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Fretting a guitar neck

Updated on May 24, 2016

Guitar neck fretting

At the end of the neck building lens we installed the fret markers. The next step is to radius the fretboard.

Before you start use a straight edge on the fretboard to straighten the neck. If need be adjust the truss rod to get it as straight as possible.

The necks I build aren't like the fender guitars that have the 7.25" or 9.5" radius necks. I prefer a flatter radius like many of the newer guitars have. A flatter radius like a 12" or 16" is very comfortable. A 16" radius will not die out as quickly if you do a lot of bending. Just an opinion on my part. If you are use to a 7.25 you might want to stick with it.

Here I'm using a 16" radius block to do the job. Here were basically sanding the board to the radius of the block. Care must be taken to keep the block straight as your sanding. It takes a while to do this. To expedite matters a course sandpaper can be used to remove material quicker. As you get close to the final shape finer sandpaper should be used for a better finish.

Radius block

Here is a shot of the radius block from the end. You can see the radius it will produce. These are sold in any radius you prefer.

Check straightness

At the same time your doing the radius you must keep the board straight. Using a good quality straight edge will show your progress. The straight edge will show you where more sanding needs to be done. Usually the truss rod is in a relaxed position but if you need to adjust slightly you can. I use all 2 way rods so you can feel when the tension is zero. With the adjuster you feel no tension in either direction.

Deepen the fret slots

Once the radius is complete it's not unusual to find that your fret slots need to be deepened. Here I'm checking the slots with a depth gauge and as usual they need to go a bit deeper. Caution is needed here not to widen the slot.

Fret depth gauge

Here is a closeup of the fret depth gauge. As you can see it is marked to match all the common radii.

This one is a bit beat up but it has seen many many fret slots

Re-sawing fret slots

When re-sawing the fret slots it is important to keep the saw straight so you don't widen the slot. You want the frets to fit tight in the slot.

This fret saw is .023 in width. That is a very common slot width. All the fret wire that I've ever used has been this size but check your fretwire to be sure.

As you deepen the slot go slow and check your depth often with the depth gauge.

Home made fret bender

This may look a bit silly but it works perfectly. It's just a disc with a slot in it for bending fretwire. The slot only needs to be a few inches long but it needs to be a bit wider than the fret tang.

Why spend money on a fret bender when this method will bend all the wire needed for this neck in about a minute.

Bent fretwire

Here are the two pieces of fretwire needed for this neck bent and ready to cut. I bend the radius tighter than I have to so the ends of the frets will seat easier.

If you need to put a film finish (usually nitrocellulose lacquer) on your fretboard now would be the time. Easier now than when the frets are in the way. I just buffed this board and will add some oil when all is said and done.

Here I've cut the fretwire to length (Ever so slightly wider than the fretboard) and I'm hammering the frets in. I actually set the wire in each slot then cut them off with cutting pliers (Dikes). The dikes show in the next picture down.

I always use the plastic (orange) side of the fret hammer when hammering in frets. One strike at each end then 2-3 strikes across. That's it. It doesn't need any more than that. Too many hits will loosen the fret. After your finished installing the frets look at each one to be sure they are seated. If they are high hit them again.

I never use glue when setting frets. If your slots are correct it is not needed. That said, every so often I will get a slot that's a bit too wide. In that case I will glue that fret in.

Hammering frets

Trim and bevel fret ends

Once all the frets are installed you need to cut them flush with the fretboard. You can do this with flush faced cutting pliers or with a dremel with a cutoff wheel. I use the dremel method because it is quick and neat.

After the frets are cut you need to use a fret end file like the one pictured. One side files the frets flush with the fingerboard and the other adds the bevel to the fret ends.

Fret end file

Heres a picture of the fret end file. The flat side is for flushing the fret ends and the other side is for the fret end bevel.

Protecting the fretboard

Now you need to tape off the fretboard to protect it. Here I have done that and have colored the top of all the frets with a black marker.

Leveling the frets

Here you use a sanding beam to level the frets. When all of the black from the marker is gone you will be level.

The sanding beam is basically a straight edge with a sanding strip glued to it.

Ready for re-crowning

This is what your fret tops will look like after using the sanding beam. At this point you need to use a re-crowning file to reshape the fret so its the shape it was before you started.

This photo shows the process of rocking frets. Your basically just using a straight edge to check if your frets are level. The fret rocker has four different length to accommodate the spacing at different fret positions.

If you find a high fret it's just a matter of filing it slightly with your re-crowning file.

Once you finish rocking your frets you need to sand them to bring them back to the original shine. I do this with 220 grit sandpaper than 400 grit and then I follow up with #0000 steel wool which is the equivalent of 600 grit.

At that point they will look very good but if you want to go one more step you can hit them with buffing compound.

Re-crowning files

Here are examples of re-crowning files. They come in tool steel or with diamonds. The file with the red handle is a standard tool steel file. This works just fine and is fairly inexpensive. Perfect if your only going to fret a few guitars. The file to the right is a diamond file. It is more expensive but will last a very long time and works much quicker. If your going to do a lot of necks you need the diamond file.

The file to the far left is a cross section showing the hollow ground edge that matches the original shape of the fret.

These files come in sizes that match your fret size.

To use them file the frets until they look the same as they were when they were new. Don't file any further than you have to or you will create a low fret.

Rocking frets

Finished fretboard

Here's the finished fret job. The one thing you will need to do it wipe down the board with something like Goo Gone to remove the sticky glue that the tape left behind.

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