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Initial fret work question - level, crown, dress, polish
Dennis Weatherly

Total Topics: 73
Total Posts: 654
I've finally reached the time for doing some initial fret work. The neck and bridge are on and the frets are installed. I watched my copy of Kent Everett's Adjusting A Steel String Guitar video last night as a refresher. Kent does a great job of walking through the setup activities for a completed guitar. What I need to learn is how to get it to the "completed" stage.

I have notes for nut making already. I'm pretty sure I have saddle making notes as well. What I'm missing is info on the initial fret work - leveling, crowning, dressing the ends, polishing. Suggestions? What are some good resources to learn about these steps?

Mar 24, 10 | 8:18 am
Ken Cierp

Total Topics: 58
Total Posts: 2262


Kenneth Michael Guitars est. 1978

Mar 24, 10 | 10:57 am
enalnitram (Martin Lane)

Total Topics: 47
Total Posts: 332
Ken's link is going to get you exactly where you need to go. And the cheap solutions, ie., file attached to the block are just...genius.

BUT...let me add that before I ever built a guitar that I set up over 1,000 of them, when I worked in a factory. And also...full disclosure...I am a disciple of Mario Proulx. If you are aware of Mario then you are no doubt aware that he has very good, insightful, even revolutionary ideas when it comes to building. He has what is called a "no touch" fret technique, which involves seating the frets as evenly as you can, before you go to work with a file on them. I'm sold on this technique.

Definitely follow Ken's technique, but be aware that (IN MY OPINION) working towards "no-touch" could be beneficial (IN MY OPINION), in the future.

The following is a paste from a now-long-gone mimf post where he describes the technique.


"Instead of the sharpie and file deal, use the 3 or 4 sided fret rocker straight edge, from either LMI or StewMac, and go over them after string up. You place it over 3 frets at a time, and move forward one at a time, trying to "rock" the straight edge, and if one fret is high, it will rock, even if it's less than .001" high! Go over the entire fretboard with it, following each string, and with a Sharpie, mark any high spots you do find. If there are a lot of 'em, you need to re-think your entire fretting method. If there are only a few places(hopefully not entire frets!), just move the string over and use a short piece of steel(mine's a old 5/8" or so hex wrench) and try to tap or press(with Jaws, or a homemade version of such) the fret down. A bit at a time, check your progress as you don't want to drive it lower than the others, and if you used glue(I use hide glue or fish glue, mostly as a lubricant, and it makes ALL the difference in the world in how the fret goes in!), gently heat it with a iron. The neck will be resting on a heavy sandbag. With a bit of practice, you can easily "chase" the high spots like this in under 5 minutes, and as you do, you'll see where your fretting technique needs to improve, and next time, you'll have fewer frets to chase down, and in only a few tries, you're doing "no touch" fretting. You may even find a fret that is too low relative to the others; what would you do normally is file ALL of them down to that one's height, but really, it's better to pull it and reinstall another one, and not drive this sucker down to the truss rod. When done, you should have a full fretboard with completely untouched fret tops, or maybe just a few spots that really did need some filing. A light polishing and you're ready to go. I see too many fret jobs where the installer just milled the hell out of the fret tops; sure, he/she may have gone back and did an excellent job of crowning them and they do look and perform well, but damn, 25-50% of some of the frets' original height might be gone! Sad... And it took them longer to do that fret job than what I describe, I promise. Get that fretboard surface dead level, and install the frets to the same consistent depth, and there's very little, if anything, left to do. This is like applying a very thin finish; the "secret" isn't in the finish application of sanding or buffing, but rather, the secret is in the pre-finish prep work. Simple, yet, I think because fret milling/filing is so "normal" we don't think twice about -why- we are milling them. Shouldn't the precise milling have been done before the frets were installed? Ah!"

Mar 24, 10 | 11:21 am
Gregg C

Total Topics: 23
Total Posts: 88
Brilliant !!

Mar 26, 10 | 10:24 am
Ken Hundley

Total Topics: 40
Total Posts: 2169
I like the idea! I have recently used the fret press tool in my drill press, and am quite anxious to see how level everything is. On the auction guitar I did, I strung it up for the auction without dressing the frets. It actually played well, and I only found one spot that was high, though the action was way off, so its hard to tell. I had to disassemble the guitar because I didn't like the bridge, so it will be another couple weeks before I get back to that point, but I am curious to see if the tool really increased the efficiency of that step.

Mar 27, 10 | 10:46 am

Total Topics: 34
Total Posts: 165
I used the fret press tool , in my drill press, on my last build and it was sweet! I had one (1) fret that needed a tap, other than that, nada.
Dave B

It helps to check your fret slots for consistency beforehand, of course, but I expect you already knew that :-)

Mar 27, 10 | 3:22 pm

Total Topics: 4
Total Posts: 74
Martin good post, I had wondered about this my self for a while now. But then why does all the info out there go right into leveling ? Have you done this on a guitar that you made? Also I might try this some day, I could always level away if it didn't work. I wonder what some of the guys that have alot of experience think about this?

Mar 28, 10 | 6:55 am
Running Dog

Total Topics: 1
Total Posts: 103
"Get that fretboard surface dead level, and install the frets to the same consistent depth, and there's very little, if anything, left to do."

I agree with this part of Mario's statement. A well-prepped and well-fretted neck won't require removing "25 -50% of some of the frets' original height." In fact, the question is not "to level or not to level" but rather, how to determine which frets (if any) are high, why they are, and what to do about it. You can use a Plek machine which will read each fret and then mill off whatever it doesn't like (around $100,000). You can use a fret rocker (or any short straight edge) and try the hunt-and-hammer approach. Or you can use a long file that is known to be straight by checking it against a machined straight edge.

I used a method similar to Mario's for years and was pleased enough with my fret work. But when I compared my work with that of really skilled and experienced luthiers, I had to admit that mine wasn't up to par. Close but not quite there. The difference was that after the prep, after careful fret installation, they took a long file and gently filed the length and breadth of the fingerboard. Every fret should be kissed by the file, leaving an almost invisible flat on top. If one is missed, the luthier has to figure out why and correct the situation. If a fret end is loose, the file will "sing" as it passes over and let you know that you've got a problem. If one fret is filed more than its neighbors, again, you have to diagnose the problem, just as you'd have to if a fret rocker bumped into it. You correct each situation as it demands, not by filing away indiscriminately.

Using the fret rocker is not an unskilled operation. It's easy to read one fret as high when in fact the problem is that adjacent one(s) are low -- and vice versa. The long file can do lots of damage in unskilled hands but as a diagnostic tool, I think it's easier and more reliable than the rocker.

And doing the fret work while the neck is strung up guarantees that you'll not get the best possible result. If relief is set properly, there's a consistent curve that will throw off all the fret rocker readings and make it literally impossible to determine if the frets are level or not. (Well, not impossible. The Plek machine can do it.) I guess that Mario must adapt to the slight upward movement of the rocker as he checks out the neck but that's moving away from precision and into intuition. I prefer to know what's going on so I can fix it properly.

Mar 29, 10 | 9:47 pm

Total Topics: 4
Total Posts: 74
Thankyou, Building the bodies, I'm doing two firsts at once don't ask. Was easier for me than finishing the wood and final details. again I learn of course everything about this is craftmanship. How long of a file are we talking here. reg. mill bas. 12'' ? Rick by the way I got the 3 in one crowning tool you recomended. Maybe I won't use it as much as I thought... thanks again Dave L

Mar 30, 10 | 3:07 am
Running Dog

Total Topics: 1
Total Posts: 103
Yes, 12" (excluding tang) mill b******. Take a good straightedge to the store and check the files. Choose the best and mark the straighter edge (actually, mark the not-so-straight edge). Use it for frets only!

The crowning file will be useful when it's grind-and-polish time or someone brings you a guitar with a not-so-straight neck.


Mar 30, 10 | 8:35 am
Running Dog

Total Topics: 1
Total Posts: 103
Ooops! Sorry about the b****** word. Didn't know it was bad!

Mar 30, 10 | 9:53 am
blues creek guitars Authorized Martin Repair Ctr

Total Topics: 52
Total Posts: 1011
I will add one thing here. I use a diamond file . I like these as they don't let chatter marks like the mill files. Fretting isn't difficult if the board is properly prepped.
John Hall
Blues Creek Guitars Inc.
Authorized CF Martin Repair Center

Mar 30, 10 | 12:14 pm

Total Topics: 4
Total Posts: 74
Again I learn something you just would'nt see any where else, I'm going to help Bill out soon for the forum. Thanks again martin for this info.

Mar 31, 10 | 4:36 am

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