Some unfinished fretboards are vulnerable to dryness and cracking.
And it might not matter what kind of timber that fretboard is made from either. Raw bare wood can dry out over time, (especially in very dry-heat). And in turn this can cause frets to unsettle.
Even Rosewood, (a naturally dense and oily wood), could need some help to stay in tip top condition.
So, this is why you need to oil your fretboard. Although in the case of Rosewood or Ebony fretboards, they only need oiling once every couple years – at most.
Now, there are plenty of different wood oils on the market that you can put on a guitar. But, when it boils down to Lemon oil vs Tung oil, which one is better for your instrument?
Well, these two oils perform very different roles on a fretboard. Tung oil is used when we want to finish a fretboard. While Lemon oil is used to rehydrate an unfinished fretboard.
In other words, if you are in the middle of building your guitar, then you can use Tung oil to finish that guitar neck. In which case, Lemon oil doesn’t even come into consideration.
But, if you purchased a guitar with an unfinished wooden neck, (or you want to keep your DIY guitar fretboard unfinished), then you use Lemon oil. And lemon oils job is to inject a little life back into timber.
Despite Tung oil and Lemon oil being referred to interchangeably, (when people talk about treating a fretboard), they are not comparable.
So, we are going to dive into what makes these oils so different, and what alternative oils you can use instead (hint: neither one of these oils is your best option)…
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Is Lemon Oil Really A Wood Finish?
Short answer? Lemon oil can be used as a wood finish.
Long answer? Lemon oil is what we refer to in the industry as a ‘non-drying oil’.
And that means this oil will penetrate wood, but it does not cure and harden into a resin (like say a Tung oil or Linseed oil finish will).
This is because the main ingredient in Lemon oil is in fact Mineral oil (with lemon oil droplets added to it). At least that’s the case with a lot of these specialized fretboard oil products.
Mineral oil is non-drying, food safe, and is regularly used as a finish on cutting boards and butcher blocks.
But, because it is a non-drying oil, it needs to be reapplied frequently.
And, What Is Lemon Oil Good For?
It’s mainly used to help condition very dry wooden surfaces. And is popularly used to give faded wood grain a bit of an enhancement.
But, Isn’t Lemon Oil A Drying Oil? Does It Dry Onto Wood?
Lemon oil doesn’t dry onto wood. Instead, what it does is sink deep into wood grain.
Lemon oil will penetrate timber and leave behind very little oil on the surface. This process will take it about 20 minutes after you apply a thin coat of it. After which, you can add another coat (repeating the process until you saturate the wood with oil). Or you can leave it be.
Regardless, when Lemon oil sinks into wood, it adds life back to parched timber. And it also acts as a water-repellent too (helping wood to resist rot and decay).
What About Tung Oil? Is It A Good Wood Finish?
Tung oil is a great sealing wood finish. And it is what we refer to as a ‘drying oil’.
Drying oils are oil finishes that penetrate wood (just like Lemon oil). However, drying oils will harden into a durable resin. This resin acts as a water-resistant coat that keeps moisture out.
Pure Tung oil, is what you would use as a wood finish to make a finished fretboard. You apply it to a bare guitar fretboard, let it dry, and you need never reapply it again.
And once dry, Tung oil leaves behind a silky smooth satin cover.
But Tung oil, (the proper pure stuff and not one of the fake-Tung oil products on the market), is slow-drying.
We are talking weeks here, not days, for this stuff to dry and cure into its final form.
Related Post: Does An Amaranth Fretboard Ever Need Oil?
So, When Should You Use Lemon Oil On A Fretboard?
Here’s the thing, you only need to apply lemon oil to a fretboard if that fretboard is unfinished. Otherwise, just leave it be.
But, if you do have an unfinished fretboard, then there’s really only 2 situations that would require you to apply oil:
- You live in a very dry, hot environment. And we are talking desert-levels of low-humidity here. In which case, even Rosewood and Ebony fretboards will struggle to hang onto their natural oils.
- You’re beginning to see small cracks form in your fretboard. In which case, this is an indication that the fretboards timber is absolutely parched.
So, if you find yourself in either one of those two situations, then its time to oil up that fretboard.
But, quick caveat, Lemon’s are acidic. And, if that lemon oil is more lemon drops than mineral oil, it could end up discoloring the wood of your guitar.
In which case, you probably should use a less harsh oil instead.
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Like it was mentioned above, the main ingredient in Lemon oil is mineral oil.
So, instead of specialist fretboard oils, just use plain old unadorned mineral oil – with no additives in it. And you can get mineral oil from any local store.
And When Should You Use Tung Oil On A Fretboard?
If you want to seal that unfinished fretboard for good, then Tung oil is what you would use. There’s no point using this finish for any other reason on your fretboard.
That is because it dries, cures, and hardens into a tough film. Sure, it will sink into wood and hydrate it. But, unlike Mineral oil, Tung oil will build up a bit of resin on the surface of wood. And that hard resin will make sure that little else can sink into wood afterwards.
In other words, don’t use Tung oil to clean and/or condition your fretboard. Only use it if you want to finish and seal your fretboard for good.
Now, having said that, Tung oil is still a very slow-dryer. And, even when you use thin coats of it, it can build up a little around the frets.
That’s why you should use a thinner oil finish – one that’ll leave behind a ‘barely-there’ surface coat.
And Is There A Better Tung Oil Alternative?
Tru-oil is a drying oil made from a blend of Linseed oil and thinners. Those thinners help make this product much less viscous than Linseed oil or Tung oil.
Also, Tru-oil will dry in less than half the time of Tung oil. And, because it’s not as thick as Tung oil, you would need to apply 12-15 coats of this finish just to get the same thickness-level as 3-5 coats of Tung oil.
So, if you want an almost wafer-thin shiny finish, (that dries fast), Tru-oil could prove to be right up your street.
We actually cover more about Tru-oil (and how it compares to Tung oil) in our article here: Tru-oil Vs Tung Oil: Which One’s Better For Your Guitar? Go check it out to discover if Tru-oil is the right finish for you.
To Wrap Up
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll rarely need to oil your guitars fretboard.
Few guitars are sold with unfinished fretboards. Typically, they come with some kind of poly or lacquer finish on them.
Related Post: What Is The Difference Between Lacquer and Polyurethane?
And the ones that aren’t finished, are usually made from special types of timber – the kind of timber that simply doesn’t need regular oiling.
However, there are always exceptions to the rule. And in those exceptional circumstances, you can use mineral oil to condition your guitars fretboard and keep it clean.