooth and free of grime.

Some necks appear to be unfinished, but actually have a satin finished neck. This is a coat of lacquer that’s been textured. It’s not exactly smooth, but it doesn’t hinder you’re playing either. At first, it doesn’t seem to stick to your hand or anything. The problem with this finish is that over time, the grime from you hands will build up in the textured finish and you’ll begin having the same problems that you do with a finished neck. The problem with this textured finish is that cleaning it is far more difficult than a clear, flat finish. Sometimes, a polishing cloth won’t get the gunk out very well and a cleaning solution may have to be used. Be careful and make sure to only use products that have been specifically manufactured for instrument cleaning. You can damage the finish or your instrument if you use cleaning products that are intended for other thing, such as furniture polish.

If you have an unfinished neck, there are a couple of things you can do. The most important thing to do is to use a polishing cloth after every time you play. If you have sweaty hands, use the cloth often during play. When you notice that the grime is building up, you can sand your neck lightly with a small-grained sandpaper. This will remove most
of the surface grime, but will not take care of any of the stuff that’s building up in the guitarneck.jpggrain. This is okay for a while, but eventually sanding is just not an option as you are taking away from the thickness of the neck.

Personally, I think the best option is to use a light coat of Tung Oil. Tung oil is a wood finisher that is made up of pure tung oil and varnish. You can use very light coats on your guitar neck that will leave an almost satin-like feel to it. Over time, the finish wears, all you have to do clean the neck and re-apply another light coat of finish. Of course, you still have some of the problems with gunk forming, and you’ll still have to keep that polishing cloth handy, but to me, it’s the best balance between a raw and finished neck.

In the end, it all comes down to what’s important to you. How long do you plan to keep the instrument? What is your personal preference?

If you’re playing a $200 - $500 instrument, it may not be that important to you, but if you’ve dropped over a grand on a new guitar, you probably want to protect that investment.

Cullen writes daily here and covets all fine wood crafts. Archives


Informative as always! Thanks Cullen!


tung oil. heh.


I think I thought the same thing...

"I need TP for my Tunghole!!"


Another one to show the kid.

Thanks, Culllen.


Good article. Haven't really thought too much about caring of the finish of a guitar neck. but your post makes me really think about the harm I have been causing to my piece.


I wasn't aware that the Amish could use the internerts...


Thanks for the comments guys.

If you think tung oil is funny, there is a finish technique called a French Polish. That just sounds nasty, eh?

I'm far more surprised that Amish Furniture can use the interwebs. A "Cha" on the moon may be closer to reality than we realize!


pft. French Polish. That's what them wussy violin players have on their "instruments". lol!


héhé, Thanks Man,
i was about to go do this with a 60grit piece of sandpaper...
I'm not really sure the money involved on an instrument should make a difference, maybe on the market but in a guitarists hands, no.
thats a living miracle you have in your hands, theres so much brains involved in this invention and a long and invaluable tradition into making them, its way more than just "a guitar" is how i look at it.
its what youre using to communicate and get in touch with your true self, a musical language and an alphabetic piece of wood if you pardon my french, not exactly a 2x4 with 6 strings...
i dont really care much about the body part on my guitar but i totally worship and am a maniac when it comes to its neck and electronics.
I lost an Hofner way back ago and still hate myself for it cos' i cant find that neck anymore.
hands, strings and neck must be kept clean at all jam time. sweating a lot, I try to wash my hands everytime I'm about to play and clean my instrument when done (generally...)

btw: I've always wondered why some guitarists will sand off the back of their neck, I believe i mostly saw this on stratocasters...(looks cool, sorta, but...)
i suppose its to remove somekind of sticky varnish/finish but doesnt it damage the instrument in the long run? i'm not talking price/value but is there like counter-indications about doing this?


I just read this on the ErniBall/Musicman site. i believe its the best you can do with unfinished necks:
To clean the neck, use a high-grade of lemon oil. If the neck is very dirty, try Murphy's Oil Soap diluted 3:1. Some players have found that using a toothbrush for cleaning is very effective.

Since the neck is unfinished, it is more susceptible to humidity changes. A very infrequent dose of gunstock oil will help to keep the neck maintained; we recommend Birchwood-Casey Tru-Oil, but any good quality gunstock oil will work. Use a small amount, leave it on for 5 minutes, then wipe it off with a paper towel. After that, apply Birchwood-Casey Gunstock Wax. Be sure to douse the paper towel with water before disposing of it! Read the wax and oil manufacturer's instructions regarding disposal of these used paper towels.

Birchwood-Casey products are available at most sporting goods or gun stores. Their web address is http://www.birchwoodcasey.com.

Rosewood fingerboards should not be treated with the gunstock oil; instead they should be treated with a high grade of lemon oil. Again, for cleaning, try using the same high grade of lemon oil to clean the entire neck, both maple and rosewood fretboards. If the neck is very dirty, you can use a small amount of Murphy's Oil Soap, diluted 3:1 to clean it. Keep in mind that if the dirt has gotten into the wood, it cannot be removed except by sanding it down, which we do not recommend. It is better to keep it clean in the first place. Washing your hands first helps! On an unfinished neck, some discoloration after many hours of playing is normal. Be sure to follow all of the manufacturers recommended safety precautions when using any of these oils or waxes.


Cullen, ever heard of someone trying to do this "scalloped fret" thing on his/her guitar?
I only have one for the moment so i'm not going to try it but it sure is tempting.
link to:http://www.ancient-future.com/guitar/scallop.html


i just droped a grand on a new adamas last weekend. this peticular model had a oiled mahog & maple 5 peice neck. you can use tung oil or any of that shit if you want. but the best protectant for unfinished oiled neck is a couple of good coats of butchers wax. rub it in and buff between coats with 0000 oil free steel wool.


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