How To Fret Dress And Re-Crown Your Guitar

How to know if your guitar needs a fret dress/re-crown and how to do it yourself if that answer is yes.

Ultimate Guitar
I got a guitar in a trade a while back. I went through my normal process of setting it up to play, and regardless of how I adjusted the action, I got buzzing all over the neck. (Mostly in the upper register.) I was quite frustrated so I contacted my local shop to inquire about how much I would be charged for a Fret Dress and Re-crown. The answer I got was $125. I thanked the gentleman for the information walked over to my computer and researched how much it would cost for me to get adequate tools to do the job myself. Since it would be close to the cost of having a repairman do the job, I decided to give myself a shot at learning how to do the job myself. Many of you would probably be afraid of doing this type of work on your own guitar, but in my experience the right tools make the job very easy. 1) Here's what you will need. A Straight edge (Notched or Unnotched). (Either a steel ruler from your hardware store or one from Allen Keys.(Hardware store) Some Blue Painters Tape.(Hardware store) Black Fine Point Sharpie.(Your junk drawer) Some 320 Grit self-adhesive sand paper.(Hardware store) A Flat Bar.(Hardware store or A Crowning File of Your Choice. ( #0000 Steel Wool. (Hardware store) Make sure before you begin that your guitar's truss rod is properly adjusted, and that your action isn't set unreasonably low. Doing a fret level on a guitar when it is unneeded can possibly prevent the option being available in the future. When you do this you are removing fret material. If the job is done when it is unneeded you could remove enough material and not leave enough to make a future job an option. With that being said, the reason why you are getting buzzing is that certain frets on your board are higher than others. If the 8th fret is higher than the 7th, when you play the 7th fret you will get buzzing etc. Some frets can come dislodged from the fretboard for various reasons. So first make sure none have popped out of the board. If they have use a rubber mallet to try to tap it back in before resorting to leveling the entire board. Why might some frets be higher? Wear on certain frets which are played often leaves depressed spots within those frets. When you play on those worn frets the string is sitting in the depressed spot and is therefore sitting lower than it normally would in comparison to the next fret. This is the equivalent of the next fret being higher. Following? I hope I explained that well....if not I tried. Wish pictures could be submitted here! 2) Getting started: Check the relief on that neck! First thing you have to do is remove the strings from your guitar. Then use your straight edge (a length of flat metal alloy sort of like a ruler) to check the relief in the neck. Place it over the fretboard from the first fret to wherever it may end. Using a straight edge which is at least eighteen inches is desirable as it lets you examine the full extent of the neck where it bows. If the neck is not flat you have work to do. You can tell if the neck is flat very easily. The straight edge should be touching all of the frets and should not rock back and forth. If it is rocking back and forth there is too much back bow on the neck, and if it is not touching all the frets there is too much relief in the neck. Make small adjustments (1/4 turns) to your truss rod at a time until the neck is straight. After each quarter turn let the neck sit for a bit then come back and check it. Don't rush. This is a pretty lengthy process overall so be patient if you want the best results. Having a straight neck is dire for proper results! If not you will be filing the frets unevenly and worsening the problem. Some people prefer a notched straight edge or one which has cut outs that fit over the frets. Reason for this is that on guitars where certain frets are significantly more worn than others, using an unnotched straight edge might not give you an adequate reading on neck relief. You decide which is best for your job. When in doubt unnotched is the way to go! 3) Tape off that fret board! Use the blue painters tape to mask the fretboard leaving only the frets exposed. This part takes a while. It is important to mask the fretboard to protect it from the sandpaper, steel wool, metal particles, etc. Also you may want to cover those pickups to stop metal particles from attaching themselves to the magnetized poles of the pick up and causing damage. 4) Mark those fret tops. Use the black sharpie to make black marks along the length of each fret. Doing this will allow you to visibly see high spots being taken out of the frets during the filing. 5) Get the 320 grit sand paper onto that flat bar and get to work! Using either self-adhesive sand paper or double sided masking tape, attach the sandpaper to the flat bar. Then, using a small amount of pressure run the flat bar the entire length of the fretboard during each stroke to ensure all the frets are being filed simultaneously. The task is complete once all of the sharpie is removed from the fret tops. What those fret tops are entirely flat? What did you do?!?! Just kidding. At this point those tops should be flat and smooth on top. The frets have been dressed and now need to be crowned. (You can either remove the tape or leave it on. If you are careful enough with the crowning file it shouldn't be necessary, but the tape will protect the fretboard from slips causing scratches and dings.) 6) Mark those fret tops again... Well get the sharpie and do what you did on step #4! 7) Crowning Take that crowning file and place it over the fret. Your crowning file should fit over the fret and entirely cover it. If the fret is only partially covered by the crowning file you could file grooves into the sides of the frets. (I've done this before -__-) Basically your goal is to make that sharpie line very thin. Move the file back and forth over the fret until that line is nice and thin. This step is all about taking that flat fret top and returning it to its naturally round shape. Making sure your fret has a nice crown is important. This makes the string touch less surface area on the fret theoretically increasing sustain and making bends much more comfortable. 8) You're done. Clean up that guitar! Now you need to string up that guitar, adjust the truss rod to put the appropriate amount of relief on the neck (see another column about this - I wrote about this in my Setting Up a New or Used Electric Guitar column), and then set your action to preference. Should be no buzzing! You can now do this job on your own in the future and save yourself plenty of money. Hopefully you can take on the challenge and succeed. If you have any specific questions feel free to PM me and I'll be glad to help. Enjoy!

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I'm guessing the steel wool is to polish the frets after? No mention of it after listing it in the needed tools.
    Sorry forgot to mention in the article that it is best to remove the neck of a bolt on guitar for this work and when you are working with a set neck guitar support the neck. If you don't have a neck rest of some kind simply take a shallow box and fold up a face cloth to place on top of it where the neck will come in contact with the box. Easy. Thanks!
    Good write-up. I'm not about to try it myself considering just the price of the straight edge could get me the job done right at the moment, but I'll be using this in the future.
    HI, nice sensible instructions, good stuff. Some necks though, seem to have more of a curve on them across the neck than others. How do you compensate for this?
    I'll assume you're talking of fingerboard radius, and give my two sense. at any point (measured in percent of the total length of the particular fret) it should be exactly the same height from the board than the next. To do this, I'll assume you split the board into three pieces lengthwise (you'll have two fine points on each of the frets dividing them into thirds) then from there, you might do it again, only doing it at a certain percentage of the frets that files down those points (but in theory, the endless cycle of smaller and smaller microscopic points would occur)OR just use sandpaper to file them down, doing it in decreasing coarseness. I may just be talking of impossible things. worth a try though, right?
    Have you ever slotted a TOM bridge saddle and had it rattle or buzz? I have had so many issues with G/B/E strings on every TOM bridge and am trying to figure out the best way to achieve good results. I've tried using nut slotting tools, trianglular jeweler files with the correct back angle and all kinds of downward tailstop pressures to try and overcome this ongoing issue and am still having the same results! This happens on preslotted saddles also, as they need some adjustment per string guage. What has given you best results? I would truly be grateful for any info on your technique and trouble shooting method you have discovered to overcome my dilemma. Woody
    I'm certainly not an expert, but it seems to me that making sure that the frets are exactly level to each other while there's no tension on the neck means that the frets are going to be concave to each other once you put tension back on the neck with the strings. Or are you saying that once you remove the strings to use the truss rod to get the neck in the same position as when the strings were on it?