How To Clean Mandolin Strings And Your Fretboard

view looking down on mandolin strings

Of all the elements that generate a mandolin’s tone, the strings are the most critical. Different woods and shapes definitely have an effect on tone, but those aren’t things you can easily change and their effect is far more subtle. Just replace your mandolin strings with new ones and you instantly hear the difference in tone. Keeping your mandolin strings as clean as possible for as long as possible is key to preserving that new mandolin string tone.

Clean your mandolin strings every time you play your mandolin, both before and after. Take a few seconds to wipe the strings down before you play to remove any dust or debris that has settled on your mandolin between sessions. When you are done playing, quickly wipe the mandolin strings down again to remove any sweat, skin, oils and pick dust that may have gathered on the strings.

This quick maintenance routine will add hours of life to your mandolin strings. Not only will it help preserve the tone of your strings for longer, it will save you time and money as well.

Cleaning Your Mandolin Strings

To clean your mandolin strings you will need:

  • A clean flannel, cotton, or micro-fiber cloth
  • Enough time to ride a bull – about 8 seconds

The type of cloth you use is not as important as it being clean and dry. You will want to choose a fabric that will not leave lint or fibers on the strings. Ultimately, you need something clean to absorb and remove moisture and dust from the mandolin strings before it can get ground into the windings.

Steps to Clean Your Mandolin Strings

  1. Cloth on mandolin stringsStart by tucking a clean, dry cloth under the mandolin strings near the bridge.
  2. Pinch the cloth on either side of the mandolin strings and slide it all the way to the nut.
  3. Fold the cloth over so it covers both the top and bottom of the mandolin strings.
  4. Wipe down to the bridge.
  5. Repeat a few times until you are satisfied the strings are clean and dry.

Wash your cloth after several uses so that you maintain a clean cloth and replace it if it starts to fray. I like to keep a cloth on my mic or mandolin stand and can wipe the mandolin strings down between every song if I so choose. It literally only takes a few seconds.

If you are in a pinch and your mandolin strings are really dirty but you don’t have a new set you can boil the strings for 10 mins to get a bit more life out of them. In my opinion, the benefit of boiling strings is minimal at best and doesn’t come close to the benefit of a new set of strings. Maintaining a cleaning routine has far greater benefits and will extend the life of your strings more than boiling.

Sidenote: Homosapians are pretty gross.

One might look at a sea slug and think it’s a gross slimy animal, and one would be right. But humans are right up there when it comes to expelling fluids and skin flakes. The average person has about 20lbs of skin and will shed every cell of it in the ballpark of 11 times, depending on how long you live. That means if you live an average lifespan you’re going to leave about 200lbs of skin lying around by the time you die. For the most part, we do not die with many of the cells we started with (the ones we do are mostly in our brain and wouldn’t get shed anyway). Every time you play your mandolin, you wear off your calluses in a fine dust that mixes with the sebum (skin oil) that you secrete. This makes a bit of a paste that gets warm and gooey and sticks to your mandolin’s fretboard. I like to call this amalgam Gack.

And it’s not just your sweat, sebum and dander that will end up on your mandolin fretboards. There’s also ash and tar from cigarettes and weed. Dander from pets and oil from cooking. Ever seen someone sneeze into the sunlight? Yeah, that floats around and lands on your mandolin. By wiping down your mandolin strings routinely before and after you play, you limit the amount of material that can combine to create gack. Unfortunately, gack will still start to build up and you’re going to want to clean it off because it gets into your string winds and kills your mandolin’s tone. In general, gack comes off pretty easily and can be addressed every time you change your strings.

Putting new strings on your mandolin only to start pressing those bright new strings right into the gack you left on your fretboard is akin to going for a run and then putting on your clean work shirt while you’re still sweaty.

How to Clean a Mandolin Fretboard

For light/routine mandolin fretboard cleaning you will need:

  • Warm water with a drop of dish soap or fretboard conditioner (if your fretboard is unfinished maple, please read all warnings)
  • Two clean cloths

Steps to Clean your Mandolin Fretboard

  1. Remove the old strings (you can loosen then cut them if you’re putting on new strings).
  2. Wet a small area of cloth with the warm, soapy water or fretboard conditioner.
  3. If using water, wring as much water out of the cloth as possible.
  4. Wipe the fretboard thoroughly and vigorously between and up against both sides of all mandolin frets.
  5. Frequently move to a new spot on the rag as it gets soiled.
  6. Frequently use the other cloth to dry any water or excess conditioner that remains on the fretboard as you clean it (water left on the fretboard can damage the wood. Further, older instruments may not have stainless steel frets and can rust).

Mandolin on burlap materialAs you clean you will see what area of the fretboard you play the most and it will need the most attention. Near the body will likely be much cleaner than near the nut. Follow up this cleaning by wiping your mandolin fretboard down with a quality lemon oil, mineral oil or other fretboard conditioner. Throw on some new mandolin strings, tune it up, and Bob’s your uncle.

Applying a mandolin fretboard conditioner is not necessary but it does have benefits. It keeps the gack from sticking, allowing it to easily wipe away when doing routine maintenance. Further, when wood dries it shrinks. This can cause the frets to loosen over time or the fret ends can begin to protrude from the edge of the fretboard making for uncomfortable playing. Applying fretboard conditioner helps keep the wood from drying out to a point that causes these problems.

If you have not been maintaining a daily cleaning routine, don’t tend to wash your hands, or have any of the other environmental factors previously discussed, you may need to put some extra effort into cleaning your mandolin fretboard.

How to Deep Clean a Mandolin Fretboard

For heavier mandolin fretboard cleaning you will need one or more of the following:

  • Toothbrush or other small, soft bristled brush, a dry cloth and warm soapy water.
  • Triple or four aught (000, 0000) steel wool.
  • Razor blade (Do you really need to be told razor blades are dangerously sharp? Probably not, but there’s always that one guy. Warning: Razor blades are dangerously sharp).

Fretboards with a finish or stain should only be cleaned with a razor or steel wool if you are prepared to repolish the fretboard when you are done. They are abrasive and will dull and scratch the finish and can remove paint and stain. You do not likely need to scrape the entire fretboard with a razor blade unless you are trying to remove the paint or finish. A razor blade should only be used to remove debris that warm soapy water or steel wool won’t remove. If you use steel wool on a lacquered fretboard be careful to not ‘sand’ through the finish. I recommend using an old, soft toothbrush for lacquered fretboards.

Steps for Heavier Mandolin Fretboard Cleaning

  1. Use steel wool on mandolin fretboardDip a toothbrush in warm water, shake out as much water as possible and scrub the area with the toothbrush. Always work in the direction of the wood grain.
  2. Immediately dry the area with a clean, dry cloth.
  3. If debris remains, use a chunk of steel wool approximately half the size of your palm.
  4. Rub the steel wool on the area of debris until it is removed.
  5. For really stuck on debris use a razor blade held parallel to the frets and 90 degrees to the fretboard to lightly scrape across the offending debris area until it is removed.

When you’re done, apply a fretboard conditioner or lemon oil to help prevent further buildup and to prevent the fretboard from drying out and shrinking.

Final Thoughts on Mandolin Strings

At the end of the day there is no alternative to a routine of cleaning your strings before and after playing. It prevents debris from collecting on the strings and getting forced into the winds which prevents the strings from vibrating properly. It only takes a few seconds and it will extend the life of your strings considerably.

Make sure to read some of our other articles below on cleaning your mandolin. If you need any cleaning supplies for your instrument, please take advantage of our research on the best products.

Andy Query

After years of doing repairs for friends and family as a side hustle I started Ibex Custom Guitars and repair out of my shop in Garden City, Idaho. Along with repairs I build custom electric and acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and cajóns. I apprenticed for five years under Master Luthier John Bolin of Bolin guitars where we built custom guitars for some of the biggest names in rock & roll, including ZZ Top, Steve Miller, and Joe Perry to name a few.

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