Freting Tools

When it Comes to the frets and the fretboard there are more than a few tools you will need, which you will probably find at your local home depot or Mom and Pop hardware store. This is also one of the parts in the guitar where compromising on accuracy may prove to critical to the quality of the final instrument.

Starting with the fretboard

Radius Sanding Block 

Also part of the shaping tools. Depending on the style or personal preference, a sanding block of the correct radius Unless you are opting for a changing radius (and that should be a whole different post) one good block may be all you need. More necks in “Guitar Neck Shapes – What’s The Difference?” 

Generally the shorter blocks are comfortable for more localized sanding and the longer are easier for better overall consistency, but it’s also a matter of personal preference.

There are also Aluminum made sanding blocks with better durability and higher price. These can also double as support if you wish to clamp the frets or glue them.

 

Radius Gauge 

This gauge is used mostly to check you’ve actually reached the desired radius when sanding. It is also useful to gauge the strings themselves when setting up, they should follow the radius of the neck to get consistent/ correct action.

There are two types of Radius Gauges: T shaped and square ones. 

The T shaped ones are more versatile as you can slip them under the strings and check the radius accurately without removing the strings. Handy for doing repairs and setup.

The square ones (each one can have four different radiuses) are a bit more comfortable to hold and handle, but just may be me… They can also be of metal, Plastic or even printed out and pasted on cardboard.

Fret preparation 

Frets can be bought by foot/ meter or pre-cut and bent. Naturally if you are a professional and build many guitars, buying a roll of fret wire will be the most economic deal, but if you are experimenting in the single digit guitar building (and your next guitar may be with different frets altogether) buying a set of the correct size, pre-bent frets will be easier and will only set you back a few more dollars (or currency of choice). Pre-cut frets are available in different materials, sizes and thicknes.

Fret Bending Jig 

If you did get the long version the fret wire will need to be bent to the matching radius (or slightly more) for better fit in the fretboard. Bending is easier before cutting. Many luthiers prefer bending to a slightly tighter radius than the fretboard so when installing them more pressure will be needed in the middle and flaring of the tips will be avoided.

The jig is fairly simple in principal and is made with two static wheels with bearings and a third, larger in diameter, with a groove and adjustable in height. The height adjustment changes the bending radius and the groove fits the tang and keeps the fret from twisting.

Fret Cutter

After installing the frets you will want to cut them as close as possible to the neck, so as little as possible  will need to be filed. You will want a cutter with a fine edge and tip which will not deform the fret itself. Special care should be with the softer metals, they tend to deform more easily.

Fret Tang Cutter

If you are planning on having bindings on the neck, or for esthetical reasons you may also need a Fret Tang Cutter. To get that crown all the way to the end without the Tang showing on the side of the fretboard you will need this very specific cutter that nips just the tang without deforming the tips.

Fret Beveling File

After installing the frets you want to file them in a consistent angle so the fingers sliding on the neck don’t meet a 90 degree fret tip.  These come with the file at 35 or so degrees and slide on the neck.

Fret Slotting

One of the most demanding (and feared by weekend Luthiers) parts of guitar building is fret slotting. The distance between the slots, the depth and the thickness of the cut need to be accurate, and in many cases, mistakes are hard if not impossible to recover from. 

Fret Saw

The basic, traditional, saw is how guitar fret slots have been made for many years. Cutting manually demands some practice and a steady hand. As with many hand saws the Japanese ones are often highly praised but there are matching saws of other makes as well. Some of them even come with a very handy depth stop

Fret Slotting Miter Box

To maintain the 90 degrees and other parameters (depending on the sophistication of the specific box) there are such jigs as the miter box. These come in a few variations and the price reflects the quality, accuracy and make. This will certainly make the slotting job easier and avoid some mistakes. You will still need a Slotting Saw to go with it.

Fret Slotting Table Saw Blade 

If you want to go the table saw route you will find most saws are much too wide for fretting. This one is 0.023” (0.058mm) to fit most fret tangs snuggly. You will probably still need some kind of jig to control positioning and maybe depth.

Getting the frets into the fretboard

The frets need to pressed (and sometimes glued) into the fretboard. They need to inserted to the same depth and be consistent in height.

Fret Hammer

The manual ‘old school’ method of inserting the frets to the board. Any small hammer will do but a material softer than the frets is preferable. You do not want to dent or bend the fret when tapping on it. Brass or Plastic will do the job.

A Fret Press 

A press will give even pressure along the fret. The press will have a changeable caul to match the radius you are using so the pressure should be accurately distributed.
Fret Press Cauls can be bought separately or as a set and be used manually or with a drill press as a makeshift device.

If you feel the frets are not as level as you would like, and you want to avoid extensive leveling to your brand-new frets you can also press them altogether using a long aluminum sanding block and some clamps. If you are gluing the frets you will want to keep this press till the glue is dry.

Fret Leveling

Any guitar neck, brand-new or used, needs to be leveled and crowned to avoid buzz and maintain the correct intonation (There are more factors to intonation). A new well fretted guitar should be almost perfectly level but since some us have not yet reached perfection some work will be necessary. Many factory-made necks, guitar kits and other manufacturers also come in a not-perfectly leveled state. A used/ worn guitar will almost always need fret leveling as a part of proper maintenance.

Fret Rocker

This simple 4-sided ruler will let you check where frets are not level. Rock it in three location on every three frets to find out all the inconsistencies in fret height. If it rocks between three frets, they are not level. A must have.

Fret Leveling Beam

Once you have detected the higher fret and marked them you will need a very straight  beam for sanding the high ones down to match the lower ones. These also come in a few variations of grit and length. As far as grit goes, you start with the lower (rougher) grit and work up to fine. When it comes to frets, we always want to sand as little as possible to maintain as much as we can of the fret height and minimize the inevitable crowning afterwards. These often come with replaceable self adhering sanding paper. The longer ones are great for overall consistency and for going over the whole fretboard. The shorter ones are more convenient for local sanding of one area/ fret.

Fret leveling files

Much like the sanding beam, the files are made fore shaving of those minute differences in height to get a perfectly leveled set of frets. The files will have a much longer life than sand-paper but usually come in just one grit and are usually shorter

Re-crowning

After leveling the frets, some of them (the ones who were too high) will have been flattened on top and need to be rounded again, Re-crowned. The frets’ profile needs to be round and the center of the fret should be the highest. A flat top will tend to buzz and the intonation will be slightly off.

Re-crowning file

These files will have the abrasive part in a concave strip so that filing along the free will give the desired shape. They also come with three grits to work from rough to fine. Some are just files and some have diamond dust. I found that the cheap ones just don’t do the job, and it’s really a trial and error to find the type you prefer.

Files

A good set of small files will be handy as an addition or substitute to the fret crowning file. Some people, myself included, don’t like the re-crowning files as they obscure the fret and you can’t see what you are doing when doing it. They are also handy if you want to further round the tips of the frets.

I prefer the flat metal ones (not the diamond ones, I find them too abrasive and not consistent) 

‘Finessing’ the frets

After re-crowning the guitar will be playable, but you will probably want to take a few extra steps to make it shine. Polishing the frets is essentially ‘sanding’ it with finer and finer abrasives to a shiny smooth polish. Experiment with some of them to see which ones work for you.

A very long, thin wood drill bit 

After re-crowning the guitar will be playable, but you will probably want to take a few extra steps to make it shine. Polishing the frets is essentially ‘sanding’ it with finer and finer abrasives to a shiny smooth polish. Experiment with some of them to see which ones work for you.

Steel Wool 

To give the frets the final sand/polish. You want the Grade #0000. Remember to protect the magnetic parts (pickups) from the steel dust.

Fret Eraser/Rubber

These erasers have a very fine grit embedded in the rubber and also give a final touch to the filing. They may have a few levels and colors, depending on the make.  Interchangeable with the Steel wool. 

Polish compound 

If the wool or Eraser did not give you the shiny mirror finish you want a metal polish paste with some manual buffing will do the job. I use this one to give the very final mirror shine. Some go out of their way and apply it with a buffer on a Dremel wheel.

Other related tools

Nut Slotting Files

Since each string has different thickness there is six file set to match. Some manage with just one. If you want to be very precise here you will want to consider the string gauge you plan on using.

Fingerboard Guard

These thin, flexible stainless-steel protectors fit over the fret to cover the board and avoid scratching it with files, sanding paper etc. Personally, I find them uncomfortable to work with.

Masking tape

When doing any type of abrasive work on the neck and fretboard, I like to spend those few extra minutes and just mask it properly. You would want good quality masking tape, as it will come off easily without leaving sticky residue on the guitar. It’s also worth it buying the really thin ones for protecting those high notes with less cutting and fussing around with the tape.