What tools do I need for mild fretwork?

PFDarkside

Senior member
Messages
109
I have a basic understanding of mild fret work (like taking a new Warmoth to the next level) and I’m wondering what the basic tools I’d need?

-Initial assessment: Fret Rocker
-Fret Leveling: Feet Leveling Beam and Sandpaper
-Fret Crowning: Fret Crowning File
-Fret End Dressing: Fret End File? (Can I do hemispherical ends with the same tool?)
-Fret Polishing: Sandpaper/Micromesh/Polishjng compound and dremel?
-Fret sprout: …fret end file?
-Fretboard/Binding edge rolling: …sandpaper?

I’ll never be a luthier, however my guitars number in the teens and I like doing my own setups and assembly. It seems doing fret work like @stratamania has done would take my guitars to the next level. What items do you recommend for these operations? Bonus points for ease of use/error reduction as well as ability to work on stainless steel frets.
 

ruscio

New member
Messages
20
I do a fair amount of fret work, not professionally just on my own necks, including anything that comes in, even if new. Makes a real difference. The handful of Warmoth necks I've purchased have been good but not great in terms of fretwork. Generally quite level, but not dressed or polished. A little work really yields huge gains.

I think you've covered all the bases here, maybe even more than you really need. I'd go with a fret rocker, leveling beam, crowning file, fret end file (make sure it has one rounded/nonabrasive short edge), sandpaper (for fretwork I only end up using 320 and 600), and micromesh. I spend the most time with the 320, removing marks from the leveling and crowning. From there a quick pass with the 600 and then each level of micromesh does the trick. I've got micromesh labeled from 1500 through 12000--I don't know what units they're using. I got through them all, just a couple of minutes each, if that. After that it's a beautiful mirror shine. If they're SS frets, they'll look great for a long time.

Also, you'll want to have a sharpie (to mark frets before leveling and then again before crowning), painter's tape (to mask the fretboard while you're working on the frets), and a hobby knife/scalpel to trim that painter's tape around frets. Good luck, I found fret work pretty easy to learn from YouTube vids, and really worthwhile in terms of how much it improves the playability of any guitar.
 

PFDarkside

Senior member
Messages
109
I do a fair amount of fret work, not professionally just on my own necks, including anything that comes in, even if new. Makes a real difference. The handful of Warmoth necks I've purchased have been good but not great in terms of fretwork. Generally quite level, but not dressed or polished. A little work really yields huge gains.

I think you've covered all the bases here, maybe even more than you really need. I'd go with a fret rocker, leveling beam, crowning file, fret end file (make sure it has one rounded/nonabrasive short edge), sandpaper (for fretwork I only end up using 320 and 600), and micromesh. I spend the most time with the 320, removing marks from the leveling and crowning. From there a quick pass with the 600 and then each level of micromesh does the trick. I've got micromesh labeled from 1500 through 12000--I don't know what units they're using. I got through them all, just a couple of minutes each, if that. After that it's a beautiful mirror shine. If they're SS frets, they'll look great for a long time.

Also, you'll want to have a sharpie (to mark frets before leveling and then again before crowning), painter's tape (to mask the fretboard while you're working on the frets), and a hobby knife/scalpel to trim that painter's tape around frets. Good luck, I found fret work pretty easy to learn from YouTube vids, and really worthwhile in terms of how much it improves the playability of any guitar.
Ok, thank you. Can you elaborate a bit on each part? For the fret leveling beam, what grits do you use? For polishing after crowning/dressing you use 320, 600 then micromesh? Any links to the specific micromesh you use?

I’ve watched enough videos that I think I’m comfortable trying it on the Squier I paid $149 for. Super gritty frets now, so it can only get better. I’m also thinking that with Stainless, as long as I’m gentle I’d really have less risk than nickel silver frets, right?

Finally, on the crowning file, I’m tempted by one of the Stewmac Z-Files, simply because it seems like you can’t mess it up. But I’ve got 6105, 6150 and 6100 frets. Will the Z-File hog away my wider frets to give them all 6105 profiles?
 

ruscio

New member
Messages
20
Ok, thank you. Can you elaborate a bit on each part? For the fret leveling beam, what grits do you use? For polishing after crowning/dressing you use 320, 600 then micromesh? Any links to the specific micromesh you use?

I’ve watched enough videos that I think I’m comfortable trying it on the Squier I paid $149 for. Super gritty frets now, so it can only get better. I’m also thinking that with Stainless, as long as I’m gentle I’d really have less risk than nickel silver frets, right?

Finally, on the crowning file, I’m tempted by one of the Stewmac Z-Files, simply because it seems like you can’t mess it up. But I’ve got 6105, 6150 and 6100 frets. Will the Z-File hog away my wider frets to give them all 6105 profiles?

Sure, happy to elaborate. I forgot about the sandpaper on the leveling beam. Mine came with adhesive strips of 220 and 400, but I haven't used the 220 b/c that feels too rough. I like to take it slow. It's why I haven't tried a power tool of any kind on fret work, or on scalloping a fretboard. I'm sure people can make a Dremel work well in both contexts, but I feel like I have much better control, and a much larger margin of error, if I go slowly with my hands.

I don't think you're really running much, if any, risk of making your frets worse even the first time. You'd have to be pretty heavy-handed and aggressive to do real damage. The amount of material you're removing is pretty small, the work is all about replacing each successive set of scratches with increasingly finer ones, to the point where they're effectively gone because you can't see or feel them any more.

I haven't tried the z files. Checked it out just now, and that sharp angle inside looks pretty aggressive! I don't think I'd want to shave that much off the sides of my frets, and as you say it might just turn anything into the narrow/tall shape. I also don't understand why you'd want it to be so triangular near the top, rather than smoothly curved. I like the much more rounded shape of this Stewmac crowning file. I've used this one (in the wide size) on 6150 and 6100 frets, it's worked well for both. It's reversible, with I believe a 150 and a 300 grit end. I only use the 300 end, it does plenty and leaves scratches that are much easier to remove at the next stage, with sandpaper. Just a few fairly light passes is usually enough to recrown each fret.

That's one of two tools that I decided to spend the "big bucks" on by going w/Stewmac. The other is this fret dressing file, which is great--and thankfully not that expensive.

I bought this set of micromesh sheets with a soft pad on Amazon and it's lasted very well. To some extent, it's even cleanable, but eventually I've preferred to just replace the whole set after it's been used a bunch of times. I guess I've polished the frets on more necks than I remembered. Looking this up also reminded me that I've stopped bothering with the 600 grit paper. Once I've got the leveling and crowning scratches removed with the 320 paper, I move on to the micromesh because that starts at the equivalent of 400 grit (which they label as 1500). The pad that comes with the sheets is really handy, especially for going over the top of each fret, but I also work each sheet with my fingers to get a little further down each side of the fret.

Practicing all of this on a Squier neck is a great idea. I bought a couple of even cheaper necks just for the purpose of learning fretwork and scalloping. Neither of those necks was ever attached to a guitar, but they were well worth the price to mess around with before having at it on a "real" neck.

There are a lot of helpful videos on this, and I remember watching a lot of very different approaches. My two cents: Some folks do a pretty quick + shoddy job, others take a lot more care. I've come to think that the neck, and the frets in particular, are by far the most important factor in how well a guitar feels and plays, and also that doing as good a job as you can is worth the time (or, if you're farming it out, the money) to be done well. Yes, there are really quick and easy ways to level, crown, and polish frets, but when you put them under a magnifying glass you can see a huge difference. More important, when you put them under your fingers you can feel the difference. Again, just my two cents, but personally I'd much prefer to put in two or three hours on a great fret job and then really enjoy playing that guitar for years! I'll even admit that I've come to enjoy working closely with my 15x magnifying class, with that little light on it, to check every fret to ensure there are absolutely no scratches left, just a perfect mirror shine. It's really satisfying!
 

Orpheo

Senior member
Messages
2,771
I had this exact same conversation yesterday with a customer of mine who wants to do it himself too.

My tools:
* fretrocker
* leveling beak
* triangular file
* dressing file
* neck relief gauge

The last one just makes life a LOT easier because it allows you to measure the relief of a neck with strings, without strings, allows you to dial in the relief of a neck via the trussrod to 'compensate' for string tension etc. It's not cheap, unfortunately, but nothing in guitars is cheap...

My process is as follows.

*Check relief without tension, straighten neck if necessary (I allow for +0.001" upward bow if I want a super-low action).
*I tape off the neck with a super-strong low tack tape (Stewmac brown is amazing: tacks very strongly but leaves almost no residue!).
*Use a sharpie to mark the frets
*Level them with grit 320, just to get an overal view of what the neck does. You'll quickly see that there is a falloff starting at around the 12th fret.
*Use the fretrocker to make a "map" in my head of the high and low spots. I then assess if I want to use the leveling beam to level it all, or use the triangular file if a fret is truly too high.
*Once it's all level, I sharpie again, and use the triangular file to crown. I never, ever, use a 'crowning file' because it doesn't give me the control and check I need. and it often leaves a h o r r i b l e surface finish that takes way too much time to sand and polish.
*If it's all crowned, I go at it with sanding paper: grit 320, 600, 1000, 1500, 2000. I found that doing each fret individually instead of just brushing all along the length of the neck gives a much better result in the end. Grit 320 and 600 are imho the most important ones, because they leave the worst scratches and if you do grit 600 properly, the other grits will go faster and the frets will be glossier
*Polish. I use a dremel with a felt wheel. I use two compounds: one is medium coarse and the other is fine. I use a Menzerna compound but generally speaking, any metal polish will do. I do NOT recommend the menzerna polish compound in stick form if you don't plan on doing much fretwork: that bar is not cheap and lasts FOREVER. The cost-per-use will thus be way too high, imho.
*Clean. I don't use a rag, but rather a calf wash leather, often used to clean windows because it leaves no scratches etc. In effect, I'm stropping the frets with that cloth.
*Take off the tape, and clean again. My first polish gets e v e r y w h e r e, and needs to be taken away. I use either a scalpel to clean the edges as well as the calf leather.


It takes me an hour to level a neck and polish it all up. From the moment the strings are taken off to the moment I put on the new strings, I'm in it for an hour. That's of course for a neck that needs to be leveled due to excessive fretwear and when there are no odd tall frets. If I need to investigate a neck, that can take up to 4 or 5 hours in a bad case.

As far as the side of the frets are concerned (fretsprout): I use a very long, extremely fine file to remove fretsprout. I tape off the side the neck so I don't marr the finish, and then I go at it with the file. Often a stroke or two is enough.

The fretrubbers Stewmac sells are friggin useless. Complete waste of money.
 

Spud

Senior member
Messages
1,282
I use a fret rocker and sharpie to locate high spots, bar and stones to level down those areas, sand em smooth with 800 and don't look back. Good enough for me. YMMV.
 
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