17. Trim fret ends with diagonal flush cutters.
Before any further work on the frets, I want to trim the ends. That way there won't
be an overhanging length that may bend easily if hit or snagged. Not to mention that
these ends are dangerously sharp. My fret cutter is a pair of diagonal cutting pliers
I've ground flush cutting on the back side:
I always hold my left hand under the cutter to catch the cut off ends. I don’t want to have a sharp piece of a fret loose on the bench to scratch the instrument while I'm working on it. Once was enough, if you know what I mean.
18. Sight down fingerboard to find high, unseated frets. I sight from the peghead down the fingerboard at varying angles, viewing against oblique reflected overhead light. As I tip the fingerboard, any high frets will generally be revealed as brighter, and low frets will appear dark. Uneven or dented frets are easy to spot by their different reflection when compared to all the others. Ideally, as I lift the guitar to sight straight along the fret tops, they will seem to merge to a single metallic stripe.
19. Level & seat frets by tapping with steel hammer and steel protective plate. I never hit a fret with a steel hammer. I have a plain little 1/8” thick hunk of mild steel that I lay down over the frets when I hit them with a 2-ounce ball peen hammer:
The steel hammer delivers a much sharper blow that the plastic one, and will drive a fret much faster and more firmly. I can hit the frets as hard as I want without making a scratch on the fret surface. I’ll move quickly up and down the fingerboard hitting each fret 4-5 times. I frequently skip this step if all the frets look perfect after the initial seating with the plastic hammer.
20. Check for high frets. After ”ironing” the frets down, I check for high ones by rocking a short straight edge across small groups of frets along the length of the fingerboard. This takes almost no time as I slide the straightedge along, pressing down alternately on one end. then the other. I'm not looking, but listening, and feeling for the straightedge to rock on the occasional high fret. Naturally, if I find a high one, I swat it down with my ball peen hammer and steel plate.
21. Check for loose tuner parts. By now, all this vibration is enough to loosen the buttons on old Grover Rotomatics, and parts of other tuners as well.
22. Fill fret slot ends. On unbound fingerboards, I dab catalyst, then drop medium superglue into the ends of the fret slots. Even though it’s clear, this stuff looks appropriately dark in the slot when it hardens, blends with the finish, sticks well, and polishes off just like lacquer on the fingerboard edge.
Catalyst applied ahead of the superglue speeds the reaction, and makes for a shallow fill at the fret end. I bought a box of 5000 of these cheapie plastic half-ounce portion cups from a restaurant supply outfit. They are great for superglue application. With a small amount of glue in the cup, I can pick up individual drops and place them exactly where I want. Best of all, I can only spill one drop at a time. . .
23. Run superglue under frets if desired. Here’s how I glue frets: If I'm unsure of frets seating well enough, I’ll use a little superglue for insurance. I drop the thin superglue right at one fret edge, along the full width of the fingerboard. It runs right under the fret. Right away, before the stuff sets, I follow with a wipe of acetone to clean the glue off the fingerboard. Working swiftly with the rag, I can avoid drips, and catch the glue before it runs. It’s actually easier than it may sound because I already have a rag damp with acetone in my hand before I run the glue under the fret. I have to be very careful not to get any acetone or superglue on lacquer finishes!
I never count on glue actually sticking to metal. I'm assuming that the thin superglue runs into the fret slots by capillary attraction and lands on the fret slot wall around the little fret tang barbs. If the glue only sticks to the fingerboard, it’ll still help keep the fret in place mechanically, like a bunch of little “dams” above the barbs.
24. File fret ends flush and bevel with mill file. I like mill bastard files because they are cheap. I can replace them often and my sharp files cut very cleanly. I grind safe edges all around, and taper the ends so they won't bump into the fret ends as I start to level them. I hold and guide the files by hand because I use a different bevel angle for different instruments.
Generally speaking, I like to use as few specialized tools and fixtures as possible so I have the greatest amount of flexibility of work. I don’t just refret guitars. Banjos, mandolins, tiples, bouzoukis, tambouritzas -- they all deserve attention and they all have their special needs.
The steel shim stock protects the guitar top from my file, but I have to be careful at the peghead to avoid nicking it with the file end. When the file begins to touch the fingerboard corner I immediately hear and feel a difference. I finish by “draw filing” the fingerboard edges. Sideways strokes with a regular file cut more cleanly, and allow much greater control of the angle of attack. I can cut cleanly just as far down the edge of the fingerboard as I want without any fear of slipping down onto the finished surface of the neck.
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