Thursday, May 3, 2007

Polishing Frets

I mentioned in an earlier post about having a StewMac fretting toolkit of which I only used a few pieces. What I've done w/ this so far is crown and level the frets on two of my guitars. One of the things that was appealing about the toolkit was that it came w/ this book, Fret Work Step By Step by Dan Erlewine. Now you would think that since the book was included w/ the kit, that the examples in the book would be easy to follow using the tools in the kit. However, this is strictly not the case and because of that I am still somewhat irked at StewMac and have since tried to avoid doing business w/ them. Their stuff tends to be too expensive for a hobbyist anyway, in my opinion, even though it is of the highest quality.

What I use to do this out of the kit is the six inch fret leveling file and the double edge fret file. My procedure for leveling the frets is to color in the top of the frets w/ a felt tip pen and then run the fret leveling file parallel to the center of the fretboard (it goes over the edges a little bit near the nut since fretboards are tapered) until the marker is gone from all the frets. Then I re-marker the frets and crown them using the double edge fret file.

I've done this on two guitars and it has made them both play much better. I've gotten the action lower w/o any string buzz. The only problem is that the process leaves a bunch of chatter on the top of the frets which the strings scratch against when bending. On the second guitar I did, I was aware of this and polished the frets w/ 0000 steel wool, which helped a lot. The first one is all kinds of messed up though and I decided I would have a go at those frets again to see if I couldn't get them cleaned up. (I would assume this is what some of the other tools in the kit are for but I've been unable to ascertain their proper usage. Maybe I'm just dumb, I don't know.)

I decided to bust out my cheapo Dremel knock-off on them. Safety first:

I'm wearing the goggles so that I don't suffer cruel paper-cuts to the eyeball from the green tape when I mask the fretboard:

A lot of people like to mask the frets one at a time but I figure it's easier just to do the whole thing all at once to get the boring stuff over w/. I just use masking tape for this and it's never been a problem. Some people recommend not using tape on maple fret boards. I don't know how important this is but I thought I'd pass that along for those who might want to try this at home. Once that was done I went after them w/ the steel wire brush attachment for my Dremel:

I just took it along the length of each fret until it looked like I got most of the scratches out, keeping it moving constantly. I reckon this got it at least as smooth as polishing w/ the steel wool. I then took it and, using a polishing tip I got at my local home mega home supply warehouse and lumberyard, I polished each one further w/ some Dremel rubbing compound:

Dip the tip:

And rub it down:

This, I think got it a little bit better. The improvement is noticeable but unfortunately this whole process still hasn't completely removed all the scratches. It's at the point where it doesn't bother me in the least when I play it but, honestly, I would be embarrassed to show it to a real luthier (unless asking for advice) and certainly I wouldn't want to sell it w/o warning the buyer of the scratches. Next time I change strings, I think I'll try some sandpaper or something or maybe just go at them w/ this process again. Perhaps I will even figure out how to use the rest of the tools in that toolkit. There is a learning curve to all of this and I am advancing along it slowly but surely.

Anyway, here is the guitar I did this all on. Introducing the Detonator:

It's a Peavey that I got when I was about fourteen and still a fine guitar despite having to put up w/ me for these last eleven years. The model name is Detonator and I couldn't resist replacing the bridge pickup w/ a Duncan Designed pickup by the same name. (What Squire is to Fender, Duncan Designed is to Seymour Duncan.) This is actually the first "good" guitar I got and it fell into sad disrepair after many years of abuse at my young hands. Eventually, I got sick of it sitting in its case and decided to bring it back to life, which is actually what got me into working on my own guitars (that and the high expense of taking it to the pros). I took it apart, sanded off the finish, prepped it and had my friend spray it w/ jet black automotive paint (does not negatively affect tone, don't listen to the naysayers). The pickguard was originally white but I just sprayed it w/ matte black spay paint (along w/ the pickup covers), which has held up much better than I expected. I janked up the holes for the controls pretty bad so each one has a great big washer underneath it to cover that up. It's hard to see in the picture but in between the two knobs is a coil splitter for the humbucker which gives me bona fide strat-type bridge tones in addition to the humbucker sound. Very versatile and the neck plays like a dream, very slender w/ a wide, flat fretboard.

2 comments: said...

Hey man, I too feel your pain...I bought the kit with the book and surprise! just like you said the book has nothing to do with the kit, pretty damn deceptive. I started messing with my guitar and guess what? I also scratched the hell out of my frets and it was unplayable. The thing is to keep looking on the net and you will find what each tool is for bits by bits...
#1 The file is obviously for some rough want to use a fret rocker (not included in the kit) or a straight edge to find where you must level the frets...
#2 The red little file is for doing the corners of the frets, you want to shape em with this with a couple of slight one way slides
#3 The crowner file is well for crowning
#4 The dressing stick comes in handy when you are leveling just one fret OR for polishing frets using the higher grit strips of sandpaper...
#5 Hammer well thats pretty obvious and the
#6 Cutter/puller works well for taking out frets and cutting out the new fret wire

Now for how you use em...

#1 Find out where you need to level by using a straight edge or the fret rocker
#2 Use the file to rough level the sections that need leveling by filing upwards towards the neck with equal force
#3 Use higher grit on the lower 12 frets, say 80 and a sandblock to further level
#4 do the same thing progressing to 120 grit on the section or whole board
#5 remember you want to have a drop off from the 12th fret down so if leveling the upper 12 frets start by using a higher grit sandpaper...say 200 vs 120 from the 12 down...
#6 check to make sure they are level, if they are move on, if they are not repeat the process untill leveled, remember to protect your pickups during this whole process with tape and your fingerboard
#7 Crown the frets to give them their shape....
#8 If you have a radiused neck you should use a radiused block to sand with higher grit paper...use higher grit paper and use it lightly
#9 Use the small red file to shape the corners with one way strokes...there are examples of this on the net use your other hand to stabilize the file
#10 By now you have some pretty roughed up frets. They are leveled, crowned and radiused but, unplayable...this is where the polishing begins
#11 Use 400 grit paper and above lightly over each fret untill most scratches are gone
#12 Use 600 grit paper and above

Step #11 and #12 should be done lightly as to not flatten out the frets again, you want to retain the crown and radius

Use polishing compound and a dremell to polish the frets out just like you did

You also may want to cleanup the board

So after all this your frets should be ok once again...try it...OH and remember to check the neck for straightness....just get a straight edge from your local hardware store...The neck is straight when the straight edge touches all the frets and there is no curve...

rschultz said...


I am not interested in the Stewmac fretting kit, but I am interested in the book. In your opinion, is the book good?

Ryan Schultz
North Aurora, IL