We investigate the effect of two different surface treatments on shallow nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers in diamond. Short duration oxygen plasma exposure is found to damage near-surface NV centers, resulting in their disappearance in fluorescence images. Subsequent annealing creates large numbers of new NV centers, attributed to plasma-induced vacancy creation. By tracking individual NV centers during thermal oxidation, we show that oxidation at 550 °C results in modest improvement of spin coherence. Higher temperature oxidations correlate with gradual decline in spin coherence and eventual instability of NV centers before ultimate disappearance. This is indicative of a reduction of the NV-to-surface distance due to oxidative etching. Thermal oxidation can offer controlled access to near-surface NV spins at the nanometer scale, an important requirement for many applications of NV-based nanomagnetometry. © 2014 AIP Publishing LLC.