Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Siena's Stratocaster - Levelling & Redressing Frets

I performed a fret level on the stratocaster today ready for it to receive colour coats. On all kit builds I always level the frets before the finishing process begins. This is just in case the painters tape rips out some of the wood from the neck (yes, it's happened).

Anyway, in case anyone is wondering how to level their frets, here is the method that I use. The process is quite straightforward and takes little over 30 minutes on average to complete. All the tools you need to finish the job can be found quite cheaply on eBay.

Step 1: Straighten the neck

Using a notched straight edge determine if the neck is dead straight and adjust the truss rod until it is. Some people just site along the length by eye, but I'm much happier using the straight edge. If the neck is low in the middle (you can see light under the straight edge), turn the key clockwise. If the neck is high in the middle (the straight edge rocks) then turn the key anti-clockwise.

Step 2: Tape off the fretboard & Mark the top of each fret

Tape all the frets off, right up to the edge of the fret wire. I use tape with the lowest possible tack, as you can easily pull large pieces of wood from the neck when it is unfinished. On the smaller frets you will need to cut the tape in half so it can fit correctly!

Take a marking pen (sharpie) and mark along the very top of each and every fret. This marking pen line will be scratched off during fret levelling and will let us know when all the frets are level.


Step 3: Sand the frets level

Using my straight beam with 360 grit paper stuck to the bottom, I sand the frets - moving the beam along the fretboard and back - making sure that the beam follows the radius of the fretboard. You can also use a radius sanding block for this step to make sure the radius is maintained.

Check your marking pen regularly to see which frets still need to be levelled. These will still have marking pen on the very top and will require more sanding. Try not to sand where all frets look good - typically the high or low side of the fretboard will take more sanding than the other.  Stop sanding when there is a clean line along the top of all frets from edge to edge. Dont try to remove all the marking pen from each fret! A thin line of cleanly sanded metal is enough for each.

If you are in doubt about whether a fret is actually level (maybe you've sanded and sanded and it still looks low, you can use a fret rocker to test its height relative to the frets on the left and right.

Step 4: Redress the Frets

When all the frets are level, you must make them more rounded again by removing the rather flat-top you have now put on then. Dont worry if some frets have quite a flat top - that's normal! Using a fret dressing file, you must file the edges of each fret so that this flat space along the top is reduced to around 1-2mm. I use a LittleBone fret file for this purpose, but any purpose built fretting file (from Stewmac or similar) will do the job.


Step 5: Sand and Round Edges

With the frets dressed it is time to remove the harsh edges and the deeper scratches left by the sanding and filing. To do this I use sand paper wrapped around my middle finger. I start at 360 grade and move up to 400, 600 and then 800 grit. Rub the paper over the frets. The dipping action of your finger between the frets will naturally help to round them out. Check the frets as you go to make sure you have removed the deeper scratches (these will typically be towards the top of the fret). When you are finished with all sandpaper, grades then 0000 steel wool can be used as a final step.

Step 6: Polish the Frets

As a last step I like to polish the newly filed and sanded frets with some chrome polish to get them sparkling. The chrome polish turns the oxide on the frets black as it works, so dont panic. Just wipe the polish on with a soft cotton cloth (I use t-shirt material) and then buff it off again with a clean rag. Your frets will gleam!

And there you have it. It's a relatively simple process that, while a little daunting for first timers, should be a part of all kit builds. I'm certainly no luthier or woodworker and if I can do it with reasonable results, no-one else need fear. If you want your guitar neck to play like a dream, get levelling!