How To Clean And Restring Your Mandolin

Mandolin on burlap material

Cleaning and restringing your mandolin is one of those things that many players enjoy and actually look forward to. The smell and feel of a clean fretboard and polished mandolin, and the bright, crisp, clean tone of a brand new set of mandolin strings is just something that causes mandolin players to well up with excitement. Every mandolin player is different, so when to change your mandolin strings will depend on how often and how long you play; however, you will likely need to change your mandolin strings several times a year and you’ll want to give it a good cleaning while you’ve got the strings off.

Cleaning and restringing your mandolin is a simple procedure and the more you do it, the quicker and easier it gets. Begin by using a small piece of painter’s tape or masking tape to mark the front of where the bridge sits on the mandolin’s top. Remove the tailpiece cover and loosen the strings until the bridge can be easily removed, then remove the strings by unwinding each one until you can easily remove it from the tuning machine spool. Then remove each mandolin string’s loop from the tailpiece. With the strings off, use a clean dry cloth to remove all the dust, dander and debris that will easily wipe off the mandolin. Wet a quarter sized section of cloth with naphtha or other mandolin cleaner, wipe the entire mandolin body, neck, fretboard, and headstock until you are satisfied with its cleanliness. Restring the mandolin by putting the bridge back in place and winding the strings back on the tuning machine posts. 

Mandolin - tab above bridge

Mandolins are tuned to a higher register than many stringed instruments and rely on higher frequencies for their signature bright tone. A mandolin’s tone benefits from a new set of strings more so than most stringed instruments so you’ll want to change the strings more frequently than you might a guitar. The good news is that even though you are buying more strings, the cost of a set of mandolin strings is about the same as guitar strings.

Before you can clean your mandolin you should remove the strings so that you can clean deep around the tuning machines, tailpiece and pickguard. Before removing your strings, use painters tape or masking tape to mark where the front of the mandolin bridge sits on the mandolin top. If you aren’t super familiar with your mandolin, it’s also a good idea to put a small piece of tape on the front of the bridge itself so that you can place it back in the correct direction.

How to clean a mandolin:

I use naphtha (pronounced naf-tha or nap-tha) to clean every mandolin that comes into my shop. Naphtha is an inexpensive solvent that is effectively similar to oils, causing them to break down and allowing for easy removal. It can be purchased at most paint, hardware, or construction stores or purchase online from Amazon

WARNING!: If you choose to use Naphtha, know that it is a petrochemical and is extremely flammable. You must use it in a well-ventilated area away from open flame. 

Naphtha does an excellent job of breaking down the oils that the human body secretes, allowing the sebum and the dirt and other debris that accumulates in it to be easily wiped off of your mandolin. Naphtha also evaporates rapidly and will not harm wood or finish and it won’t leave any residue on your mandolin.

What you will need to clean your mandolin:

  • Two clean, dry cloths or lint-free shop cloths
  • One very soft, lint-free cloth or microfiber cloth
  • Naphtha or your favorite mandolin cleaner
  • Polish or paste wax

Steps for cleaning your mandolin:

  1. Place one dry cloth securely over the opening of the can of naphtha or your preferred cleaner.
  2. Tip the can upside down and let a little bit of the cleaner soak into the cloth.
  3. Use the wetted area of the cloth to wipe down the mandolin.
  4. Pay extra attention to the areas where skin comes into contact with the mandolin like the neck and lower bout of the body. This is where sebum (oils excreted from skin) tends to accumulate and attract dirt.
  5. Using a clean, dry cloth wipe the entire mandolin down to get rid of any excess cleaner.
  6. Apply a small amount of paste wax (Renaissance is my go-to), auto polish (I like Mother’s or Maguiar’s) or a polish for wood instruments to the finish.
  7. Rub the polish in with a very soft, lint-free cloth, let it dry for a few seconds and then wipe it off to bring out a nicely reflective, freshly polished finish.

By following a cleaning routine of wiping down your mandolin and strings before and after playing, it will retard the build up of oils, dander, and assorted other bodily excretions. Maintaining a clean mandolin will make the steps of cleaning it much quicker and easier when the time comes to get in there and give it a good cleaning. I find that the best time to do this is when you change your strings as they already have to come off the instrument.

How to restring your mandolin

What you will need to restring your mandolin:

  • One brand new set of your favorite mandolin strings
  • Painter’s tape or masking tape
  • Wire cutters (flush cut is preferable)
  • String Winder (optional)

The first time you stab yourself on the remaining snippet of a high E string you will instantly gain an appreciation for flush cut wire cutters. For reference, a light gauge high E string is .010 inches thick, about the same as a 30 gauge insulin needle and will insert itself into your skin (or eye) just as easily. For that reason I highly recommend flush cut wire cutters.

How to restring your mandolin:

  1. Carefully place a piece of painter’s tape or masking tape in front of the entire bridge to mark where the bridge needs to go when you restring your mandolin. If your mandolin is older and has heavy cracking in the finish it’s a good idea to put the tape on your pant leg and take it off a few times to help reduce the stickiness and keep it from removing the finish when you pull it off.
  2. Remove the tailpiece cover.
  3. Using your fingers or a string winder, loosen the strings until you can easily remove them from the tuning spools.
  4. Remove the bridge and set it aside.
  5. Mandolin tail pieceRemove the string loops from the tailpiece.
  6. Clean your mandolin using the instructions above.
  7. Open the package of new strings and lay them out in order of size.
  8. Beginning with the first low G string, remove the string or color indicator sticker if it has one. Use naphtha to remove any sticker residue left behind.
  9. lace the loop end of the string onto the tailpiece string nub.
  10. Insert the other end of the string into the string hole in the tuning post.
  11. To get the proper amount of winds, pull the mandolin string through the tuning post until it is slightly taut and bend the string 90 degrees upward at the third tuning peg.
  12. Pull the string back through the first tuning peg until the bend in the string rests against the post. Wrap the string one time over the excess string then wind the remainder below the excess string so as to pinch it between the winds, being careful not to cross the string over itself.
  13. As you wind the string and it tightens, ensure that the string is in the appropriate nut slot.
  14. Tighten the string till it sounds a low tone when plucked, but do not bring it up to pitch.
  15. Repeat steps 8-13 with the first E string.
  16. Mandolin - restringWith one G and one E string in place carefully replace the bridge by sliding it under the two strings. Make sure that the strings are in the outermost saddle slots and gently slide it up to the edge of your painter’s tape marker. Give the two strings a bit more tension to help hold the bridge in place.
  17. Repeat steps 8-13 with the remaining G and E strings followed by the D and A strings.
  18. Once all the strings are on the mandolin bring it up to tune. As you do so, pull the strings up a couple inches at the 12th fret and wiggle them a bit to ensure they are properly seated in the nut and saddle and to help them stretch.
  19. Once tuned, snip the excess string off as flush as possible with the tuning post.

Can you use guitar strings on a mandolin?

It is both a waste of time and money and I can only see a benefit if you break your last string in the middle of a gig and all you can find is a similar gauge ball end guitar string. Technically, the answer is yes. Fundamentally, I do not recommend it. 

The technical part of the answer is that the E through A guitar strings can cover the same gauge ranges of mandolin strings. Roughly .010 – ~.038. In an emergency, if you can use a pair of pliers to remove the ball from the guitar string end, you give yourself a loop that can go over the nub of the mandolin tailpiece. 

However, if you are trying to restring a mandolin with guitar strings, don’t waste your time or money. It would take at least two sets of strings and you have to remove the ball from each string. Just buy mandolin strings. They are the same price as a set of guitar strings.

What are the best mandolin strings to use?

There are several brands of very good mandolin strings. Each player has different instruments, needs, styles, and skill levels. Each of those things plays into what the best type of strings for the individual are. I recommend D’addario and Martin brand mandolin strings. Many people prefer the Elixer coated mandolin strings and Ernie Ball makes a reasonably good bargain priced set. I’ve included links to each on Amazon for you to research further:

How long do mandolin strings last?

It depends. There are many factors that contribute to the degradation of mandolin strings. Environment, playing style, how often and long you play, quality and material of the strings, and personal preference are all contributing factors. For the sake of making it simple, basically you need to replace the strings when their tone has noticeably degraded. That is typically 1-3 months. However, keeping your strings clean with routine cleaning by wiping your strings every time, before and after you play can double the functional life of your strings.

Keeping your mandolin clean with a routine cleaning is simple and effective. It saves time when you need to give it a thorough cleaning and it saves money because you don’t have to change your strings as often. It also makes your mandolin look cared for and appreciated.

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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