Doing Your Own Fretwork Part – 1 by Bill Wilkat Sept. 16, 2018
Doing fretwork on stringed instruments takes some experience and the first thing I recommend for beginners is to find a “garage sale” special to practice on. Failing the availability of one, you might consider picking up an “El Cheapo” guitar from a pawn shop, or an on-line source such as Kijiji. Another alternative is to purchase an Asian made guitar neck and these can be found at very reasonable prices nowadays without much effort.
If you have not already done so, I’d also suggest you purchase a “how-to” book published by one of the top gurus in the biz like Dan Erlewine of Stewart MacDonald Guitar Supply (StewMac). I learned from Dan many years ago by first following his articles in Guitar Player Magazine, and also in Bass Player Magazine before I purchased his terrific publications on guitar repair etc. One in particular that you should buy is The Guitar Player Repair Guide. I can also suggest Fretwork Step-By-Step if you are a true beginner.
What I’m going to teach you here is not going to be as detailed as what you’ll learn from books or videos dedicated to the subject of fretwork but will get you started in the right direction and can save you time, energy and money.
Let’s start with understanding what your goals are: Are you going to fret an instrument from scratch? Repair a fret or two? Or do a complete re-fret of a neck? Each of these require different input and careful planning to execute and a learning curve which often means trail and error. I’ll begin by suggesting you tackle a simple fret dressing method employed by many people and one that I’ve often done to save clients from having to spend more by getting a complete re-fret job done.
Simple fret dressing repair job:
I’m going to assume that you’ve already learned how to adjust a truss rod and understand the principles of up-bow and back-bow on a guitar neck and things like string angle and saddle adjustment? If you don’t, you better get a handle on that before you begin any fretwork. (see my previous post about truss rod adjustment).
Let’s work on your “garage sale”special or similar find by using a straight edge like a 6” steel ruler and gently sliding it along the frets to see if any of them have lifted and are sitting higher than the others, and also rocking the ruler across higher frets to see where the real problems might be. Locate them, and take note as you my need to re-seat some frets or in the worst case glue them down. If there’s a lot of grooved fret wear, we may not get a perfect result by lightly dressing the frets but my first lesson here is to improve the performance and make it play better. I’ll discuss heavier filing later on.
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We’re going to begin by filing the tops of the frets without any special tools but if you happen to have proper luthier tools (like a block of wood pre-shaped to the correct fingerboard radius) so much the better. For a true beginner, a flat sanding block of wood wrapped with 220 grit is one way to start. With the strings removed, and the truss rod adjusted so that the neck is straight and level, lightly sand the tops of the frets following the existing radius and run the block from one end to the other the full length of the fingerboard. While stoking like this, you’ll have to keep moving the block from each of the outside edges, to the centre and back out again in order to follow the radius and remove the same amount of metal from the fret tops evenly. Repeat this process until you see the tops of the frets show visible sanding lines and the metal is shiny.
NOTE: If you have a lacquered maple fingerboard, you will need to use masking tape and tape off the wood between each fret from end to end. Otherwise failing to do this will result in damage to the polished finish. For oiled natural wood, you can skip this procedure at this time.
Next, using another sanding block, (but this time with foam packing sheets tightly wrapped and taped around it to form a padded surface about 1/8” –3 mm– in thickness), begin wrapping finer sandpaper around the block and with firm even pressure, sand the full length again going back and forth from end to end. Begin by using a #320 grit, then switching to #400, then #600 and finish with #1000 to 1500 grit. As you’re doing this, the blocks padding will allow the sandpaper to contact the fingerboard wood and in so doing it will also be rolling ff and over the fret tops thus crowning them by creating a soft radius on opposite sides of the frets. To finish up, run the sanding block lightly along the two edges of the fingerboard to ensure that there are no sharp fret ends protruding (again start with a coarser grit like #600 and finish with #1000 or finer).
Now, using naphtha and soft rags and/or paper towel, wipe the entire fingerboard from end to end to clean it. To finish up, use #0000 fine steel wool to polish the frets and repeat the cleaning process with naphtha.
NOTE: naphtha does not leave a film behind and will not raise wood grain so it’s the ideal choice for cleaning. I always purchased a can of Coleman stove fuel and kept it handy in my workshop as it’s readily available and it is naphtha.
If you had to tape the fingerboard, remove the tape and wipe down with naphtha again.
Re-string and tune the guitar, and adjust the truss rod as needed (see my previous post about truss rod adjustment). Check out how it plays–you should see a noticeable improvement.
Now, if the fret wear was/is deeper and you need to remove more metal from the tops of the frets, you’ll need to tackle the job with a bastard file before moving on to the sanding blocks. Or, you can use a fret levelling file sometimes called a “duck” that is essentially a contoured block of wood shaped to fit your hand for comfort, and with a section of flat file bonded to the underside. You can make these yourself by cutting a bastard file to the correct size and gluing it a block you made, or purchase them ready-made from StewMac.
It’s much easier to work with than a regular longer flat file, although I got by for years without one since it’s often a matter of what you get used to. Personally I found the “duck” easier to handle and use so I suggest you get one if you plan on doing a lot of fretwork. There are other tools for this as well.
More on all of this will follow in Part 2 so be sure to look for it in the future.
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