Chatter: Gary Brawer - Polish, Clean, or Wax?

October 22, 2013

Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”

WE GET ASKED AT THE SHOP how we clean up and polish the guitars we work on, and if it’s possible to do the same job at home. I want to go over a few tips on cleaning and protecting the different areas and materials of your guitar, starting with painted finishes this month and covering unfinished wood and metal next time.

To polish, clean, or wax? That is the question. I have found that depending on the finish and type of dirt, some treatments work better than others, and you need to apply the treatments in the proper order to get the best results. A common problem is starting with a wax or polish on a dirty guitar. Quite often, you can end up moving the dirt around and not getting any gloss—or worse, scratching the guitar with the surface dirt. The best and safest thing to do with any finish is to use some kind of cleaner first. In addition to cleaning products from major brands like Dunlop 65 and Music Nomad Detailer, I have used Naphtha or Murphy Oil Soap on a slightly damp cloth to slowly clean a guitar. My good friend Dan Erlewine is a believer in hot moist breath (his nickname, of course), which works wonders with a good cloth.

I have seen some road techs use Dr. Duck’s Ax Wax on the whole guitar, top to bottom. Some brands, like Virtuoso, Legend, and others, have a two-part cleaner and polish intended for vintage lacquer finishes. Polish may or may not have very fine grit, but it is designed to bring out more luster in the finish. If you have a vintage lacquer finish, you may want to stop there, so as to not have any build up. The thought being that lacquer finish breathes and can harden with age, and you may not want to inhibit the aging process. If you are going for more protection, a wax is designed to go on last to protect from sweat and moisture, and it may even have some UV protection to help keep the color strong.

If after you clean the guitar you notice some scratches, now is a good time to polish them out. Rubbing compounds are designed to remove heavier scratches, and then you can move on to a swirl remover. These are available from manufacturers such as Big Bends, StewMac, Zymol, and 3M. You might also look into a newer product by Menzerna called FG-400.

Be careful to use a good polish cloth meant for the job. Some thinner cloths may be better for polishing or buffing, but for cleaning, a thicker pad with more absorbency will pull the dirt away from the instrument. Most paper towels will scratch guitars—although I have found Job Squad and Viva to work well. No matter what you do, start with a small, out-of- the way corner, see how that goes, and work your way to a well-kept instrument.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.

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