Levelling and shaping frets

I've decided to do a post on my fret levelling process. I recently had a guitar in for a 'silver set up' and thought I'd document the process so you can see what goes into it.

Here's the candidate:

It's a Fender Stratocaster, and it's about 6 years old. See those innocuous little divots in the frets? They might not look like much but there are the cause of a loss of tone, clarity and occasional buzzing on this guitar. Frets are supposed to dome shaped so the string touches only the peak of the top of the curve. Wear caused by strings hitting the frets during play flattens out the fret more and more over time causing unpleasant buzzes and occasionally sitar-like tones. Something needs to be done...

So, let's begin! The first job is to give the fingeboard a good clean. There's quite a lot of build up of grime next to the frets here so a nylon haired brush is taken to it. I use a bit of lemon oil too as it helps dislodge the more persistant bits. The oil also penetrates the bare wood and helps prevent it from drying out in the future which can lead to some nasty cracks running perpendicular to the frets.

Next the nut is removed (to allow a my levelling files to pass over with damaging it):

The tops of the frets are marked with a pen:

And the first pass is made with my levelling file.

Now the fret wear is very evident. Black ink remains where the file hasn't touched the fret. Notice too how the unwound strings seem to cause the most damage too. I guess soloists mostly stick to the top three strings but I suppose it's also because the bronze plated windings on the lower strings are softer than the bare steel of the E and B (and sometimes G) strings.

Time to keep filing...

I'd say I'm there now. The tiny black dots either sides of the fret will disapper when I recrown them and most importantly I can now be sure that all the frets are level with one another across their full width.

The next step involves going over the frets with 400grit aluminium oxide sandpaper to take out the rough file marks. Notice how the ends of the block are rounded - this prevents the sandpaper from detaching from the block each time it hits a fret.

Looking better:

After a good brushing over I'll check the eveness of the frets with my fret rocker and then mask off the fingerboard:

Out comes the marker pen (again):

And then I use my crowning file to turn the flat top of the fret into a nice even curve:

Which should leave an even thin line of ink running down the middle of the fret:

Next up is the oft-neglected polishing routine, using my detail sanding stick and micromesh sanding belts:

Notice my grandpa's old pipe tobacco tins in the background - each one now contains sanding belts of different grades!

The finished article:

It's very hard to take a photo of a shiny strip of metal with an iphone... but hopefully you get an idea! I'll often do another wipe of lemon oil on the board to remove any residue I missed first time around.

The sanding and polishing stage alone takes about 30 minutes for all the frets but it's well worth the extra effort. Customers have told me that they can definitely feel the difference and those inclined to bend strings say it feels especially nice!

Dressing the fret ends is also part of this service, though I haven't taken any photos of that as this blog post would end stretching much further. Perhaps I'll cover it another time. Needless to say it's one of the most important factors in a comfortable fingerboard. Customers opting for this service get a full set up covering action and intonation adjustments too, as well as hardware and electronics checks.

Hope you've found this insightful. Please post your comments and questions below! Be sure to come back in a couple of weeks for the next post. You can also follow the conversation on my facebook page. Thanks!

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