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Rebelw/outaCord 08-12-2009 01:29 AM

Fretwork Primer
Alright, so there doesn't seem to be anything like this on UG currently so I thought I would share my method for fret leveling and crowning.
I want to preface this guide by saying a couple of ground rules for fretwork:

1.) You ought to practice on a junker or two before you actually do it to one of your nice guitars. And do it to your own guitars many, many times before you try it on someone else's guitar.

2.) Take your time. This can get tedious and frustrating but if you rush, your work will look, play, and sound like crap. So if you're not going to do it right, don't bother, because there is a very good chance you'll make it worse than it was.

3.) Don't be surprised if you have to repeat the steps to get the guitar playing perfectly the first time. Especially if you're learning from an internet tutorial instead of a real person.

So, with that out of the way, let's go.

To begin: why are we doing this?
Simply put, frets aren't very hard. Steel strings wear away and misshape frets over time. This means that some spots (under the strings) on some frets (the ones you play more often) end up lower than others. Our goal here is to remove enough material from the high spots (and high frets) on the frets to make them level with the low spots (and lower frets). Once that's done, we want to remove yet more material to reshape the flattened surface of the frets into something like an upturned "D" shape, or crown them.

What tools will you need?
A flat metal file (no handle)
A small, triangular file (with a handle)
Sandpaper (400 grit and up)
Fresh razor blade (or X-acto)
Masking tape
Buffing wheel and compound
Straight edge (18"-24")

The first step in the process is to check your neck straightness and make sure your truss rod is adjusted correctly. If the neck is humped or bowed when you level the frets, all of your hard work will basically have been wasted.

The second step to this process is to take the strings off the guitar. Having the strings off is a great opportunity to clean/oil the fretboard, but wait until you finish the project to do so!

Masking is next. This is a very frustrating but very, very important part of this process. Nobody is 100% accurate with a file, and masking the fretboard serves to prevent you from gouging it. Start by covereing the fretboard with masking tape from side to side, like so:

You can see in this picture how shot this guy's frets are. This particular guitar was used and abused at gigs and on tour for years by a friend of mine. He was convinced he needed a refret, but unless you have already leveled/crowned a guitar several times, there is usually enough fretwire left on the axe to do it.

Continuing on with the masking process:

What I've done here is used the razor knife to cut the masking tape away from the frets themselves. Keep the tape and the knife out! As you go through this process, you will need to remask spots many, many times. It may be helpful to have a couple of different widths of tape around. Also, keep reasonably sized scraps because they can often be used to do spot repair.

One more shot of the masking process. Always remember: you can not be too careful with someone else's guitar. A fret job will take you an hour or two, but fixing things you unintentionally messed up can take a lot longer. In this case, I covered the guitar with paper leftover from some veneers that I got via mail. I'm not sure if it shows in the picture but I also marked the location of the switch (this is a Les Paul) so that I don't whack it by accident.

Let's get started!

Take your flat file and run it lengthwise up and down the neck. The goal here is to cover the entire area pretty evenly, keeping the file flat and touching the frets at all times. Make your strokes as long as possible, and remember that you are only cutting on the "push" stroke, so there's no point in going back and forth quickly.
Be sure not to get hung up on one area or one side-- you need to cover both the higher frets and lower frets on both the bass and treble side. ONLY GO UP AND DOWN THE NECK WITH THE FILE. Do not file sideways ever, even if it seems like one fret needs "special attention"... its neighbors need to be in line as well.
Keep in mind that the lower frets will generally have more damage, and the higher frets will be higher as a result. You will need to take more material off the higher frets as a result. Check often with a straight edge to see if all of your frets are level.
The file will move noticably easier and make a different noise when you are almost finished. It's a "feel" thing-- I can't communicate this well without demonstrating it. If you're not sure, check again with a long straightedge.

One more thing: It looks and feels like you are taking a LOT of material off your frets, but it's really only a few thousandths of an inch. It's much less than it looks like, but you won't notice until the project is finished. Don't worry! Your jumbo shred frets will not end up feeling like a 60's Gibson.

Here's another shot, mid-leveling

You can see the flat, shiny area on top of the frets. If you look closely (dunno how well the pic shows it), all of the scratches go "north" to "south"... keep this in mind for later.

Here's how you check with the straightedge. This shot shows that some frets appear to be very slightly low (1/64" maybe?)... this is indicative of a fret higher up the neck being too high. This causes string buzz, and makes it so that you can't get your action to its absolute lowest.

Once the frets are level, we can begin the crowning process.

Remember all of those "north to south" scratches? We are now going to concentrate on each fret individually and work "east to west" Using the triangular file, begin working at fret one. The action here is filing across the length of the fret in order to take the corners off... we are transforming a flat fret (looks squarish from the side) into something that looks more like an upturned D or the top of a mushroom.

Again, work slowly. Only the push stroke matters. Let the file do the work (don't push too hard!). As you file, it will put "east-west" scratches into the fret. Working on both sides, file the corners of the fret down until only a very thin ridge of "north-south" scratches remains. The process sounds simple but can be incredibly frustrating.

Example: the top 2 frets are crowned, the bottom is not.

During this part of the process, you will scratch, peel, and generally demolish your masking tape. Fix holes as soon as they start-- these things don't get better as you work, only worse. By the time you are done, your masking tape will look like a mismatched patchwork of clean and dirty tape. This is ok.

When you get to fret 11 (12 if it's a 24 fret neck), get up and walk away. Make yourself a sandwich. Have a cold beverage and sit out on the porch if it's nice out. Take some time to compose yourself. When you're ready, grab a good cd and head back to the workshop.


Back to work! When you finish crowning, we can start the final process, which is refining the finish.

Rebelw/outaCord 08-12-2009 01:30 AM

Alright-- there are not too many pics for this section so I'll try to be vivid.

Here we are with a nice, crowned neck

What we're going to do is get the old scratches out of the frets using sandpaper.

So, wrap a piece of sandpaper (I like to start with 400 grit) around your finger like so!

And dig in. You want to cover the entire surface of all of the frets. This time you should go back to a "north-south" motion, covering all of the frets at once. Do not forget to hit the outer areas-- these are easy to miss.

Once you can't see your old file scratches any more, move up a grit. Use 600 with an "east-west" motion to take out the 400-grit scratches on each fret, taking care not to remove too much metal.

Once that's done, go up to 1000 and repeat the 400-grit step. Your frets should be looking pretty good at this point!

Polishing is the last part of this process. You can use a stationary buffer, a hand-held buffer, or a rotary tool with a buffer attachment. Some people use steel wool, I think, but I've never tried it.

When buffing, move quickly to keep heat from building up. Heating frets up is the first step when you want to pull them out, so avoid that if at all possible!

I have a wheel for this which has developed a groove in the side from being used for frets. So when I do this step, I hit the fret with the side of the wheel, catch the groove, and make 2 or 3 passes over the fret (quickly). It doesn't take much. It's best to use a relatively mild buffing compound. If you haven't buffed anything before, I'd suggest taking some time to learn how to use that particular tool before you take it to your fretboard. If anyone has experience with the steel wool method, please feel free to post it!

So, now that that's done, pull the tape. Carefully. Some weird stuff can happen on the sides... especially with an unbound fretboard and an old finish. Be careful and make sure to pull at a 90 degree angle, slowly and with control, just like you would if you were painting.

Now you've got a good opportunity to clean your fretboard! While you're at it, clean the buffing compound off the frets with a soft cloth/rag.

So that's about it! String it up and be amazed at how much better your guitar plays. You can now lower the action more and still get a uniform setup with minimal string buzz.

If I've left anything out, or you do it differently, feel free to contribute. I don't really plan on maintaining this thread on a daily basis or answering a ton of questions, so if you've done this in the past, it would be great if you could help field some of the questions that come up.

Thanks guys! :cheers: Good luck.

blandguitar 08-12-2009 02:01 AM

just glance through, i'll read it all in a bit. pic of all the tools?

edit: looks like a successful Tut to me. nice work

Rebelw/outaCord 08-12-2009 02:07 AM

I probably should have done that. You can see them scattered on the work bench thoughout the pics :haha... It's like some sort of Eye Spy ****.

blandguitar 08-12-2009 02:16 AM


i just figured a group hot of the tools give a grasp of the amount of tools needed for a starter

kickstartkiss 08-12-2009 05:54 AM

you are my hero, ive had a ****ed up beater thats needed this done for years, but couldnt find anything comprehensive

Metalhead_28 08-12-2009 09:47 AM

I would add that it's important to get the neck as straight as possible before you begin the job. You're usually going to need to at least loosen the truss rod.

Also, your file or whatever you use to level with must be perfectly flat. Some files just aren't very flat so make sure yours is before you use it. You could also use a flat bar with sandpaper, or even a radiused sanding block (which is what I prefer).

Another thing I would describe is the motion you should use with the file. Keep it straight with the centerline of the neck to maintain a uniform radius. You should be running the file off the edges of the neck as you approach the nut end.
If you have a compound radius board, follow the directions of the strings to maintain it.

Also, I like to mark the fret tops with a sharpie before each step because it helps me to make sure I have contacted every fret when leveling, and it helps me keep an eye on the center of the fret as I'm crowning. For a beginner, a regular crowning file is probably easier to use than a triangle file. but if you go with a triangle file, I'd try to get one with safety edges or rounded edges on it. It will keep you from gouging into the board constantly!

cedricsmods 08-12-2009 03:57 PM

Great tutorial Declan! Fretwork is too often overlooked. It is the first thing I would do to a guitar I was upgrading. Also, for those of us who own several guitars and have played for years, doing your own fretwork can save loads of cash. :)

I also use a sharpie or even a crayon to mark the frets before sanding. Also, the importance of masking tape and starting with a straight neck cannot be overstated.

salsawords 08-12-2009 04:22 PM

Great toot! I'm totally going to do this soon.

Invader Jim 08-12-2009 04:28 PM

Added to the resource sticky.


DezFX 08-12-2009 04:46 PM

A few tips I would throw out would be:

1) De-tack the masking tape before you apply it to the fingerboard. This will help avoid some of the unexpected fingerboard tearing mentioned above when trying to remove the tape later. I usually just press the tape against my pants leg or shirt to remove some of the tackiness.
2) I also always mark the frets with a black sharpie before filing to make sure you hit all fret surfaces evenly. Continue to file until you just remove the black from every fret up and down the neck to make sure they are all level.
3) As stated, you want to make sure your bastard file is flat. If you have one that has a slight bow in it, simply mark the file with a permanent marker to know which side is convex and use that to file with. You may also want to grind the end if the file to remove any sharp corners before filing. Always cover your pickups before filing! Otherwise the metal shavings will get down into the pickup and stick to the magnet.
4) Instead of using sand paper for dressing/polishing I like using 3M sanding sponges and steel wool. Progressing from fine to superfine, then #0000 steel wool. The sponges are kinda expensive, but if you do not waste you can get about 9 fret jobs out of each sponge sheet (cut into smaller squares). The reasoning I prefer to use sponges over sandpaper is they are made of spongy material that conforms to the fret wire and you hit all of the fret wire evenly. It's also just how I learned how to do it... Never tried sand paper, though.

Invader Jim 08-12-2009 04:55 PM

Sandpaper over a foam brush works equally as well. That's what I use for sanding contours.

DezFX 08-12-2009 05:08 PM

Yeah, I've heard of people using an old tooth brush with sandpaper as well.

Invader Jim 08-12-2009 05:20 PM

Declan, about the steel wool method.

I have used that before for polishing/buffing dull frets and grimy fretboards. Works great, and doesn't take too long.

Just work side-to-side (along the fret) and keep the pups taped. You may also want to wear gloves if the skin on your hands isn't tough. Tiny bits of steel wool wll get everywhere.

rancidryan 08-12-2009 05:29 PM

i have like a dent in one of my higher frets on my strat would filing help this?

i cant vibrato or bend the string as it falls in the dent more a groove if you get me

Scowmoo 08-12-2009 05:45 PM

Oh ****.
Now all I need is some 1000 grit sandpaper and I can fix the string buzz on my First Act! :O
I can also get rid of that damn dent on the 17th fret, 3rd string.

Great tutorial, Declan! :golfclap:

cedricsmods 08-12-2009 05:57 PM

Originally Posted by rancidryan
i have like a dent in one of my higher frets on my strat would filing help this?

i cant vibrato or bend the string as it falls in the dent more a groove if you get me

Yes. This is exactly why you have to do fretwork periodically. If everything wore down at the same rate, you'd be fine, but some spots wear more than others.

rancidryan 08-12-2009 06:07 PM

^ so i wont need a whole fret replacement

cedricsmods 08-12-2009 06:19 PM

Unless the dent is really deep, I would pursue leveling and crowning first.

DezFX 08-12-2009 06:20 PM

That question cannot be answered without seeing the guitar and how badly worn the existing frets are.

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