Cleaning & Polishing - What's the difference?
The prospect of cleaning doesn’t spark energy into most of us, but it’s always worth giving our guitars a bit of attention, to help maintain playability and prolong their life.
Before you pick up your guitar, we’d always recommend giving your hands a good clean (you never know what kind of grease you’ve got leftover from your lunch on them)! A guitar’s body will generally become dirty due to the sweat and oils that are expelled from our bodies and transferred to the guitar’s surface. These oils are transferred to several noticeable points on the guitar (namely the back of the neck) but also the top part of the body where our right arm usually sits (if you are right-handed, of course; vice-versa for lefties!). There’s also always dust and oil particles from the surrounding atmosphere that will sit on the guitar’s surface, too. No matter where you’re playing, whether it be at home or a club, these oil and dust particles in the air can create a ‘build-up’ on the surface of the guitar. If left for a prolonged period, this can become a bit more stubborn, so a regular polish of your guitar is always recommended to prevent this.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it is worth noting that polishing and cleaning are different things. Cleaning is referring to more of a ‘deep-clean’ which includes getting rid of the dust, dirt, finger marks and grime that may have built up. Polishing, on the other hand, usually comes after cleaning, and this is the process of bringing a nice lustre and shine to your guitar. Right, let’s get to it….
Before you do start cleaning, it’s definitely worth being aware of WHAT finish you have on your guitar’s body. Over the years guitars have been treated with several different formulas of lacquer and, as a result, different finishes will be harder or softer and wear slightly different to others. It’s worth knowing or finding out which yours has been treated with just to make sure you clean it in the appropriate way, and with the correct products.
Many older guitars from the 50’s and 60’s were finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, and this finish is also found on some higher end guitars made today. Nitrocellulose is a softer, thinner lacquer finish, and is primarily used as it allows the wood to breathe and the natural resonant tone of the guitar’s wood to shine through. When nitrocellulose lacquer is applied, it soaks into the wood grain giving a desirable finish, too. As a result of nitrocellulose’s softer composition, it tends to wear a bit easier and, over time, finishes can discolour, giving a yellow tinge. They are also more susceptible to checking (light thin cracks) which you may have seen in older guitar finishes. This can happen with exposure to changes in temperatures and humidity, where the wood will expand and contract.
Because Nitro finishes are more delicate, they can also have reactions to certain materials on guitar stands, particularly if they are left for prolonged periods of time. The finish reacts with the rubber and can blister a nitro finish, so always take care if you are leaving a guitar with a nitro finish on a stand.
It’s always advised to take the greatest of care with vintage guitars. Vintage guitars will usually have lacquered nitrocellulose finishes. On a guitar with a heavily checked finish you’ll want to avoid using polishes or cleaners altogether as these can get in between the cracks and start to penetrate the wood underneath. If this happens it can cause the finish to lift/flake and could discolour the wood too.
Naturally all guitars are different and some finishes will be more checked than others, so pay attention to your guitar and be sensitive to the condition it’s in. Often fogging up the finish with your breathe will generate a light moisture (just enough to clean the body). Failing that, moistening a clean rag ever so slightly with warm water to make it slightly damp would be the next port of call. Again, the cloth shouldn’t be sopping in any way at all – barely damp is the order of the day here, along with a very light touch. If the finish is heavily checked, you need to be extremely careful. A very light rub over with a clean cloth will probably be the best bet to avoid any potential damage.
If you are cleaning a more modern instrument with a nitrocellulose finish, then it is advised to be careful in choosing the products you use. If the finish isn’t checked in any way (small cracks in the lacquer) you can still use a guitar polish (NOT cleaner) but it’s certainly advised to use it sparingly, and to apply to a cloth first. As the finish is softer than a poly’ finish, it’s worth bearing this in mind just to avoid using anything that could prove damaging, as by polishing a nitrocellulose finish you are effectively taking off a bit of the finish every time you polish it. The Music Nomad Guitar Polish or Guitar Detailer are safe choices to use in this instance.
Polyurethane and Polyester Finishes
Polyurethane lacquer began to be used from the late 60’s onwards. It’s a thicker finish than nitrocellulose, and was introduced to finishing instruments because it gives a glossier, more even finish that’s much harder wearing. Production wise it was cheaper and quicker to apply, as it required less coats of lacquer in comparison to the application of nitrocellulose to a body. Polyurethane is a thicker finish, so doesn’t show the signs of wear that nitrocellulose does, and if it does damage you’ll notice that they tend to chip rather than show any checking in the finish.
Polyester finishes are harder wearing still, and highly resistant to scratching, checking and discolouration, which may be caused by age or temperature/humidity changes. Polyester possesses all the properties of polyurethane, and also maintains the nice bright colour on a finish, even with age. Polyester finishes are also thicker, so tend to act as more of a sealant when they’re applied to guitars.
Because they are thicker, polyurethane and polyester finishes are far more durable and resilient to cleaners and polishes. So long as you use a dedicated guitar cleaning and polishing product (to avoid using any nasty chemicals) in a sensible amount, you should be absolutely fine, with no worries of causing any damage to the finish.
Some guitars will come with a more matte, or satin finish. These finishes have a characteristic flatter finish with less of a sheen, as opposed to being glossy. These guitars will usually still have been treated with a similar lacquer such as polyester, polyurethane or nitrocellulose, except they’re not glossy, as they haven’t been buffed up to a glossy shine.
Many manufacturers of matte or satin finishes will recommend you stick to cleaning your guitar simply with a clean, damp cloth, and then using a clean dry cloth to finish off. It’s best to follow to this method of cleaning, as the use of most polishes can leave a sheen on the surface, which give the guitar an uneven finish with shiny spots. You’ll notice that some matte finished guitars will get shinier in some areas over time such, as where the arm sits on the top edge of the guitar and has effectively been buffing the surface through the course of it’s life.
If you did wish to use a polish we’d recommend opting for the Music Nomad Guitar Detailer as this has been specially formulated for use on matte finishes.
As you can see, the finish on your guitar will determine which approach you take to clean your guitar.
Just to reiterate, if your guitar has a more delicate, checked finish, you need to be more mindful and use some common sense in any product you apply (if any) by how much you use, and the method in how you use it too.
When you do start to clean your guitar, it’s always worth keeping several clean cloths or rags close by. If you’ve used one cloth to clean the guitar initially, it’s well worth using a different clean cloth on another part of the guitar. If you do only have the one cloth, try to use different parts of it so that you’re not transferring the dirt you’ve just lifted off the guitar back onto it.
The best cloths are the soft ones, as these are more delicate on the finish of your guitar. The yellow soft flannel cloths you usually get when you buy your guitar are great, as are old 100% cotton T-shirts (just make sure you’ve given them a wash first!). You may also wish to keep a cloth made of thinner material close by, too, as this will make it easier to get into those tight crevices where dust can settle, such as around your hardware, on the bridge, or on the machine heads.
Initially, it’s worth taking a clean microfiber cloth and very lightly going over the body to remove any dust or dirt that could be sitting on the surface. Believe it or not, some of the smaller dirt and dust can act as small abrasives to the surface, and can be the cause of surface scratches on the finish, so it is well worth getting those off before you start.
We’d always recommend applying any cleaning fluids directly to the cloth before applying it to the body of your guitar. This way it avoids you using too much, and the polish going everywhere and getting into some hard to reach areas, making it a little more difficult to remove. When you’re using any polish or cleaner, it’s always worth using a circular motion to ensure an even spread of the polish across the surface.
As mentioned earlier, guitar cleaners are different to polishes. A guitar cleaner will contain a very mild abrasive, which is able to lift the dust and dirt from the body. These tend to be used if the body is a bit grubby. Otherwise, just a regular guitar polish will suffice. Despite the abrasive in cleaners being mild and very safe, they’re often more coarse than what is found in a guitar spray polish, so you don’t want to use it excessively on your finish. Once it’s done it’s job and you’re happy with the result you’ve got from the ‘cleaner,’ you’re all good to switch to a polish for a brighter shine.
If giving your guitar a good clean, you may want to lift off the knobs too… it’s surprising how much dirt and dust can make their way underneath and build up around the pots.
Guitar polishes tend to be used after ‘cleaning’ your guitar, and are usually a lot thinner than guitar cleaner. Guitar polishes will often contain a small bit of wax (pure carnauba wax is the best), which acts as a protectant and helps give the finish a lustrous shine. Wax in a polish can often leave a slight haze on the finish, but can easily be buffed out using a clean cloth. They provide less of a ‘deep clean’ than a guitar cleaner, but will still contain a very fine abrasive that will help lift the dirt from the instrument’s surface. Because of the presence of the fine abrasive in the polish, it’s recommended to be used sparingly on guitars with nitrocellulose finishes, and definitely avoided if the finish is checked as mentioned above. A reputable guitar polish will not scratch a guitar’s finish.