The traditional washboard is usually constructed with a rectangular wooden frame in which are mounted a series of ridges or corrugations for the clothing to be rubbed upon. For 19th century washboards, the ridges were often of wood; by the 20th century, ridges of metal were more common. A "fluted" metal washboard was patented in the US in 1833. Zinc washboards were manufactured in the US from the middle of the 19th century. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, ridges of galvanized steel are most common, but some modern boards are made of glass. Washboards with brass ridges are still made, and some who use washboards as musical instruments prefer the sound of the somewhat more expensive brass boards. One of the few musical instruments invented in America is the Zydeco Frottoir (Zydeco Rubboard), a distillation of the washboard into essential elements (percussive surface with shoulder straps) designed by Clifton Chenier and built by Willie Landry in 1946.
Though the washboard is generally used today as a musical instrument or sound-making device, many parts of the world still use them for washing clothes. Clothes are soaked in hot soapy water in a washtub or sink, then squeezed and rubbed against the ridged surface of the washboard to force the cleansing fluid through the cloth to carry away dirt. Washboards may also be used for washing in a river, with or without soap. Then the clothes are rinsed. The rubbing has a similar effect to beating the clothes and household linen on rocks, an ancient method, but is less abrasive.
The washboard and frottoir are used as a percussion instrument, employing the ribbed metal surface of the cleaning device as a rhythm instrument.
As traditionally used in jazz, zydeco, skiffle, jug band, and old time music, the washboard remained in its wooden frame and is played primarily by tapping, but also scraping the washboard with thimbles. Often the washboard has additional traps, such as a wood block, a cowbell, and even small cymbals.
Conversely, the frottoir (zydeco rubboard) dispenses with the frame and consists simply of the metal ribbing hung around the neck. It is played primarily with spoon handles or bottle openers in a combination of strumming, scratching, tapping and rolling. The frottoir, also called a Zydeco rub-board, is a mid 20th century invention designed specifically for Zydeco music. It was designed in 1946 by Clifton "King of Zydeco" Chenier, and fashioned by Willie Landry, a friend and metalworker at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Clifton's brother Cleveland Chenier famously played this newly designed rubboard using bottle openers. Likewise, Willie's son, Tee Don Landry, continues the traditional hand manufacturing of rubboards in his small shop in Sunset, LA.
The frottoir or vest frottoir (from Cajun-Creole French "vest to be rubbed") is played as a stroked percussion instrument, often in a band with a drummer, while the washboard generally is a replacement for drums. In Zydeco bands, the frottoir is usually played with bottle openers, to make a louder sound. It tends to play counter-rhythms to the drummer.
In a jug band, the washboard can also be stroked with a single whisk broom and functions as the drums for the band, playing only on the back-beat for most songs, a substitute for a snare drum. In a four-beat measure, the washboard will stroke on the 2-beat and the 4-beat. Its best sound is achieved using a single steel-wire snare-brush or whisk broom.
A frottoir is played with a stroking instrument (usually with spoon handles or a pair of bottle-openers) in each hand. In a 4-beat measure, the Frottoir will be stroked 8 to 16 times. It plays more like a Latin percussion instrument, rather than as a drum. The rhythms used are often similar to those played on Guiro.