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Caring for your ukulele

Several environmental conditions affect the health of your uke. First is humidity. Ukes are made from wood and wood absorbs or loses moisture, depending on the weather. Too dry and it shrivels and cracks. Too moist and it swells and cracks or warps.

You could always built a climate-controlled room for your instruments, but it's more practical to clean and inspect them regularly and, when necessary either put them into a case with a humidifier, or take them out to let them dry out.

If your ukes lose their tuning, it suggests that they're either too dry or too wet. Necks warp with changing humidity. The action will change. The optimum humidity is around 50%.

Clean your uke regularly. It's basically the same as caring for and cleaning a guitar. Many guitar makers sell lines of branded polish or cleaner, and fretboard oil, all designed specifically for musical instruments. These are usually equally effective in cleaning and caring for your uke. Get a bottle of both. Some are spray applicators, others are squeeze type bottles.

Your skin produces sweat. Sweat contains many chemicals, including salts, that can deteriorate wood and wood finishes, and corrode fret wires. They don't evaporate, but collect on the surface, trapping more dust and dirt.

A simple cleaning and polishing will remove most of these compounds and protect your instrument. But not all cleaning materials are suitable and it depends a lot on the finish and the woods as to which you use. Unless your uke is dull or needs remedial work, you can use a simple cleaner, rather than a polish. Polish will enhance the shine on a gloss surface, but will also make a satin finish shiny!

Don't use the same cleaning compound on the body and on the fretboard. They have different needs.

Most top and side woods is finished with a protective material like a polyurethane that can be cleaned with a number of commercial products. Most fretboards are bare wood, so these cleaners are not suitable. Sometimes the neck is finished with a different material from the topboard (such as a satin finish), and may require different care.

Furniture care products "contain waxes, petroleum distillates, emulsifiers (detergents), and lots and lots of water. A very light spray on maple to clean it is fine, but aerosol polishes should not be used on unvarnished fretboards." Also make sure the product contains no abrasives or polishing compounds unless you intend to polish the uke.

Be careful when cleaning - the edges of the sound hole and the bridge are usually unprotected wood. Treat them the same way you treat the fretboard and try to avoid using cleaning fluid on them.

Be very careful cleaning around cracks, dents, dings or blemishes. You do not want cleaning fluid to get into them, because they will cause the wood to swell and exacerbate the problems. Small scratches and surface marks can be sealed with clear nail polish using a tiny brush and a steady hand. Cracks can be sealed with wax - there are guitar waxes that are suitable for this, and they help prevent moisture from getting in.

Fretboard oils are meant to both clean the surface, and replace oils the fretboard loses. Most uke fretboards are made of rosewood or ebony, a few are mahogany. These are not varnished and depend on their natural oils to protect them. Those natural oils wear off with use, and need to be replenished. The oils also accumulate grime from regular use.

To clean the fretboard, first use a micro-fibre cloth to remove any surface dirt and grime. According to this site, a plastic scrubber can help remove material that accumulates, especially beside the fret wires. The author recommends strongly against using lemon oil on fretboards because it's also a solvent. However, since lemon oil is seldom in a very powerful concentration in most cleaners, it can help remove grime without being damaging. The popular Dunlop fretboard oil is lemon-based.

Some writers like this one even say 000/0000 (fine/extra fine) steel wool is suitable for cleaning fretboards. I would want to remove the strings entirely before using steel wool, which will damage nylon strings easily. It will also abrade fret wires and could mar the finish on the edges I think any fretboard that's so grungy it requires steel wool has not been well cared for from the start. Regular cleaning should prevent such serious build-up.

A big point to make is that you need to wipe down strings and fretboard once you've applied oil or cleaner. You don't want excess oils attracting more dust. Wipe the back of the stings - the side closest to the fretboard - because oil will attract dirt which in turn will abrade the fret board and wires.

A good furniture oil may be suitable for fretboards, but don't be mislead by advertising claims on household products. They're not designed for use on musical instruments. Many of the popular furniture cleaners leave a residue (for that glowing look afterwards) that will build up on the instrument over time. Go to a furniture store or a refinisher and find out what oil they use and ask what it contains.

There are rub-on compounds for strings and fretboards intended to make them smoother (therefore faster to play). These work for play, but they also leave a layer of wax that will have to be cleaned up later. The residue can also become sticky after a while.

I prefer a micro-fibre cloth for my ukes because they seem to pick up the dust and surface material very well, and aren't rough enough to mar the surface.

Do not - I'll repeat that for emhasis: do NOT - use Windex or a similar ammonia-based cleaner for your ukulele. No matter what you read online, these products are designed to cut grease on non-porous surfaces like glass, not wood. Wood will dry out quickly and potentially crack or warp. Ammonia can deteriorate plastics like those in your strings and can dull the surface finish. Stick to proper guitar-care products to be safe.

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