Rosewood fretboard finishing

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Rodent, Feb 24, 2009.

  1. Rodent

    Rodent A Killer Pickup Line™ Commercial User

    Dec 20, 2004
    Upper Left Corner (Seattle)
    Player-Builder-Founder: Honey Badger Pickups & Regenerate Guitar Works
    taking a little break from some insanely long day-job hours this week ...

    I decided I'd do something different and expend my building horizons. if you've seen threads on my building you'll recognize that I'm a Maple fretboard kinda guy and all of my builds to date reflect that. Well, enough of that I said, and so I decided that my next 5-string build would have a Rosewood fretboard as you can see here (yes, it's a no overhang 21-fret 34" scale for 19mm bridge spacing neck :) )


    so I have everything ready to go, but I've been putting off finishing the fretboard ... until now.

    So you guys who finish Rosewood boards on a regular basis, what's your process and materials on finishing a Rosewood fretboard? Fine sanding, steel wool, and Watco teak oil? Something else?

    It'd be great if a few builders detailed their process so that this could become a reference thread for others

    all the best,

  2. stflbn


    May 10, 2007

  3. John Wentzien

    John Wentzien

    Jun 25, 2007
    Elberta, AL
    Artist:TC Electronic RH450 bass system (original test-pilot)
    I use 0000 steel wool with a little lemon oil.
    Rosewood has so much "natural" oil in it already...I like leaving it raw.
    Just touch it up wit a little lemon oil if it starts looking too dry,
    Unfinished rosewood has a geat feel to it IMO.

    Looks Good! BTW
  4. I have started finishing a maple / rosewood neck with tung oil and realized that sanding the fret board was a bit harder than I thought.

    0000 steel or 1000 grit? That is the question
  5. AndyW83


    Feb 18, 2009
    does anyone know if there is a big difference in brazilian rosewood and indian rosewood? im mordering an elrick and am still unsure what fret board to get....
  6. Low Main

    Low Main Supporting Member

    Nov 27, 2004
    First things first - nice job of wood selection with the maple on that neck. That's the most important piece of wood on a bass, IMHO.

    Lemon oil is OK, but it's good to keep in mind that "lemon oil" is basically paraffin oil with added fragrance. So it's a non-drying oil, like walnut oil, etc.

    My concern with using a non-drying oil is if it wicks into the nut slot, down the road you want to replace the nut and you find that when you spot glue a new nut in the slot, the glue does not adhere well, and the nut comes loose.

    Same concern with it getting in the fret slots if you prefer to refret using superglue or epoxy.

    Also, the residual oil film will likely attract grime and other contaminants over time. For those who want to "fill the board with the gunk and funk" a la Jamerson, this is totally OK.

    If you use a drying oil that actually polymerizes, often those will really darken up a rosewood board and make it look muddy. Such as linseed oil, pure unpolymerized tung oil, or Watco. Doing a test on a scrap piece is helpful.

    If you flood a drying oil or other finish that dries and hardens onto the board, some of it will likely get under the frets and make them harder to remove cleanly down the road when it's time to re-fret or defret.

    So applying the finish sparingly and carefully is important, regardless of what finish it is.

    Two good choices that I like to use: high grade polymerized tung oil such as Sutherland Welles, and General Finishes Salad Bowl Oil, which is really a wiping varnish, not an oil.

    Two other finishes I like: de-waxed shellac, and alkyd varnish (or urethane). Zinsser Seal-Coat shellac is great stuff - buy it by the can at the paint store.

    With any of those finishes, I thin them way down and pad them on carefully with a soft cloth pad, working between the frets if the neck is already fretted. My best case scenario would be to pad on the thin finish before fretting. Using just enough finish to seal the pores and keep the board looking well once the hot fingers start dancing up and down on it. I'm not trying to completely fill the pores or build up a high sheen.

    If you use an oil, varnish or urethane, thin it with mineral spirits instead of naphtha - the spirits dry slower, so it's easier to control the finish as you apply it. Don't use "paint thinner" as found in paint and hardware stores - that contains a lot of reclaimed solvents and is not a high grade product. Lots of folks think that mineral spirits and paint thinner are interchangeable, but paint thinner is a much lower grade solvent.

    Hey, post another pic after the finish app! Good luck.
  7. mikeyswood

    mikeyswood Banned

    Jul 22, 2007
    Cincinnati OH
    Luthier of Michael Wayne Instruments
    OT but IR is more brown and BR is famous for its brilliant colors; and brilliant price.

    BTT I take my fingerboards to 2000 grit and keep them natural. Maple fretboards get an epoxy coat and I am really considering going with some acrylized Maple from Larry the next time I do Maple.
  8. I sand/burnish down to 2000 grit which really gives it a nice shine, fret & dress, then Formby's lemon oil sparingly.

    Any kind of urethane or varnish that builds (even slightly) runs the risk of not adhering to rosewood because of the natural oils, which means it can flake off over time.
  9. Rodent

    Rodent A Killer Pickup Line™ Commercial User

    Dec 20, 2004
    Upper Left Corner (Seattle)
    Player-Builder-Founder: Honey Badger Pickups & Regenerate Guitar Works
    BTW, just for reference that's an Indian Rosewood fretboard on the 5-string neck in my first post. I have a Brazillian Rosewood fretboard 5-string neck in the works ... I'll add images of it to this thread in a couple weeks purely for comparison reference between the two woods.

    thanks for the tips so far! :) it looks like I was generally thinking in the right direction, but there are definitely some great nuggets of wisdom in several of the posts above that I had not thought of. keep 'em coming

    all the best,

  10. AndyW83


    Feb 18, 2009
    in your opinions is it worth spending the extra money on the brazillian rosewood?
  11. Brazilian is darker with more purples & reds, denser - East Indian is lighter, more toward slightly lighter purples & greys, less natural oil content than Brazilian so it needs a little more maintenance. Both work great, I doubt you'll notice any tone difference - it depends on what the upcharge is.
  12. doktorfeelgood

    doktorfeelgood layin' it down like pavement Supporting Member

    Great post....VERY informative.
    What do you think of Stewart/McDonald's fretboard oil? Any experience with that? I've been thinking of buying a bottle of that. I'd appreciate any info you might have. )-(
  13. AndyW83


    Feb 18, 2009
    -around $400 more for the brazillian
  14. LedBelli Bass

    LedBelli Bass Fine, Handmade Custom Bass Guitars

    Dec 25, 2008
    Pasco, WA
    For all fingerboards in the rosewood or ebony families I've borrowed from the high-end acoustic guitar builders: I sand to 2000 and leave the wood bare and open, and use Gerlitz Guitar Honey fingerboard treatment every 3-6 months (use it on any open guitar wood).